What Makes a Great City … or a Great Church

Houston

I just saw an article on why Houston is the best city in America. As a non-Houstonian I thought, “Okay, whatever.” But then my thoughts started churning, the synapses started firing, and I started making connections with the church-world.

Okay, obviously you’ve got to do a bit of mental translation here, but what supposedly makes Houston such a great city are some of the same qualities that would make a great church too.

 Jobs. Houston’s got this great job market. In my mind, that translates in the church-world as involvement. Give church members a chance to DO something, to make a difference. It’s what we’re supposed to be about, afterall, isn’t it? Equipping the saints to do the work of the Kingdom. So let’s equip and then point them in the right direction to “do”.

 More healthcare businesses. This, to me, translates as: church should be involved in meeting people’s physical needs, not just spiritual.  It’s been said over and over. You can’t proclaim the Gospel to people when they’re dead. If we don’t feed them, clothe them, help with their medical bills (“Good Samaritan” ring any bells?), then no one’s gonna be much inclined to listen to what we have to say. Besides, it’s what Jesus told us to do.

 Massive international trade. Translates as “a global perspective.” The church is more than just a local body of believers. It should have a heart and resources that stretch beyond borders. And I’m not just talking about “missionary work.” I mean we should actually care about the people on the other side of the world.

 Houston is Space City, NASA. Okay, this is a stretch, but how about “Prayer“? Our prayers should be reaching out into the heavens. The church needs a solid grounding in prayer, not just as an occasional activity people do in their morning devos.

 A paycheck goes farther / cost of living. A good church should stretch its dollars to go the farthest and to have maximum impact. If we’re spending $$ on “stuff”, we’re probably missing it. The church has a responsibility to spend money wisely — especially considering that for most people putting money in the plate, every dollar counts.

 Ethnically and racially diverse. ‘Nuff said. The church is bigger than just a bunch of old, straight, white people. Everybody should be included. The local church should be a reflection of the local community. We need color, we need diversity to be healthy. Plus, it’s just a lot more fun that way.

 Wide range of ethnic cuisines. Pretty close to the last one, but … “food“. Need I say more? The church thrives on breaking bread.  What we eat says something about who we are, and sharing food, pot lucks, well, it’s just an essential part of that thing we call “fellowship.”

 One of the most exciting places to eat. Kinda the same deal. But maybe we could squeeze in “spiritual feeding” here. If you’re being fed the same ole tired spiritual food, maybe you need some fresh inspiration. We should be people of the Living Word of God, not the same old commercials. “If it ain’t fresh, don’t eat it.”

 More parks than most cities. For me, this is recreation and relaxation. The church that plays together stays together. Being a “church family” should be more than getting together on Sundays to do “the church thing.” And it should be a place where we can let our hair down after a hectic week of work and modern life, not a place where we have to put on a mask. It’s where we come to be re-energized, refreshed, and restored, not where we get more drained by having to pretend to be who we’re not.

 Great universities. I probably shouldn’t have to say that the church should also be a place where minds are being engaged as well as spirits, but we all know the unfortunate truth. In many houses of worship, an inquiring mind is considered the devil’s playground.  Just ask any of the “recovering fundamentalists.” In church, questions should be asked, and your spiritual exploration encouraged. You should be growing, stretching, seeing things in a new way, “growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Cuz if we’re not growing, we’re stagnating.

 Houston is filled with museums and cultural landmarks. You know what? The church should be filled with art, music, and beauty too. Didn’t God say everything was “good” when he created it? We should celebrate beauty. It can inspire us in higher ways to connect with God.  Maybe we need to swap out one or two of our Bible studies for free art classes, or hang the work of local artists in our church coffee shops. That would be great.

 Largest rodeos. Authenticity. This one I gotta give credit to my friend Rita Bosico who pointed it out when I first made these comments on Facebook. She said, having been to — and felt like she belonged in — a cowboy church, what she liked best about their attitude was that they were real people with real problems who need a real God. They had no time for phony “playing church.” They had a sense of raw unmasked spirituality that was refreshing. Most didn’t dress up but came right from he fields … with dirt and non-dirt on their shoes. And wouldn’t that be a nice change if we could just come to church showing our “dirt” and all?  When I thought of rodeos, well, umm, all I could think of was rodeo clowns, and everybody knows the church has plenty of clowns.

 Great sports teams. Church softball and bowling teams, anyone? More of that “play together, stay together” stuff. Besides, you should be able to work out your aggressions in ways other than yelling at the pastor.

