Spreading A Bad Rumor!

21-25 With that they were on their way. They scouted out the land from the Wilderness of Zin as far as Rehob toward Lebo Hamath. Their route went through the Negev Desert to the town of Hebron. Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, descendants of the giant Anak, lived there. Hebron had been built seven years before Zoan in Egypt. When they arrived at the Eshcol Valley they cut off a branch with a single cluster of grapes—it took two men to carry it—slung on a pole. They also picked some pomegranates and figs. They named the place Eshcol Valley (Grape-Cluster-Valley) because of the huge cluster of grapes they had cut down there. After forty days of scouting out the land, they returned home.

26-29 They presented themselves before Moses and Aaron and the whole congregation of the People of Israel in the Wilderness of Paran at Kadesh. They reported to the whole congregation and showed them the fruit of the land. Then they told the story of their trip:  “We went to the land to which you sent us and, oh! It does flow with milk and honey! Just look at this fruit! The only thing is that the people who live there are fierce, their cities are huge and well fortified. Worse yet, we saw descendants of the giant Anak. Amalekites are spread out in the Negev; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites hold the hill country; and the Canaanites are established on the Mediterranean Sea and along the Jordan.”

33 Caleb interrupted, called for silence before Moses and said, “Let’s go up and take the land—now. We can do it.”  But the others said, “We can’t attack those people; they’re way stronger than we are.” They spread scary rumors among the People of Israel. They said, “We scouted out the land from one end to the other—it’s a land that swallows people whole. Everybody we saw was huge. Why, we even saw the Nephilim giants (the Anak giants come from the Nephilim). Alongside them we felt like grasshoppers. And they looked down on us as if we were grasshoppers.”

1-3 The whole community was in an uproar, wailing all night long. All the People of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The entire community was in on it: “Why didn’t we die in Egypt? Or in this wilderness? Why has God brought us to this country to kill us? Our wives and children are about to become plunder. Why don’t we just head back to Egypt? And right now!”

Soon they were all saying it to one another: “Let’s pick a new leader; let’s head back to Egypt.”

Numbers 13:21-14:4 (The Message)

If you have followed my train of thought in this blog, then hopefully you understand that this is primarily for the U.S. and Western church.  I know there are some who think my train derailed a while back, but I’m still here and moving forward.  At issue is addressing the mindset of the mainline church which has become a “church centric”  message, meaning it is all about the location of local congregations rather than “Kingdom Centric”, meaning it is about the message of the Kingdom of God.  Living out a church centric message, and thus a church centric gospel, is way too small.  God invites us into the epic story of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, the narrative that is much bigger than any and all of us.

When a congregation finally wakes up and realizes that their declining membership, attendance and influence is the direct result of living out of a way too small narrative, inevitably there will be those Tenured Pew Sitters and Churchians who will fight against such a move to the much bigger narrative of God’s Kingdom.  One of the ways they fight against the move to the Kingdom Story, and thus fight against the Good News Jesus brought, is to spread bad rumors through false stories and very flawed assumptions.  And it’s a tactic that goes way back, all the way back to God delivering the Hebrews, HIS people, from slavery.

Remember with me the setting for this passage from Numbers.  God sent 10 plagues against the Pharaoh and Egypt before the Pharaoh agreed to let them go.  Then the Pharaoh did a very human thing:  he changed his mind.  The Hebrews were trapped–the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s army behind them.  God parted the Red Sea and they successfully crossed over.  Pharaoh’s army tried and drowned.  God’s guidance was always present in the daytime with a column of clouds and at nighttime with a column of fire.  Fresh food fell from heaven every morning (except before the Sabbath when they could collect 2 days worth).  When they grew tired of heaven’s food God provided them with quails.  Water came from rocks when they needed it.  They had a few battles along the way and God always provided them with victory.  Oh, and don’t forget, the column of clouds during the day and the column of fire during the night never left them.

Now they are at the edge of the land which God has promised them they would occupy.  He didn’t tell them how they would occupy it; just His personal assurance they would.  God directs Moses to send one leader from each tribe (notice the use of “leader”) who were to become 007’s, meaning spies, with a very clear set of directions:

  1. Assess the people: Are they strong or weak? Are there few or many?
  2. Observe the land: Is it pleasant or harsh?
  3. Describe the towns where they live: Are they open camps or fortified with walls?
  4. And the soil: Is it fertile or barren? Are there forests? And try to bring back a sample of the produce that grows there—this is the season for the first ripe grapes.

End of the mission.  That’s all!  And make sure you see what is not included in the mission directives.  Have you seen it yet, what’s not there?  Have you?  Well, in case you haven’t seen what’s not there I will share it with you.  God never said, “Then I want you to decide if you can occupy this land.  I want you to decide if this task is possible or not.”  Ten of these alleged leaders decided it WAS their job to determine if it was possible or not.  Without even consulting God, these 10 pitiful and pathetic leaders made a determination that was NOT their’s to make, a determination that was based on their personal assumptions not facts:  “We’re whipped!  Before we even start, we’re finished.  We just need to go back to Egypt.”

But it was Caleb, from the Tribe of Judah, the same Tribe Jesus was born into, and Hoshua (renamed ‘Joshua’ by Moses) from the Tribe of Ephraim, who recognized that these fake and phony 007’s had exceeded their mission directives and made assumptions which they were unqualified to make.  And more than recognize the treasonous act of The 10, they spoke out against them.  Outnumbered 5 to 1, these 2 stood by their Divine Mission Directives.  And what was the result?  Did these 10 confess they were wrong?  Did they repent, change their direction, and stand with Caleb and Joshua?  Nope, nope and nope!

Here is what they did.  They spread scary rumors among the People of Israel.”  I want to  take this moment to speak just to local tribal (meaning church) leaders, whether you are clergy or a layperson.  When you find yourself in a place that has a church centric message and lifestyle, and you hear God calling you to change the culture and climate to the Kingdom Centric Gospel, there will be opposition.  They will follow the same path as these 10 phony and pathetic 007’s in Numbers 13 and 14.

So how does one handle “The 10 Fake & Phony 007’s”?  To answer this question would result in an entire blog 5840ca9163571-imageseries lasting for several editions.  The best way to handle The 10 is NOT to argue with them and here is why.  There are 2 reasons why people engage in rumors and assumptions:  ignorance and simply being dumb.  There is a difference between these two.  Ignorance is simply the lack of information and is easily overcome with the truth.  Being dumb is choosing to ignore the truth.  If you argue with someone who has chosen to be dumb (like The 10 Fake & Phony 007’s) they will beat you down to a pulp every time with their experience of being dumb.  Hear me out from my experiences:  When I have chosen to engage in battle with those who do not want the truth, I lose every battle.

I am currently dealing with some who do not have truthful information so I share with them with grace and love, the truth.  And for those who do not want to be ignorant, they receive the truth well.  But for those aligned with The 10 Fake & Phony 007’s, I choose to pray for them and avoid arguing with them, for the above mentioned reason.  I would encourage you leaders to do the same.  But remember, there was Caleb and Joshua in this story.  I make sure that like Moses, I surround myself with those who have the same spirit and attitude as Caleb and Joshua, and so should you if and when you find yourself attacked by The Fake & Phony 10.  What was the attitude and spirit of Caleb and Joshua?  Glad you asked!  Here is it:

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Rumors that spread the quickest and cover the largest territory are meant to harm, hurt and crush.  And if you are one engaged in the rumors like The 10 Fake & Phony 007’s, take a moment to stop and reflect on your words and the way you engage in conversations.  Rumors are entanglements created by the only one who does not want to see God and His people succeed.  Go ahead with the spread of bad rumors if you wish.  I would simply encourage you to read this from Proverbs:

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Love God with all your heart.  Love others the way Jesus loves you.  And make sure all the glory goes to Him!

10-29hurt

Should The Church Be Neat?