 Finally, Houston is a great place for Southern Hip-Hop. Lord knows I’m not a big fan of funky music in church, but … it can have a place. Music is part of our soul, so it’s natural that it should be an integral part of our worship experience. Maybe we can let our hair down and really let go once in a while … umm, without having to pretend we suddenly “got the Holy Ghost.”  Just saying.

See? Almost anything can be turned into a sermon! Thanks, seminary!

Oh well. Until my next moment of random inspiration …

– Steve

 

photo credit: “Houston Skyline” by John Colosimo

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Angry Pulpits, Empty Churches

BillySundayI seem to alienate a lot of my preacher friends.  They’re good people, for the most part, just like all of us. But sometimes we just don’t see eye to eye on the “reason” behind the things we do in church.

Today, for example, another minister posted a blistering message on Facebook, chewing out people for not attending church. “The Bible commands us not to forsake the assembling together … blah blah.” “These so-called Christians” who can’t make time to show up for services “on the Lord’s Day, and you can find time to do all sorts of things except be in the House of God?” Calling these people deceived or deluded, “so-called Christians” who think they don’t need church to have God.  Words full of guilt. Shaming. Religious cliché.

Honestly, it turned my stomach.  I probably should have kept my opinions to myself, but I couldn’t help responding (hopefully with at least a little tact), “I know many who stop going to “God’s house” on “the Lord’s Day” for the simple reason that they don’t find God there. We have too many churches filled with religion.”

What I didn’t say was ” … and this means you.”

Really. Why on earth would anybody want to go to “God’s House” and hear that kind of drivel?  If his post was any indicator of his sermons, it’s no wonder people don’t want to show up.

Did we EVER see Jesus in the Gospels yelling at the street vendors, prostitutes, the needy, for not going to the Temple or synagogue? “Oh, you whine and cry about how hard your life is, but you won’t make an effort to go to God’s House!”  Never.  It’s ridiculous to even imagine Jesus saying such a thing. God is not limited to the walls of some building, and while “assembling together” can certainly be a healthy thing, the “assembling together” is not what makes it healthy or holy. It’s the people you’re assembling with. And if those people are sanctimonious and condemning, I’d rather assemble together in the chummy embrace of my drunken buddies at a bar than listen to the nattering sermon of someone spouting religious words with no sense of the deep spirituality that should be behind them.

“Let God be true and every man a liar,” the preacher said in his defense of the commandment to attend church.  Indeed.  God is true, and God will make himself known to anyone who hungers for him — and thankfully without the need of a guilt-wielding preacher trying to compel people to behave according to his religious preferences.

We are often warned, in these religious circles, that we will all one day stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ. It’s meant as a threat, a warning to live holy lives, lest we face the wrath of God. But actually, I take great comfort in that scene, because I know Who it is that sits on that Judge’s Seat. And the only people he ever had a harsh word for were the religious.

If we wonder why our churches are becoming empty on “the Lord’s Day”, we might start by asking ourselves if we’re talking and acting like our Lord.

To all my brothers and sisters who choose NOT to sit under that kind of shepherding on Sunday, grace and peace and great blessings to you. Go where you’re loved. Go where you are nurtured and cherished. Go where you find the presence of God.  Anything else is not worthy of you, and certainly not a reflection of God — despite what some preachers say.

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He blogs here on IMPACT Magazine’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.

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The Lying Church

AllWelcome_174993273
I got annoyed again.

Okay, maybe this trend says more about me than about the Church, but from what I’m reading in the media and from the mass exodus of millennials from organized faith services, I don’t think I’m just being cranky.

One of our problems within the Church is our self-delusion.

By the way, I’m using “Church” with a capital-C to indicate a universal problem, not just a single church. Perhaps that’s not fair, because what I’m talking about happens mostly in Protestant denominations, especially independent ones.

There are so many reasons people stop going to church. And there are a whole subset of reasons why our approach to mass worship is completely unappealing to the current generation. And I’m not talking just about “the Millennials”. Not just “Gen X or Y”.  Most people who are even remotely self-aware have experienced the nonsense that goes on under the guise of pious talk, and have become weary of it.  Or, to put it simply, they’ve simply gotten sick and tired of the fakeness.

Can we, for the love of truth, please! stop lying to people to try to get them into our doors? My recent annoyance came at seeing a local pastor post an advertisement for his latest sermon series on Facebook.  Ignoring for the moment the fact that the topic was completely uninspiring, he branded it with the slogan, “You’ll never be the same again.”