(Again, remember that my perspective is from observing the western church at large, listening to other pastors, and from reading about other’s experiences and life lessons.  These musings are not about any single congregation.  Any resemblance to an actual church, currently in existence or now dead, is strictly a coincidence arranged by the Holy Spirit.)  Well, I must give credit where credit is due.  Today’s Kingdom Musings were inspired by a fellow blogger Brandon Andress and his musings Benefit Of A Doubt.  So, if you do not like my musings or are offended by them, just blame Brandon.

Most folks like things to be neat…well except hoarders.  So let me try this again.  Most folks like, want and insist that things be neat in the church on many levels.  Those who like, want and insist on neat in church do so because they genuinely and sincerely believe that it is absolutely necessary that we be neat in order to honor God.  They also believe, and again sincerely so, that neat is what we must have in order to keep God and the things of God sacred.  As a side note, right now I am wondering, “What does this say about sincerity?  Does being sincere mean that we are right?  And does it give us a free pass if we are wrong?”  “Well God, I sincerely believed I was right, regardless of what You said.”  Oh well, I digress to what might become another blog.

What we were talking about?  Oh yeah, people sincerely wanting “neat” in church.  Well, I must ask, “Exactly what does ‘neat’ look like for most church folks?”  One thing is that we must all believe the same things about the Bible, the world view, and God.  Established congregations typically see the Sunday School hour as the time to achieve such a sincere goal.  Each adult Sunday School Class is using the same curriculum for the most part.  This curriculum is selected because it comes closest to their beliefs, thus ‘neat’.  I have heard of congregations that felt their leadership needed to dress down a renegade teacher and class that was not using their approved curriculum.  One time I attended a revival service in one of my community’s church, in an ecumenical spirit.  I noticed a large sign board up front that listed 20 something things that everyone must believe in order to be a member of that congregation.  Neat!

Another thing about neat is that programs must be neat.  Translated, they must be tame.  We cannot have or do anything that does not clearly resemble what was done in 1950, 1960 and early 1970.  After early 1970, that was when things started falling apart.  Each room has a certain function and one can never use it for something else.  Space was assigned eons ago and though there is another class that is growing and run out of space, they cannot have the largest “Young Adults” classroom (which by the way the youngest is 76 years old) which, by means of attrition, now consists of less than a dozen members.  Their motto and mantra is “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”  And if you cannot embrace this view, well, simply be quiet or go somewhere else, which is usually what they do.  Sadly, they leave not for another church, but give up and walk away from God’s plans.

And when it comes to people, oh yes, they must be neat.  By neat I do not mean just in how they dress…though for many in church this is very important.  I am talking about giving the appearance of having it all together for the most part.  We cannot have people who appear to have real problems.  It used to be that the divorced and alcoholics were the taboos that we never addressed in church other than to condemn.  Now it’s things like drug addictions, domestic violence, sex and sexual orientation.  We cannot allow someone obviously dressed like a hooker sit in here, even though she is struggling and tired of her profession.  We cannot have someone who looks and smells like they have been drinking all night inside the sacred sanctuary, even though he realizes that his life is meaningless and he is looking for a new purpose.  And we certainly cannot have anyone who is from the LBGT community in here, even when they are wondering if God could actually love them they way they are now, or even if they just come to see how the congregation would react to them, even hoping they react against them so they can show just how hypocritical the church is.  When people come into the sanctuary they should appear to have it all together because it is not neat when people come to the sacred building bringing in all their brokenness.  Nope, just can’t have it.  It must be neat and tidy.

But then, there’s this guy by the name of Jesus.  You know, the one they want to honor by keeping everything neat.  The church is called to be the Body of Christ, meaning, to be the presence of Jesus in our time, just as He was the Presence of God when He walked this earth in our human form.  This was what church looked like when Jesus was here as a human being.  Think about those who came to Jesus back then.  Allow me to give you a few images straight from the Bible:

23-25 From there he went all over Galilee. He used synagogues for meeting places and taught people the truth of God. God’s kingdom was his theme—that beginning right now they were under God’s government, a good government! He also healed people of their diseases and of the bad effects of their bad lives. Word got around the entire Roman province of Syria. People brought anybody with an ailment, whether mental, emotional, or physical. Jesus healed them, one and all. More and more people came, the momentum gathering. Besides those from Galilee, crowds came from the “Ten Towns” across the lake, others up from Jerusalem and Judea, still others from across the Jordan.  (Matthew 4:23-25 The Message)

29-31 He touched their eyes and said, “Become what you believe.” It happened. They saw. Then Jesus became very stern. “Don’t let a soul know how this happened.” But they were hardly out the door before they started blabbing it to everyone they met.  32-33 Right after that, as the blind men were leaving, a man who had been struck speechless by an evil spirit was brought to Jesus. As soon as Jesus threw the evil tormenting spirit out, the man talked away just as if he’d been talking all his life. The people were up on their feet applauding: “There’s never been anything like this in Israel!” (Matthew 9:29-33 The Message)

After a few days, Jesus returned to Capernaum, and word got around that he was back home. A crowd gathered, jamming the entrance so no one could get in or out. He was teaching the Word. They brought a paraplegic to him, carried by four men. When they weren’t able to get in because of the crowd, they removed part of the roof (Wow!  Can you imagine the mess on the floor from the roof debris?) and lowered the paraplegic on his stretcher. Impressed by their bold belief, Jesus said to the paraplegic, “Son, I forgive your sins.” (Mark 2:1-5 The Message)

53-56 They beached the boat at Gennesaret and tied up at the landing. As soon as they got out of the boat, word got around fast. People ran this way and that, bringing their sick on stretchers to where they heard he was. Wherever he went, village or town or country crossroads, they brought their sick to the marketplace and begged him to let them touch the edge of his coat—that’s all. And whoever touched him became well. (Mark 6:53-56 The Message)

16-17 That evening a lot of demon-afflicted people were brought to him. He relieved the inwardly tormented. He cured the bodily ill. He fulfilled Isaiah’s well-known sermon: He took our illnesses, He carried our diseases.  (Mark 8:16-17 The Message; by the way, this was on the heels of Jesus healing a leper who came up to Him, healing the servant of an officer in the Roman Army who said he wasn’t good enough for Jesus to come into his home but had enough faith that Jesus could heal his servant with just a word right then and there, and healing Peter’s mother-in-law.)

Look carefully at these passages and get that mental image of what these scenes looked like.  Close your eyes and get this image and do not open them until this scene is etched into your mind.  OK, now that your eyes are open, think about your church on Sunday morning.  Close your eyes again and get this mental picture clear and focused.  Now that your eyes are open (and the Holy Spirit certainly hopes they are now open), does the Sunday morning reality of your sanctuary look anything like the sanctuary of Jesus when He was walking our earth in our human form?

If it does, then I want to say this:  “Hallelujah!  Praise God!  I thank God for you every day!”  And if it doesn’t, I have nothing to say but I do have a question and I hope this question haunts you in a good kind of way (meaning you will not rest until you find the answer and change the current reality):  “Why doesn’t it look like that?”

Remember, Love God with all your heart, Love others the way HE loves you, and make sure ALL the Glory goes to HIM!

Yep!

I hope Wally Fry does not mind me borrowing one of his titles, but it fits.  I heard the phrase today “We have to get the church from the steeple and into the streets.”  The subsequent conversations around it led to this conclusion:

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Curb Shopping

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Another one of my moments of random thinking this morning, and it seems I’m being afflicted with this more often than usual.  The thought?  Curb Shopping!  Now if you are not familiar with Curb Shopping, I will warn you that it may become addictive.  Simply put, Curb Shopping is watching for what people put out on the curb to be picked up and taken to the landfill and quickly thinking if it is something you can clean up and re-purpose.  Then stopping and picking it up and take it home.  It is giving what is being thrown away a new life.