Really?  How many times have we heard that before?

Does he really think people believe that?  Has he just slipped lazily into religious cliché? Or is he perhaps delusional, actually believing his sermon will profoundly impact the lives of his audience forever?

Hey, I wish that last one were true. It would be fantastic if we regularly heard sermons with the life-changing power of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or his Kingdom parables.  The radical change in how God is presented, how God relates to us and how truly powerful his influence in this world is – those were the messages of Jesus, and they were paradigm-shifting. People were never the same after hearing him.  Well, at least those who listened with open hearts.

All are Welcome

There is a whole book full of clichés churches use to lure people into the pews, to pretend that they’ll find a home, a place of love and acceptance. “Where everyone is welcome” is so common that it’s become meaningless. Especially when those who don’t fit the mold walk into the doors. A black man into a predominantly white congregation. A homeless person who hasn’t bathed in months into most any affluent church. A tattooed, pierced and gauged, wild-haired youth (or not so youthful!) walking into most conservative evangelical services will feel the warm, loving stares of the regulars. The lesbian couple with kids might sneak under the radar as long as they don’t engage in any PDA, but the gay male couple, wearing matching rings, who might not “pass for straight” … well, we all pretty much know how that’s gonna end.

But honestly, this is just human nature. It’s not necessarily a horribly hypocritical thing. We are all more comfortable around people who are just like us.  And that’s probably fine (isn’t that why there are so many denominations?). And ultimately, as society grows more and more diverse, so will our congregations. But what isn’t fine is that we pretend that that’s not the case, and we keep insisting the all, no matter how different, are indeed welcome into the brotherhood.

Such a lame religious cliché not only does not fool anyone, it actually makes us look ridiculous.

Even blind or delusional. And unless your congregation is actually practicing outrageous hospitality — from the leadership down to the pew-sitter — it’s false advertising. It’s a lie. And we need to stop doing it.  The church has lost credibility, and the unavoidable consequence is the loss of people.

You’ll never be the same

For me, though, it’s not just the bait-and-switch advertising of a loving community, it’s the false promise of a divine encounter.

We routinely make promises of “Hours of Power”, of “Anointed Worship” or “Prophetic Message,” of “Truth that sets free.” We claim the weekly presence of Jesus himself there, touching, healing, moving. We promise a “fresh move of the Spirit,” “a word direct from the Throne”.  Oh, God, how I wish that were true.  And sometimes – thank you, Lord – it is.  But more often it’s not.

“You’ll never be the same?”  Let’s ask the people who regularly attend your service how different they are on a week to week basis. Are they making leaps and bounds in spiritual progress, power and maturity after hearing your sermons or listening to your praise music? Are they growing in love for the stranger, or even towards their brother or sister in the pew next to them?  Or are they the same people, week after week, who loyally drag themselves to church (good for them, at least they’re making an effort), and week after week walk out the church door completely unchanged, unmoved, exactly the same?

Here’s the one thing that will invalidate everything I just said. A seeking heart will hear God no matter how crappy your sermon is. A sensitive spirit will experience the presence of God no matter how awful your worship choir is. But that’s a reflection on them, and on God, not on your church.  That same genuine seeker would hear God speak to them through a tv commercial – because that’s who God is. He speaks to those who have “ears to hear.”

Our churches are opportunities for people to encounter God. And that’s because of God’s own promise: “where two or three of you are gathered in my name, I will be there with you.”  God is there.  Love and acceptance can be found there.  But more often than not, it has little to do with the sermon, the songs sung, or the handshake of the greeter – little to do with us.  And that’s unfortunate.

Until we change, people will continue to view the church as a dying institution. Until we become the people we claim to be – and are continually growing and being transformed into the actual likeness of the model Jesus lived – and until our messages actually contain the prophetic power, derived from an actual fresh word from the Father of All of Us, we need to be a bit more humble in our boasts.

Realistically, touting the new slogan “Hopefully God will show up” isn’t going to fill the seats. And considering most of us attend out of routine and less out of genuine seeking, even the line “come seek God with us” will fall flat.

We’re human. We fail. We are not the vessels of divine power we should be. Rivers of living water, unfortunately, flow out of too few of us.  Genuine love and acceptance is in too few of our hearts.  Can we at least admit that to ourselves, and stop pretending that we have the monopoly on a divine encounter?  Can we stop lying about who we are?  And stop making false promises about what people can expect when they walk through our doors?

The sad truth is, we are the people of God.  We are the light of the world – at least to the extent that we are trying to be true imitators of our Lord.

It has to start with us. We have to look into our own hearts and ask if we are genuinely seeking. Are we really hungry for God’s presence? Are we really stretching ourselves to become “the light”?  Do we really believe what we say about God and about ourselves? Do we have the “ears to hear”? Are we looking to speak words that flow from the One Who Sits Above All, or are we just doing a job, going through motions? Are we trying to break out of our comfort zones and actually love people different than us?

I hope so. Until then, we’re not fooling anybody. And those trite religious-sounding promises will reek of insincerity and fakeness, of hollow religion, empty words and no power. And nobody has the stomach for that anymore.

 

—–
photo credit: marymuses via photopin cc

 

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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Why Nobody takes the Church Seriously Anymore

RipRoll_SafeSexI was just sitting here, minding my own business, cup of coffee in hand, browsing through various news stories that posted headlines on Facebook, and an otherwise insignificant blurb made me angry.

The article was about an advertising company in Australia reversing its decision to pull an HIV Prevention ad from local buses. They’d run it, gotten some negative backlash from the public, so they pulled the ads. Then, after a second wave of public outcry at the recall, they reinstated it. Simple business flip-flop. The ad was sponsored by the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities, and the image was of two men embracing, holding an unopened condom. Pretty tame stuff compared to what people see on TV these days. What was the big deal? The photo wasn’t shockingly offensive, and the purpose was to save lives, so what was all the hooplah about?

Those pushy Christians were at it again. Turns out that the initial complaints came from a certain “Christian lobby”, trying to control the world again. Once the company realized it was a targeted political campaign by this group, they reversed course and put the ads back up.

And I thought, doesn’t the Church have anything better to do? Isn’t this exactly why people never turn to the Church when they are in real spiritual need? The world — people, real human beings — see the Church as a bizarre  organization full of angry people bent on putting society into a strangle-hold to preserve some artificial traditional values as though they originated on Mt Sinai. Is this what the Kingdom of God has become all about? People so focused on gaining power over others, controlling TV, schools, making laws about who other people can or cannot love and build families with? Since when has Jesus’ commission been to become the “God police”? No wonder nobody outside the Church takes the Church seriously.

The Great Commission is and has always been to make disciples. And the purpose was not to build a society of religious clones, marching to the same tune of morality and religious beliefs. The point was to bring lost and hungry people back into a relationship with a God who loves them.

When Christians fail in this mission — or substitute some other agenda in its place — the inevitable (and only) result is a mockery, an empty shell of ritual and tradition. One might as well paint “Ichabod” over the buildings in huge red letters — “God doesn’t live here anymore.”
Church folks regularly bemoan the exodus of the youth. Congregations become greyer and more wrinkled, as younger generations see the Church as irrelevant, out of step, offering nothing. Holier saints pray for revival, expressing their desire for this generation to see the moving of God with power as they may have seen in years long since passed. But then they load upon their brothers and sisters a burden of rules, regulations, traditions, and lifestyles — legalism, by any other name — and wonder why no one is pounding on the church doors to get in.

When we, as believers, focus less on eliminating “safe sex” advertisements from public buses, and start focusing more on the hurt, on those in need, on introducing those who hunger and thirst for “something more” to a God who loves and embraces them, that’s when we’ll see those days of “power” again. That’s when the Spirit of God will move again in our congregations in ways that caused previous generations to impact their neighborhoods and cities. Not by laws. Not by protests and targeted email campaigns. But by the Spirit. When we get back to what’s actually important to the heart of God, that’s where the Presence of God will manifest.

If we want a “real” move of God, if we want the “real thing”, then we’ve got to start focusing on what’s “really important” to Him. And that won’t be protesting civil union laws in Illinois, or condom ads in Australia. It will be getting back, once again, to the primitive message of “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink …” Maybe then the world will start taking Christianity and the Church seriously again. And until that time, we don’t deserve their attention.