I admit and confess that I am a Curb Shopper.  I never knew the joy of it until a few years 0119170519_hdrago.  My wonderful wife Debbie and I had taken a trip down to Winter Haven Florida to spend time with some of her family and to have a sabbath rest.  Whenever we are down there, we count on seeing some of her cousins she grew up with; one of them is Janie.  That particular year Janie was telling wonderful and humorous stories of her adventures Curb Shopping.  And that got me started.  Every day going to the office, hospitals or visits, I watch the curbs for some hidden jewel, even scrap pieces of lumber.  I also watched businesses for discarded pallets to re-purpose.  The crosses and firewood rack are just a few things I’ve done.  (Notice the Folger coffee cans, that’s where I keep the tender for starting fires in our fireplace, that is, when it is cold enough for a fire.  I do live in Alabama where we defy Mother Nature by having all 4 seasons in the span of a week.)

Point is, I find Curb Shopping expands my thinking and moves me from the realm of “what is” into the wide open spaces of “what could be”.  And this morning’s random thought was more than about “junk” and thrown away pallets.  I realized that Janie had opened my eyes to yet another facet of God.  God is the original Curb Shopper and Dumpster Diver.  A perfect case study to prove my assertion that God is the original Curb Shopper and Dumpster Diver, is found in Luke 7:36-50 (The Message)

36-39 One of the Pharisees asked him over for a meal. He went to the Pharisee’s house and sat down at the dinner table. Just then a woman of the village, the town harlot, having learned that Jesus was a guest in the home of the Pharisee, came with a bottle of very expensive perfume and stood at his feet, weeping, raining tears on his feet. Letting down her hair, she dried his feet, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfume. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is falling all over him.”

40 Jesus said to him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Oh? Tell me.”

41-42 “Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?”

43-47 Simon answered, “I suppose the one who was forgiven the most.”  “That’s right,” said Jesus. Then turning to the woman, but speaking to Simon, he said, “Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn’t quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn’t it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”

48 Then he spoke to her: “I forgive your sins.”

49 That set the dinner guests talking behind his back: “Who does he think he is, forgiving sins!”

50 He ignored them and said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

Here was a woman who had been pushed to the curb as trash to be disposed.  Others had seen her and thought, “Well, the curb is exactly where she belongs!”  But Jesus was a great Curb Shopper and Dumpster Diver for He could see beyond “what is” to “what can be”.  Here’s my two thoughts on this random thought:

First, God does not see you as curb trash or dumpster material.  He sees more clearly than even yourself “what is” your current condition, and regardless your current condition He can see “what you can become”.  He can and will re-purpose your life and keep you from the landfill of despair.

Second, I have a question for you:  How do you see people who have been pushed to the curb?  Who are people pushed to the curb?  Of course we think about the homeless, but there are many others.  It is anyone who has been pushed aside because someone decided that they no longer had any value or purpose.  Do you join in their assessment or can you see that with a little work, they can be re-purposed to a better life, a higher life?

Re-purposing takes some imagination, often a lot of work, and even more patience.  And our God has plenty of both–in fact–more than enough for anyone, everyone, even you.  One more not so random thought and for some it may be my spiritual gift of annoyance that hits you:  What are you going to do with the next person you see that has been pushed to the curb?  Use your imagination and time to invest in someone who has been deemed too broken or no longer needed, and ask God to show you “what can be” for them.  Then stop at that curb, pick them up and watch what happens when we don’t give up on someone.

 Love God with all your heart; love others the way God loves you, and make sure all the glory goes to Him!

#1 The Worst One Of All

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I have been addressing the decline in attendance, membership and community impact of the western church, primarily here in the good old U.S.A.  Just in case this is the first one you’ve read, a couple of things first.  In the first of this blog series I listed 10 conditions that I have observed that I believe have led to this decline in attendance, membership and impact and would encourage you to and read it first and then read the countdown.

I will confess and admit that I made an attempt at baiting you on this last, but biggest reason why the western church is in decline, except those pockets where congregations fight against these 10 Killers as evidenced by their growth.  I did not list what I sense as the biggest killer of all on purpose and partially in hopes that you, the readers, my try to come up with the Biggest Killer of all.  So, are you ready for the truth?  Can you handle the truth?  And the Biggest Killer of the western church is…drum roll please….

forgotten

It’s not that local congregations have forgotten what their mission is to be.  Congregations that are declining in attendance, membership and impact have forgotten HOW to do the mission.  Ask any Tenured Pew Sitter, “What is the purpose of the church?” and they will likely reply, “To make new disciples for Jesus” or some similar term.  Churchians (by the way, InsanityBytes, thanks for this new word, I am using it more if that’s OK with you) may say it like this:  “To grow the church”, though that is not what Jesus told us to do.  But that response is, at least to me, a very clear indicator that churches in decline have forgotten HOW to do the mission of Jesus.

Most churchians and Tenured Pew Sitters can quote the Great Commission, and many can quote it with deep piety.  But it is never enough to know just “the mission”.  Ask the infantryman in the trenches about the importance of knowing how to do the mission.  Some Captain comes over to that infantryman and says, “Go clear that village over the hill and get rid of the terrorists.”  The infantryman knows that’s his task, what he needs to know is the “how”.  Declining congregations know the “what” of the Kingdom but it is in the “how” that has messed them up.  And to a very large degree, it has tainted and polluted the “what”.  But for sake of helping get my point across, let’s be gracious and say that churchians and Tenured Pew Sitters know what to do.  So how are they doing it, and doing it wrong?

Here is the common thread I have observed in every mainline congregation that is in decline in worship attendance, membership, and impact on their community.field-of-dreams  They have adopted the “Field of Dreams” technique.  You remember the movie, don’t you?  Kevin keeps hearing a voice whispering, “If you build it, they will come.”  So, he built it and eventually they did come.  At the end of the movie, it is night and there is this long line of cars headed to this unknown corn field in Iowa.  Churchians and Tenured Pew Sitters alike said, “Eureka!  This is it!”  Actually they adopted this technique back in the 1950’s, even earlier.  Build a building, give it a good church sounding name.  Announce what times you are in business, and they will actually come.  Well, it did work for a while, but it’s NOT been working even longer.  But by George, if 1950 ever comes back, they are ready.  Problem is, if it doesn’t come back in the next 7 years those buildings will be vacant.

The primary model has been “Well, y’all just come on over.”  And for those who actually did come over, the message was very clear from the Churchians and Tenured Pew Sitters, “Look, we are here to help you meet Jesus and then you can look just like us.”  And, God forbid, someone who did not look like, dress like, talk like them actually showed up, they would offer them “Frozen Politeness” and then hope they took the hint.  And they did.  They sit there Sunday after Sunday, go through pastor after pastor (because it’s our fault, you know) and wonder why people are showing up at their desirable location and time.

Now, before you think I am anti-mainline church, remember I see signs of hope everywhere and I am hopeful for the western church.  But the Field of Dreams model stopped working a long time ago.  And though the message never changes, the strategies must–in other words, HOW we do The Mission.  Would you like a Biblical passage to back up what I’m saying?  Good, I thought you would never ask.  It’s in Matthew 25:41-16 (NLT), and I want to add my commentary along the way:

41 “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. 42 For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’  44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

Commentary Time:  Can’t you see it?  “Field of Dreams” model.  “Well, if they CAME TO US we tried to be like you.”  Jesus is not going to ask, “Well how many people came up to you and you showed them Me?”  Nope, not going to happen that way.

45 “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

Look the least, last, lost and broken are not rushing to the church building.  But those who attend to those buildings need to get out and get to know who is living around them.  Refusal to leave the building is the refusal to connect to Jesus.  Look even Elvis left the building, it’s  time the church left the building.

46 “And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”

 Do you really need a commentary on this verse?

Before churches here in the good old U.S.A. can reverse this current trend and once again thrive by growing in worship attendance, membership and community impact, they need to get out into the community and get to know who lives around them.  A couple of Sundays ago, I shared in my sermon that I felt like we had a real friendly church.  I say a lot of smiling faces and heads nodding in agreement.  But, you know me, I couldn’t leave well enough alone.  My next statement was this:  “But those who are not yet in church are not looking for a friendly church.  They are looking for friends, those who will build relationships with them.”  The smile left some faces and in its place was, I still cannot tell if it was surprise or confusion.