LGBT Pride Month — A Call to the Church

gay-churchs2President Obama once again proclaimed June 2010 as LGBT Pride Month. Most of us should be used to this by now — Gay Pride has been celebrated for the past 40 years, though it has become much more mainstream recently than in those early days. What I found interesting in the president’s proclamation was his call to action, not just a simple labeling of another month after another good cause.   “I call upon all Americans to observe this month by fighting prejudice and discrimination in their own lives and everywhere it exists.” (Presidential Proclamation)

Prejudice and discrimination in America? Still? Yeah, of course. As long as human nature remains the same, there will be an “Us vs. Them” mentality. We’ll always find people different than us somehow unacceptable — or at least we’ll be uncomfortable around them. We may have to tolerate them in our schools and workplaces (it’s the law, right?), but we sure don’t have to allow them in our country clubs, our churches, our synagogues or mosques. As a devout Christian, I’m more sensitive to this attitude in our religious establishments, our churches. Thankfully, we’ve (mostly) moved past segregation in the pew. Hardly anyone bats an eye at blacks and whites, Asians and Latinos sitting together in church these days. In fact, it’s become a badge of honor for us: “See? Look how far we’ve come. Look at the Love of God in this place.” Those old Scripture passages that once championed separation of the races are no longer interpreted that way. The wall that divides us has been torn down by the work of Christ — well, at least we’ve finally come to recognize that much of it, anyway.

But President Obama’s proclamation brings my mind once again to the division and pain still experienced by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people in our Houses of Worship. Fellow believers! Unwelcome in the House of their Father. And I think of those I’ve met personally with stories of attempted suicides, driven to this extreme by the rejection they encountered by so-called believers. Saints, loved by God, who themselves want to love God and experience the fullness of relationship with him, but told by their spiritual leaders that they are unacceptable, that God hates them, and that they’re destined for hell (“see, it’s right here in black and white: 1 Cor 6:9…”). Imagine it. No, really, try. Try to put yourself in that position: kept from God, your only lifeline of hope in a confused and dangerous world, by the gatekeepers of the Kingdom. No matter your own heart’s crying out into the heavens, seeking, hungering after an encounter with your Creator, your Redeemer, but not finding anyone who will show you the way. Finding only those who point fingers and demand the impossible of you: “change or perish”.

My heart still breaks at these stories — as did Jesus’ so long ago. We, the Church of the Living God, have become the very people accused by our Lord. We have put stumbling blocks in front of people, preventing access to the only Source that can bring life and healing and love and fulfillment and purpose. With our clinging to our own “righteous” forms of legalism, we are no different than those religious figures 2000 years ago — quoting Scripture to Jesus himself, defending offensive practices which break the heart of God. Where is the echoing call of the messiah in our lives? Where is the living out of the promise, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me … to proclaim freedom to the captive, to release the oppressed, and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor”?

We, the people of faith, will always wrestle with coming to peace with the sinner and his sin. In our lifetimes, we’ll probably never be able to fully come to terms with black and white Scripture which describes the behavior of sinners. Perhaps, then, we should focus more on the red and white of Scripture, the “come unto me ALL … and I will give your rest. Take MY yoke upon you…”. Let us not forget our own failures, our own shortcomings compared to the unyielding perfection of the Law. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Is 1:18). We, with our snow-white hearts, do we close the door to others simply because we cannot see how white their hearts are as well?

I hear the powerful, liberating words of the prophet Isaiah describing the finished work of the Suffering Servant: “we turned our back on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down… He was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole; he was whipped so we could be healed. … But it was the LORD’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief. When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my Righteous Servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins” (Is 53:2-11).

It’s already done. That work was completely finished. The doorway to the Eternal Throne has been burst off its hinges to close no more. The curtain hiding the Holy of Holies has been ripped in two, never to be resewn. Who among us who call ourselves by his name dare to try to close that door, to repair that curtain?

My heart breaks for the Church, for the heartless actions of its leaders, its shepherds, and its people. What stern look of disapproval will we receive from the One who sits on the Throne on that Great Day? But my heart aches worse for those black sheep, lambs of a different fold, rejected by the white sheep with cold hearts, complacent, too comfortable and apathetic in their secure pens. Who will go out, leave the ninety and nine, in search of them? Who will go out into the roadways and countrysides — the clubs, the parades, the picnics, rodeos and festivities of Gay Pride month — and proclaim that Year of Jubilee to them? Who will speak the words Jesus is still speaking, “Come to me … just as you are”?

The president’s words are pale in comparison to the summons of Jesus. This month, this official time of LGBT Pride, let it also be a month of reawakening in the Church and in God’s People. Remove the stumbling blocks. Replace your hearts of stone for hearts of flesh, beating with the blood of love and acceptance of Him who Gives Life. Let June 2010 be proclaimed as the Month of the Lord’s Favor. Open the doors, open your arms. Welcome back those called by your Father that you have held at arm’s length — “not in THIS church”. Hold your tongue, withhold your judgment. Bring joy to the heart of God by loving his people, and bringing in those who have been kept out. When all are welcomed home, when reconciliation has been proclaimed, that’s when the angels sing. June is an official month for a good cause in America. Let it also be a month of celebration in Heaven.

Party at Levi’s House

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. (Mark 2:15)

Your church’s effectiveness and how close it aligns with God’s heart and priorities can be measured by the number of sinners you’re attracting.

Jesus drew people by love, by radical acceptance. Not by judgement, or by calls for repentence and holy living. Not even by preaching profound biblical truth. People were amazed at his words of grace. They were amazed at his teaching with authority — not like the teachers they were accustomed to. And the only way one can preach with authority, with God’s power, is by being in touch with God’s heart. And the loving, longing heart of God attracts people. All kinds of people. The worst kinds of people.

You’re wondering where the power is? You’re praying for explosive church growth like in the New Testament?

Well, how may “sinners” are in your services? How many are you attracting?

Something to think about …

Come and See

It’s a bright, cold Sunday morning, and as usual, I’m sitting with my coffee trying to focus my attention on God. The bills stacked on my desk scream out to be paid, the dogs are wanting their snacks, I’ve got books piled up that I’m leafing through to satisfy short bursts of curiosity, and then there’s the clock. I’m gonna have to get ready for church in an hour. All these little distractions. But I reassert my concentration: “No. I’m gonna spend at least a few minutes just with God first.”

I pull open my bible. I’m finished with Luke, so I should move on to the Gospel of John, but really all those “in the beginning was the word” lines just don’t appeal to me right now. Flipping the page, a section header catches my eye for some reason, and pulls me in: “Jesus Calls Philip and Nathaniel”. Thinking of a Philip I know who asked about lunch, I think I should drop him a note on Facebook. He’s started a fellowship for restaurant workers, people who normally have a pretty negative view of church folk. You know, all those after-church lunchers who take up tables, seem to always complain about the food or service, and never — absolutely never — leave a decent tip. Not a good reflection on the Church. And then there are a few other churches I know who are scrambling to attract new members. Flyers mailed out, sometimes door-to-door knocking, new holiday kids programs, or a new sign out front. Anything to “bring them in”. And I can’t help this little cynical thought flash across my mind, “if you put good food on the table, people will come — and recommend it to their friends. But if the food is bland, it doesn’t matter how much you advertise, people won’t be back.”

Philip in the bible was from a little town in Galilee, and Jesus, passing by, simply says to him “Follow me.” Philip has obviously heard Jesus teach and seen his miracles because he doesn’t even hesitate. He’s seen Jesus in action. What more did he need than that personal invitation? But the thing that struck me: the first thing he does is go tell his friend Nathaniel. “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathaniel is a bit skeptical, but obviously in a good-natured way: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” And then the kicker, Philip’s response. “Come and see.”

Okay, big deal. What’s so impressive about that? So many well-intended and compassionate Christians are really exerting efforts to “save the lost”. We’ll try almost anything to get them in our church doors. And that’s great. We should have a passion to bring people to God. But so many of these “lost” people — like the disaffected restaurant servers my friend Philip is trying to reach –have already tried church. They’ve had their fill of church-goers, and it’s left a bad taste in their mouths. And their initial reaction to a church invitation is very often like Nathaniel’s, “Church! Can anything good come from there?”

Our response SHOULD be “Come and see for yourself.” But do we really have the goods? Are we serving up the feast to feed them when they actually do come in the doors? Is Jesus really there? — and I mean in more than just an “of course, where two or three are gathered he is there, so obviously God is in our midst” kind of way. Philip heard and saw Jesus in action. He experienced enough of the real thing to be able to claim that Jesus was the Coming One the Law and the Prophets talked about. Can we make that same claim? Are people genuinely changed when they walk out our doors? Is the teaching the very words of God, like Jesus taught? Are those words piercing to the heart with divine authority and power? Are people being healed, are prayers being answered? Is there a real presence of God in our congregations — one that can disrupt our well-choreographed services if and when He decides? That’s a tall order. But if we’re not filling it then we’re just playing “at church” instead of really “being” the Church — the real, physical manifestation of the Body of Christ. Maybe WE need to spend more time in the presence of the One.

It’s a cold, bright Sunday morning, and I’m sitting with my coffee, trying to connect with God. I’m about to get ready for church, and I wonder what God will do, what he will say, in our midst today. And there’s only way to find out. Come and see.