How we do THE MISSION is by getting into the streets, communities, neighborhoods and getting to know them.  It is US reaching out and going TO them.  Now excuse me, but I have to leave.  I’m volunteering in a low-income neighborhood to help elementary students become better readers.

#10: Choosing Religion Over Relationship

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(This is the first of 10 blogs about The Top 10 Things That Are Killing The Church.  Number 9 will publish tomorrow)

As I read about the Church, I am seeing two opposing experiences.  In places other than the United States the Church is growing and flourishing, but here in the good old U.S.A. it appears to have fallen on hard times.  While there are pockets of places where the church is growing by making new disciples and those disciples serving their communities with the Good News, the overall condition of the mainline churches, even those classified as “evangelical”, is that it is about to approach life support status.  I do not say this to be cruel or mean; but to be honest because I love the church.

There are a myriad of reasons why this is happening but for this series of blogs, I am focusing on what I perceive as the Top 10 Reasons.  This is my conclusion and opinion and am not expecting anyone to agree with me.  But I am hopeful that it will cause each reader to reflect and see if there is something that needs tweaking in their life.  We will do a countdown of sorts and today we are looking at #10:  Choosing Religion Over Relationship.  My mind and heart goes back to a passage found in Matthew 15:1-2 and let me share it from 2 different translations:

Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him,  “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.” (NLT)

After that, Pharisees and religion scholars came to Jesus all the way from Jerusalem, criticizing, “Why do your disciples play fast and loose with the rules?” (The Message)

For the Pharisees it was all about the age-old traditional rules.  For these folks to be a part of God’s people it was all about keeping the Rules.  These Rules had been around long enough for most people to be aware of them.  In other words, it was all about the external appearances and nothing about the mind and heart.  Rules were not just “important”, they were the ONLY thing considered “important” by the Pharisees.

Think about it.  The Pharisees complained to Jesus that His disciples were picking grain on the sabbath (Matthew 12:1-2).  The Pharisees complained to His disciples that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and other various sinners (Mark 2:16).  The Pharisees complained to Jesus that His disciples were making too much noise praising Him (Luke 19:36).  Do you see a common pattern and a common word describing the Pharisees attitude?  Complaining!

Over the past 42 years, I have been the object of someone complaining.  At one appointment, someone complained that at the end of my prayers, I pronounced the word “ah-men” rather than “A-men”.  At another appointment someone complained that I was the reason why someone was leading an aerobic’s class, thus I was allowing those “non-members” to use the church facilities.  At another appointment someone complained that my motorcycle helmet (known in slang as a “shorty”, which is the type motorcycle police officers wear) looked like the Nazi helmets from World War 2 and that I needed to quit wearing it.  Once I heard the complaint that I was wearing my clergy robe.  Another time I heard the complaint that I was NOT wearing my clergy robe.

Religion loves to complain.  And in the United States the church is losing credibility because we put more emphasis on the “religion”, meaning the rules and traditions, than the relationship God offers.  Here are the dangers I see in religion.

1. Right Opinions matter more than righteousness

Religion is built around a set of doctrines which are mandatory if one wants to be a part of that religion.  One time I attended a church in the community and at the front was a list of “things” one had to believe in order to be a Christian and a member of that church.  I think there were 21 items on that list, and it was a list where one had to embrace all of them.  There is no room for other ideas, opinions or even disagreement.  Religion fears anything that resembles even vaguely something new.  Essential to religion is the strict adherence to a set of beliefs, most of the time without understanding why one believes it or if it is even essential.  Religion demands submission to right opinions, beliefs and doctrine.  Religion is best identified by its desire for the status quo.

 

2.  It identifies you as to what you are not

You are not Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or Scientologist, therefore you must be Christian.  It’s like going through a buffet line of ideas and selecting the one that makes sure you aren’t “one of those others”.  Relationship is about what you could become.  Religion is about who you are not.

 

 3.  Rules matter more than people

Conformity in appearance and beliefs is essential in religion.  Conformity is developed through the rules, both written “laws” and unwritten traditions.  It stifles the creativity and uniqueness that God puts in every person.  Since rules matter the most, people who do not conform to the rules are pushed aside.  This creates a judgmental attitude like that of the Pharisees and we all know how Jesus felt about the Pharisees.

 

4.  It’s the safest place to hide from God

Now I want you the reader to know that I did not come up with this line.  It was first penned by Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan friar ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church in 1970.  Father Rohr is correct.  It is the safest place to hide from God because religion gives us the veneer of respectability.  Respectability is a powerful way to ease one’s conscience and keep the awareness of one’s guilt of sin from getting too close to the mind and heart.  If religion is guiding you, may I suggest you read and reflect on Matthew 25:42-46.  If this doesn’t scare the religion right out of you, then you are firmly entrenched in religion.

 

5.  It makes one impotent for the true work of the Kingdom of God

God is all about building relationship and through this relationship with Him, He takes us on a journey to be our true self, the one He created and the one He knows we can become with His presence, guidance, and power; and to help us overcome the dominion of sin in our life.  Religion takes us captive and robs us of the Divine Spark and power that will bring the Kingdom back onto this His Creation.  Religion makes us powerless by making us its captive.  Maintaining the status quo strips us of the power needed to be involved in the things God is doing.

 

6.  It makes the Enemy laugh at us, though he knows deep down that he fears us

The Enemy, YOUR Enemy, knows exactly what you can become through the relationship God offers, and it makes him pee in his pants when he sees you becoming that person God created.  To take away his fear of you, he convinces you that religion is what it’s all about.  He knows he can control a religious person, so he deceives us into some second best; and that is religion.  Nothing makes the Enemy laugh more than when he sees people following and protecting religion.  And nothing makes him more afraid than seeing someone who is committed to the relationship with Jesus.

Religion is a genuine imitation pearl.  New it looks great, but over time, the beauty is gone and so is the joy.  Religion is all about the appearance and nothing about the heart and power of this relationship with God  There are a significant number of churches in our culture that are more interested in protecting their territory than they are about knowing where God is working, joining in where God is moving,  and building relationships with the people He is trying to reach.  Religion strips one of their promised glory; and you do have a promised glory in this Relationship.

If the church in the U.S. is going to reverse our current downward trends, it begins when we throw away religion and run to the One who is offering us a Relationship.  Religion doesn’t need the cross, but we do.  Religion doesn’t need the resurrection, but we do.  When we surrender at the foot of the Cross and allow the power of the resurrection to work in us right here and right now, well, the Enemy is going to have to change his underwear because I know what he just did in them.  #9 comes tomorrow.

Love God with all your heart.  Love others the way God loves you.  And make sure all the glory goes to Him.

Top 10 Things That Are Killing The Church!

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This morning I had another one of my moments of random thoughts.  It is a condition I am afflicted with regularly and I am learning to use it in ways that would be both inspiring and challenging.  This morning’s random thought came out of a conversation I had in 2016 with someone at church.  Our conversation emerged from that Sunday’s message that was about the question of human sexuality.  If you are a member of or are following the news in our Tribe, it is a hot topic button.  My point was that God calls us to love and care about others and that homosexuality is not the worst sin, and we needed to stop treating it that way.  We need to bear witness to the truth of Jesus through our lives and give the Spirit the opportunity to change whatever needs to be changed in our life.

This member told me a little later how much she appreciated my conversation on this delicate subject and asked me what I thought was the “worst” sin.  This random thought continues to flow through my gray matter.  I want to say up front and to be consistent with last Sunday’s sermon, that all sin is equally hideous and ugly.  At the foot of the Cross we are all equals, from the person in church to the criminal in a maximum security prison.  All sin demands a terrible price which Jesus gladly paid on the Cross out of His favor, kindness and mercy.  But…

But there are, call them “things” or “attitudes” or “beliefs” that are absolutely killing the western church.  As I reflected on what is killing our efforts to bring the Kingdom of God on earth, what is killing our desire that His will be done here as it is in heaven, I have come up with what I’m calling a “Top 10 List”.  This list is not, by any stretch of even my imagination, the only things that are killing the church’s effectiveness today.  I would say this Top 10 list is among the deadliest for any congregation.

So, for the next 10 days I will be addressing each of them.  Today all you are going to get from this blog is The List.  I would invite you to comment on other things you see that are killing the church today.  Now, this is not meant to condemn the church or any particular congregation.  It is not meant to tear down anyone or any church.  Think about this series like you would a visit to your doctor when you know something is wrong.  Would you want your doctor to simply say that you are OK, or would you rather she or he be truthful about what might be physically wrong with you?  To let you see where my heart is in all this, let me share my motivation and my heart with you.  It comes from Ephesians 4:15 and in God’s Word Translation is goes like this:

Instead, as we lovingly speak the truth, we will grow up completely in our relationship to Christ, who is the head.

I write and speak out of love for Jesus first, and also for you.  So here is my Top 10 List of things we need to stop doing.

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10.  Choosing religion over relationship

9.  Ignoring that we are in a war

8.  Wrong priorities

7.  Cookie Cutter attitude

6.  Self Reliance

5.  Fear of change

4.  Form rather than substance

3.  Loss of passion

2.  False humility

 1.  The worst one of all

I am not expecting everyone to agree with my conclusions.  Reality is, I expect some to be offended at me.  I strongly suspect that when Jesus walked this earth He deliberately said some things just to offend some in the crowd.  Well, here goes to 10 straight days of blogging.  Usually I do one per week here, and one on my other blog.  I ask for your prayers as I step into what I believe, are thoughts put in my heart and mind by the Holy Spirit.  And remember, love God with all your heart; love others the way Jesus loves you, and make sure all the glory goes to Him!  Pray as you will…

Pastor Randy

On This Day After The Election, What If. . .

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28 One of the religion scholars came up.  Hearing the lively exchanges of question and answer and seeing how sharp Jesus was in his answers, he put in his question:  “Which is most important of all the commandments?”

29-31 Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel:  The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’  And here is the second:  ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’  There is no other commandment that ranks with these.”

Mark 12:28-31 (The Message)

We can understand anything with more clarity and depth when we know the context of what is being said or written.  I believe that in order for you to have both clarity and depth in these words I share, you must know my context-where I am in my heart, mind, soul and my literal geographical location as I write these words.

Here is the first thing you need to know:  As of this early morning on the day after the Election I do not know who was elected President of these United (man is that an oxymoron!) States.  I hear some of you thinking, “What???  Are you hiding in some cave?  Gone off the grid as some wacko survivalist?”  No, allow me to tell you where I am and as they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

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Debbie and I are on our annual sabbatical to the Smokey Mountains.  It was 12 years ago on November 13 that we spent our honeymoon in these mountains.  Last night I made the very intentional decision NOT to watch the election returns.  The closest I came to it was watching reruns of the show “Criminal Minds”.  Maybe there is something prophetic about that.  And this morning, on this Internet, I have managed to avoid any reference to the outcome of yesterday’s election.  I did it by simply keeping the web browser open from yesterday on another page, so when I opened up this laptop I saw no news feed and I turned off notifications on both my phone and tablet.    Oh, we did vote by absentee ballot so do not accuse me of not participating in the process.  I mentioned this in another blog, Oh Lord It’s Monday.  So I do practice what I preach, most of the time.

And because we have chosen to separate ourselves for this short season from all the “stuff” out there, I am in that place where I can and will rest in God.  He sent His only Son, His very Self, to this earth-the Creator became one He created and then died that horrible death all for me.  How can I NOT rest and trust in Him who has never denied this sometimes misguided and often broken life His infinite grace and mercy?  Since I have no clue as to who won, I am renewing my commitment to God to live like a true citizen soldier of the Kingdom of God.  Here is how I am going to work it and I challenge you to do the same.

On this day after the election WHAT IF WE. . .

1.  Believed in prayer?

That as we pray, we pray with the conviction that it is the summons for Heaven’s Angel Armies to surround a person or situation with the full authority of God, Himself.  That prayer wasn’t our last resort, but our first resort.  That prayer isn’t the least thing we can do but the most important thing we can do.  That prayer which comes from faith the size of the mustard seed can move mountains and we can see miracles.  That this faith is not something we produce or build up but that wonderful gift God gives us.  That prayer causes all the demons of hell to shudder in fear!

On this day after the election WHAT IF WE. . .

2.  Became kind to others?

That we gave up our place in the check-out line to the person behind us even though their shopping cart is packed and overflowing.  That after the meal we just ate at our favorite restaurant we left our server at least a 20% tip or more.  That we genuinely smiled at that person who is not dressed as nice as we are and said “Hello” to them.  That we smiled and said “Oh, that’s OK.  Thank you for helping me” to the associate who just informed us that they did not have that sale item in our size.  That we did something kind to others without expecting anything in return.  That if we are able, we did not pick the closest parking place but left it for someone else.  That we removed limits to who, when and where we will be kind and that no act of kindness will be too small or too extravagant.

On this day after the election WHAT IF WE. . .

3.  Refused to judge others who are different?

That we stopped blaming those living in poverty for their mess and admitted to them (and ourselves) that we are all in poverty somewhere and that we can walk together out of our poverty.  That we become more concerned about the homeless living out in cold of winter needing a warm place rather than focusing on why they are homeless.  That we offered to sit beside that guest who came to church dressed differently than us good “church folks” and instead of being friendly we started building a friendship with them.  That tattoos and body piercings do not make them unfit for the Kingdom.  That we stop thinking the divorced or unwed mothers have no place of leadership in the church.  That the “bum” begging change on the street bears inside them the image of God and are unconditionally loved by God.  That God wants those who are not like us, just as much as He wants us.

On this day after the election WHAT IF WE. . .

4.  Refused to insist on having our own way?

That we realize we are not the most important person.  That the world does not revolve around us.  That sometimes we are disappointed but that disappointment does not change our true identity.  That we are not entitled to anything in this life but are given unlimited opportunities to be like Jesus by symbolically or literally washing the feet of others.  That we truly live like we believe what Jesus said is the Greatest Commandment and the Second Greatest Commandment.

On this day after the election WHAT IF WE. . .

5.  Stopped acting like our local church belongs to us.

That we exist for those who are not here yet.  That we prepare for those not here yet by understanding them without judging them.  That we look for ways to connect with them in ways they understand.  That we do not train them how to be like us but that we encourage them, challenge them and enable them to be the unique person God created.   That we stopped treating “church visitors” as invaders of our space and accepted them as one of God’s gifts to us so that we have the opportunity to be a real follower of Jesus by showing them the difference Jesus is making in our life.  That we stopped grumbling about the crying baby  in church and gave thanks that this child is surrounded by God’s sanctuary of love, grace and mercy.  That we see our challenges in this unchristian culture not as obstacles but as opportunities to grow spiritually and understand that the Body of Christ is always counter-cultural.  That we are not called to create a Christian nation but to usher in the Kingdom of God.

On this day after the election WHAT IF WE. . .

6.  Stopped criticizing our leaders and blaming them for everything that is wrong?

That we started praying for them and not against them.  That God would fill their minds with His wisdom.  That God can and WILL use even the worst scoundrel in Washington D.C.  That they would find the liberty to do what is right rather than what their constituents want or their lobbyists want.  That they would follow the model of Micah 6:8-“No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you:  to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”  That the Micah model is not impossible for God to achieve in any politician.

On this day after the election WHAT IF WE. . .

7.  Made the commitment to stop spouting words of fear and hate, especially about who won or who lost?

That we disengage our mind, heart, words and actions from all the negative stuff we see and hear in our world concerning this election.  That we would not post in social media words that, in the end, are words of hate, words of despair and hopelessness, or words that brag about “our” candidate winning.  That our words become life-giving words.  That our words will be hopeful words.  That our words will always be gracious and filled with kindness.  That our words reflect THE WORD rather than the world.

On this day after the election WHAT IF WE. . .

8.  Realized that God is counting on us?

That God has only one plan to bring the Good News of Jesus into the world.  That plan is for us to become the person that Jesus modeled when He was in our form.  That God is not looking to transform our nation through Washington D.C. but through lives that have been transformed by His grace.  That God has no other plan but to use our hands, feet, heart, mind and voice to reveal the life that everyone is created to enjoy.  That anyone and everyone matters more than our plans, programs, political ideologies and everything else.  That one life, our life, will make the difference in one other life as we live this life as more than a fan of Jesus, but as a real follower that offers no excuses or limitations to the ways that God wants to use our ordinary life in extraordinary ways.

Can you understand this context?  Without knowing who will be sitting behind that desk in the Oval Office, my purpose and my mission does not change.  And neither does yours.  That person, be it Hillary or Donald, has no impact on who we are, if we truly are citizen soldiers in the Kingdom of God.  The hope of our nation and our world is found in only one place and it is not located in Washington D.C.  It lies at the Throne of Heaven that is always occupied by the same One–the Creator and Sustainer of true life and the One who is full of truth, love, grace and mercy.  God is not handcuffed or limited by the winner of this election result when it comes to redeeming, restoring and renewing His Creation.  If you cannot see and embrace this truth then maybe the problem is not who won this election but you.  I know this last sentence sounds harsh, but it truly is spoken out of love and hope for you, if this is you.

Even though in this exact moment I do not know who won this election, I will eventually know the truth.  You see, the truth has a way of finding us.  Even if we are not seeking the truth, the truth always reveals itself.  What this truth is, be it President Hillary Clinton or be it President Donald Trump, Jesus is still my King and His Kingdom has been given to me-given to be to live in, to live through and to share-this Kingdom of Life as God designed it to be.

Now, excuse me please because I need to step on out the back porch of this cabin to see the sunrise.  Context, again please.  It is cloudy this morning and I probably will not see the actual sun rise over those mountains in front of me.  But I will see the sun rise because this darkness will give way (it has to!) to the light of the sun that these clouds are trying to hide.  The clouds will not stop what the sun produces–LIGHT!  Could there be a lesson for our nation in this?

And remember, to love God with all your heart, love others the way God loves you, and make sure that all the glory goes to Him!

Pastor Randy

Pray with sincerity this prayer from John Wesley:

I am no longer my own, but thine.

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.  And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine.  So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

 

Which Do YOU Prefer? Onions Or The Promise?

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“Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” Then they plotted among themselves, “Let’s choose a new leader and go back to Egypt!”

Numbers 13:3-4 (NLT)

I have to admit and give credit to where credit is due.  Today’s Kingdom Musings are inspired by something I read this morning from another fellow blogger Matthew Winters.  Though we have never met, we are connected because we shared a dark journey through an identical situation-a pastor who experiences divorce first hand.  I encourage you to read his blog Does Anyone Take Risks Anymore?  Thanks Matthew for unclogging my mind to write in this blog again.

As with all Scripture, one needs to know the context of a passage in order to understand it and apply it to our lives.  God has been leading the Hebrews to the Promised Land through His chosen leader Moses.  Besides always providing for their physical needs, God has been visibly present with them.  In the daytime it was in the pillar of cloud and at nighttime it was in the pillar of fire.  Both evidences of His presence was clear and undeniable.

Even after a lot of grumbling and complaining, they are at the very edge of the land that God promised first to Abraham and now to them.  Can you imagine the people redeemed by God’s grace, mercy and love actually grumbling and complaining?  Aren’t you glad that people today redeemed by God’s grace, mercy and love never grumble or complain?  Yes, I’m being sarcastic, one of my many gifts.  To understand this passage we need to know what led up to it.  In Numbers 13:1-2 (NLT) we read:

The Lord now said to Moses,  “Send out men to explore the land of Canaan, the land I am giving to the Israelites.  Send one leader from each of the twelve ancestral tribes.” (emphasis mine)

They were to called out by God catch a glimpse of what HE was about to do.  The inhabitants were formidable, but for God who spoke light into the darkness, it would be a walk in the park.  Remember, HE is giving HIS personal guarantee that they would occupy the land and HE would give it to them.  But when these explorers came back they acted in a very human manner-there was a Majority Report and a Minority Report.  The Majority Report saw the risks and responded to the risks:  “It just can’t be done!  Before we even try, we are already whipped!”  Remember that this report is given in the light of God’s Personal Guarantee:  the land I am giving to the Israelites.  It’s a report given by those who have been witnessing God’s faithfulness.

The Minority Report saw THE SAME RISKS and said, “Look, people, if God said HE will give us this land, let’s consider this a done deal.  We don’t know exactly how He is going to pull this off, but that’s not my job.  The fact is we were never called out to determine success or failure.  We were called out to catch a wonderful glimpse of what God guaranteed HE would provide for us.”  So, the people went with the minority report, right?  WRONG!

People who had been faithfully provided food and water along the way, witnessed God delivering them in battle, AND who had witnessed the Faithful Presence of Cloud by Day and Fire by Night, want to go back to Egypt and back to slavery.  Where did this come from?  Well, it wasn’t a spur of the moment decision.  They had already given a clue to where they heart and mind was at before they arrived at the edge of risk.  It is seen in Numbers 11:4-6 (NLT)

Then the foreign rabble who were traveling with the Israelites began to crave the good things of Egypt. And the people of Israel also began to complain. “Oh, for some meat!” they exclaimed. “We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted. But now our appetites are gone. All we ever see is this manna!”

Rather than enjoying the faithfulness of God, they wanted onions.  The price of the onions was to go back to slavery.  The modern parallel is clear, at least to me.  Today’s people of God, the church, are facing the same moment:  Do we take the risk of going into God’s Promise or do we go maintain the status quo?  The challenge for the Body of Christ here in the United States is do we keep on doing church work as normal or dare we take the risk of becoming involved in the work of the Kingdom of God?  Congregations that have plateaued or declining are doing so for one of two reasons:  Either their community is dying out, or they are more concerned with preserving the institution of their choice rather than doing the work of the Kingdom of God.  There is an alternative to the slavery of decline.

There are congregations that are thriving and making new disciples.  These are the congregations that have made Kingdom Work more important than church work.  The promise of God is not to have a land of beautiful church buildings and wonderful church programs, but to put in the middle of the territory of the Enemy the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  This is our Promised Land-for the Kingdom of God to reach, touch and transform lives, homes, communities and nations.  For this to happen we must be willing to take risks.  And herein lies the problem.

When taking risks, there is the potential to fall flat on our faces.  I see a lot of good people who mistakenly believe that failure is fatal.  So to avoid becoming a fatality, they seek the comfort of the familiar because in the familiar, they live in the false illusion that they do have some type of control over their lives.  And this false illusion makes them feel more comfortable than taking the risk of trusting the Guarantee of God!  Comfort rules over risks for the Kingdom.

Recently I was at an event that was led by some of the Team Pastors of Grace Church located in the Cape Coral and Fort Myers area of Florida.  One of their pastor’s, Wes Olds said, “Don’t be afraid to fail.  In fact, do what we do.  Fail early, fail often, and fail forward.”  What he meant was that we need to be willing to learn from our mistakes and then move forward.  Some of our best learning, especially in the realm of the Kingdom of God, happens through our failures.  The problems arise hard and fast when we do not learn from our failures.  Remember this:  your failures, whether in the form of sin or in the form of trying to be faithful to our Kingdom God, never disqualifies you from God picking you up, dusting off your knees and telling you, “OK, get back out there!  I still believe in you!”

So here’s what I would like to ask you to do.  Answer this question:

Which do you prefer?  Onions or The Promised Land?

Your answer is clearly revealed in how you feel about the risks of stepping into a future where success lies entirely in the Hands of The Faithful God, the hands that were nailed to a Cross, and a future that is never controlled by our hands.  I personally know what it is like to walk into a future unknown by me.  But I go ahead and walk into this future because I have chosen to hold the Hand, the ONLY Hand, that knows exactly how this future will turn out.  My unknown future is only an illusion when I realize that God is in control of my life and my future; a future filled with His Promise.  I love a good onion, especially with beans and cornbread, but I am choosing to let go of the onions of predictability and comfort and enter into an adventure with the One who redeemed me and calls me to catch a glimpse of what HE is about to do!  Save the onions for hamburgers-go against the odds and remember that the Guarantee is given by the Faithful God!

Remember, love God with all your heart; love others the way God loves you; and make sure all the glory goes to Him!

Randy Burbank, a Kingdom Pastor…

Programs, Missions, or Vision? Where Do We Start? What Do We Do? How Do We Do It? Part 1

Why We Need To Allow Church Programs To Die

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(Note:  This is the first of a 5 part series around the issue of Programs, Missions, and Vision of the local church)

I know that the very title of this first of five blogs will offend many long time faithful members of local churches.  And if you are one of them, I simply ask that you follow this to the end.  I am not asking you to agree with me, nor do I expect you to change your mind about this subject.  But I am asking you to engage in deep thought, reflection and prayer before you dismiss me as either anti-church, a para-church lunatic, or in some cases, the Anti-Christ.  (If this is your first time to read one of my blogs, get to know me by reading “About Me”.)

I grew up and was trained in a church that believed, invested in and promoted top quality church programs as the key to growing the local church.  To be honest, I cannot remember all the training events I have attended since 1974 that promoted a variety of programs that promised to radically transform the direction and attendance for the church I served at the time.  And I confess before God and to you that many of those programs I bought into and promoted in those wonderful places I had been appointed.  In some cases there would be some change happen in the local church, but it did not last.  Churches were changed, but not transformed.  And being the well-trained pastor who believed that it was all in the programming, I kept trying more programs.  I looked to what was called “successful” churches and tried to adapt their programs to fit our situation.  I was smart enough to know that I could not imitate “their” programs but vainly believed that if I adapted them into our context, the church would grow.  (But at the time, I wasn’t smart enough to see the big picture.)

Most pastors and local church leaders have some type of definition for what constitutes a “church program”.  Allow me to share my definition and hopefully it will give some insights into where I am coming from and where this series is going:

Church Programs are those activities and events that we plan, design and implement in order to maintain the vitality of the local church and which we believe will lead to sustainable church growth.

We all know that the key phrase in this definition is “sustainable church growth”.  Here is one of the Top 10 Understatements of all times:  Without Sustainable Growth The Local Church Will Die.  And for a few decades, this model of sustainable church growth seemed to be working.  For a season we could do what the voice told Kevin Costner to do in the movie “Field of Dreams”:  “Build it and they will come.”    But it became a competition to build the best to reach the most.  Since then, mainline churches have for the most part either maintained a plateau (meaning no sustainable growth) or started to decline.

For many congregations it became a blame game.  “We don’t have the right programs.”  “We don’t have the right staff.”  And my favorite excuse, “We’ve got the wrong pastor.”  And pastors who long for sustainable church growth have their excuses.  “It’s the denominational leaders fault.”  “I’m not at the right church.”  And my favorite excuse from pastors, “They won’t listen to me.”  It is futile to believe that the right programs, right staff, right pastor, or right church is the answer to the decline of the church in the United States.  There is something much deeper that we need to consider.

I have found a verse in the Bible that may well explain the current malady in many churches.  Normally I opt for the more modern translations, but this is a time when I think the King James Version says it best.  The passage is Proverbs 29:18-

Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

Instead of the word “perish”, other translations use phrases such as “they run wild” (NLT); “they stumble all over themselves” (The Message); or “cast off restraint” (NIV).  The Hebrew word means all of these but the word “perish” is a word that ought to grab our attention because of the current condition of the church in the United States.  When we run wild, stumble all over ourselves, or cast off restraint we step off onto that slippery slope where one thing that kills and prevents sustainable growth leads to another.  And so we scratch our heads wondering why all these wonderful programs and leaders are not resulting in vibrant congregations producing sustainable growth.

Well, let’s go back to the first part of this passage:  Where there is no vision (emphasis mine).  This point is really clear, but I think that if we look at it from The Message, we find some light and deeper understanding.  It goes like this:  “If people can’t see what God is doing” (emphasis mine).  Vision is about seeing what God is doing while programs are about seeing and measuring what we are doing.

Without a clearly defined vision of what God is doing we elevate our programs, at the very least, as a substitute for what God is doing.  Or we do something even more sinister-we ask God to bless our efforts as a means to seek God’s approval, or in many cases, as an attempt to change God’s mind.  I want to share with you 3 key reasons why maybe, just maybe, we need to allow “our church programs” to die in order to find what will produce vitality in our congregations along with sustainable growth:

 1)  Church Programs rely on human skills and strengths.

We want the best Children’s Director.  We want the best Youth Pastor.  We want the best Preacher and Pastor.  Why?  Because these are the things that programs tell us that we need.  Take a moment to think this through before you tar and feather me and burn me at the stake for being a heretic.  Sometimes programs take on a life all their own, outside the activity of the Holy Spirit.  So much so, that to suggest changing a program will almost create a riot at church business meetings.  And, if a program is faltering, then the answer we think is to fire that staff member or pastor and get new ones.  I will admit that for a season, these so called “right staff members and pastor” can create some excitement that resembles congregational vitality and will produce seasonal growth.  But the sickness returns and they will not provide the long-term sustainable growth that reveals the presence and Kingdom of God.

2)  Church Programs put a drain on our limited resources.

Once programs take on a life of their own (meaning they become sacred and are protected from any changes), then our limited resources must be used to sustain the programs.  Please notice I said “our limited resources”.  Typically church governing bodies see their resources as financial, people, buildings, and time.  When these are seen as our only resources, then there is a limited amount of said resources.  So, if someone senses that God is moving in a new direction and calls for changes the almost immediate reaction is, “Where is the money going to come from?”  “We don’t have the facilities for such a thing.”  “We’re already asking so much of our volunteers, they don’t have the time for something else.”  When programming reigns supreme, then our limited resources have to be dedicated to that and anything else will just have to wait, or worse–be ignored.

3)  Church Programs rarely, if ever, align with what God is doing.

Without a clearly defined vision of what God is doing, our programs may or may not align with what He is doing.  When they are aligned, it is either accidental or coincidental.  Again, please frame my context properly.  I’m talking about when there is no Vision of what God is doing.  The focus becomes sustaining the programs at the expense of experiencing vitality and sustaining growth that transforms the hearts of lives of people.  When Programs become the “thing”, we assume that it is of God.  When we make this assumption it will neither maintain vitality nor produce sustainable growth.

What I am offering in this series of blogs is that there is another way for vitality and sustainable growth to happen in any local church of any size and in any location.  It starts with the Vision–The Vision Of What God Is Doing.  Many congregations may have a “vision” or even a “vision statement” but a careful examination of it might reveal it is just another way of sustaining our programs–programs that rely on human ingenuity, effort and strength.  Next week I will being looking at what real “Vision” looks like, by looking at what “Vision” isn’t.  Are you ready to tar and feather me and run me out of town (or pray that I never become “your” pastor)?  Please remember my opening comments:

I am not asking you to agree with me, nor do I expect you to change your mind about this subject.  But I am asking you to engage in deep thought, reflection and prayer before you dismiss me as either anti-church, a para-church lunatic, or in some cases, the Anti-Christ.

Love God with all your heart.  Love others the way God loves you.  And make sure all the glory goes to Him.

God Bless America? Really?

Why I Will Not Say It, And Maybe Why You Would Not Want To Say It

bless america2

(Warning:  Due to the mature subject matter, some may find this post offensive.  Therefore, viewer discretion is advised before reading it all the way through)

     I have made a prayerful and very intentional decision to stop saying “God Bless America”.  I am not demanding, suggesting or even hinting that you should do the same.  This is a decision I have made out of deep reflection and conviction because I am first a Kingdom Citizen, and second a Kingdom Pastor.  Before you label me something I clearly am not, please read my opening lines in a previous blog, The Americanization Of The Gospel.  This particular blog has been working its way through my heart and mind for some time and at first I wasn’t going to write it, but I kept coming back to it.  I wondered why I was reluctant to frame these words and it hit me.  I was “concerned” that someone might misinterpret or downright dislike these thoughts.  It was then I realized that I must write.  So here goes…

     I have many reasons why it has become difficult, actually downright impossible for me to think, write or say the words “God Bless America”.  (Even now as I type this phrase, I am very uncomfortable.)  When I say “God Bless America”, now this is me and I am certainly not asking you to feel this way, I feel like I am asking God to bless things that are not a reflection of Him; that do not honor Him; and certainly does not represent the life that He calls all of us to live.  I believe that I am asking God to bless a culture that is the antithesis of the Kingdom of God.  One of my deepest concerns about Christians in the U.S. is that we have made patriotism and our Discipleship equal.  Or we have done something even more sinister–we have replaced being Disciples with being Patriotic–that somehow they are one and the same.  They are not.  I am patriotic and I am a Disciple but being a Disciple trumps being patriotic every time.

     When I say, “God Bless America”, I feel like I am asking Him to bless a culture that is most often selfish, and this selfishness reveals itself in so many ways.  Some live with a sense of entitlement.  Others live like they are victims of anything and everything, and as such diminishes the pain of real victims.  Some live without regard for the consequences of their choices, words and actions.  Some live thinking that the values of the Kingdom of God are outdated.  Some live with hatred and anger in their hearts.  Our political system is corrupted to the max.  Self serving is esteemed higher than self-sacrifice.  And I could go on and on.  This is what I feel like I am asking God to bless because these attitudes and so much other “stuff” have become deeply entrenched in the American culture.  And deep down in my heart, I know that God would never bless any of this mess we have created.  I feel like I am asking God to change His mind about His Plans and Mission in the world.

     I also see this as symptomatic of another issue–our prayers to ask God to bless other things we do as Disciples.  I wonder if some people need to ask for God’s blessing as a sign that He approves their plans, at the cost of His plans.   Again, this is me thinking to myself–but should I have to ask God to bless the things I do IF I am doing the things God wants me to do?  I am not even suggesting or thinking that we should presume anything about the blessings of God.  But this verse has been in my heart and mind for some time.  It’s from John 13:17 (NLT)…

Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.

     These words of Jesus come on the heels of one of His top 5 most incredible acts when He walked His creation as one of those He created.  Jesus had just washed the feet of a group of disciples knowing that one would betray Him, another would deny knowing Him, and the rest would abandon Him.  He had set the pattern for what it would mean for them in the future, and for us today, to be a real disciple of His in this fallen and messed up world.  It would be a life of self-surrender to something much bigger than themselves and a life of self-sacrifice where following Him any day and every day would cost us something.

     When we make a personal vow and commitment to a life of self-surrender and self-sacrifice to the Kingdom of God, the blessing comes without us ever asking for it.  I am not
being arrogant or presumptive with this statement.  I am simply trusting in the promise of Jesus.  bless america3And in this profoundly simple act of trusting, I am absolutely blown away by the power and depth of His grace and mercy to me; that God would use for His Honor and Glory, someone like myself.  And I find myself blessed beyond words–and I never asked God to bless what I was doing.  I simply “left my boat immediately” and followed Him.  Rather than seeking a blessing for what we are doing (or for who we are, Americans), let’s walk into those places and situations where God is already blessing.  Let’s walk into those places and situations where God is wanting to bless because people are needing to experience life as He intends and as only HE can provide.  However, if you still feel the need to ask God to bless what you or your church is doing, could it be you are asking God to accept something less than what He calls us to be and do?  I cannot answer for you but as for me, I will do whatever God wants, wherever God wants it done, and whenever He wants to do it.  I know I will still miss this mark sometimes, but it doesn’t change my aim.  Just because I miss the target doesn’t me I change the targets; I change ME by changing how I think, feel and what I do!

     At the age of 60 I am finding out that I have learned much more about God and His Kingdom in the last 5 years than I learned in the first 55 years, and am looking forward to learning even more.  And one of the things that He has taught me is that I do not have to plead or beg or even ask for His blessing.  All I need to do is to be where He is blessing and where He wants to bless.  Truth is, God is not blessing this nation–but He is blessing wherever people are committed to and living in something much bigger than themselves–The Kingdom Of God.  You will not hear me say “God Bless America”, but you will find me where God IS blessing and wants to bless people, and situations with His love, grace and tender mercies.

     Please remember that this is ME, how I am thinking and feeling.  I’m not asking you to agree with me.  And I am certainly not asking you to join with me.  This is how I feel.  What about you?  How do you feel about this?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below.  Love God with all your heart, love others the way God loves you, and make sure all the glory goes to HIM!

7 Signs You Have Sacred Pillars And Sculptured Stones

idols

1 “Do not make idols or set up carved images, or sacred pillars, or sculptured stones in your land so you may worship them. I am the Lord your God. You must keep my Sabbath days of rest and show reverence for my sanctuary. I am the Lord.” 

Leviticus 26:1-2 (NLT)

    When this Word came to God’s people, they understood what God meant.  Idols, carved images, sacred pillars and sculptured stones were easily recognizable.  Typically they took the form that came out of a culture’s abilities to reason out what he or she looked like.  Today they are a little more difficult for most people to see, especially within the local Body of Christ.  Now some idols are easily recognized by the pew–images of Buddha, images from Hinduism, or any of other religions.

     While many in the pew consider these the “great enemies” of the church, the most dangerous idols are those that do not “look like” (whatever that means) an idol.   These idols take on a more subtle form and this makes them even more dangerous.  Some of them are even found in buildings commonly known as “local churches”.  Some of them have taken a material form, while others have taken the form of “beliefs”.  Perhaps this was the concept that inspired Bill Easum’s book from a few years back, Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers.

     Sacred Pillars and Sculptured Stones today are those things, actions, words and attitudes that become more important to us than the Kingdom of God.  I am keenly aware that these musings probably will offend some.  I humbly ask that you read through all 7 Sacred Pillars and Sculptured Stones to the very last paragraph and then ask yourself, “Do I have any Sacred Pillars or Sculptures Stones?”  If I make you mad, ask yourself why I’ve made you mad.  Analyze carefully any or all of these points you disagree with.  It’s a good thing, a very good thing, to review our faith and our convictions in light of The Truth.

Here are some signs you have a Sacred Pillar or Sculptured Stone, in no particular order:

 1.  You Use The Offering As Your Ballot Box

     Something has happened that has upset your sensitivities or you simply do not like it.  Maybe a decision was made by your governance board that you did not like.  Maybe it was something the pastor said that left you with a sour taste in your mouth.  Maybe it’s the direction that the pastor is attempting to lead you towards.  Or maybe it’s that you just don’t like the pastor.  You cannot get your way so you express your displeasure by reducing your offering, or simply give it to some designated fund of which you approve.  Your Sacred Pillar is, well, I know of no other way to put it than to say, it’s having it your way.

2.  You Resist Change And Are Vocal About It

     A man who had reached the age of 100 was being interviewed by the local newspaper.  The reporter said to him, “I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of changes in your church over the years.”  He replied, “Yes I have and I was against every one of them.”  Anything that even vaguely looks like change you vocalize your disapproval.  You mistakenly believe that the peace of God happens only if things stay the same and the waters remain calm.  I know our world is changing fast, sometimes way too fast.  And I will admit that some of those changes are not good.  But I am talking to those who when they hear anything about change within their local Body of Christ their immediate reaction is to be very vocal against any such change; really, against ANY change.  If this is you, then your Sculptured Stone is The Status Quo.

3.  Your Church Budget Is Inwardly Focused

     For a local congregation, the surest test to see if you are guilty of idolatry is to look at your budget.  Measure how much of your budget is given to the mission outside your real estate compared to what you spend inside your real estate.  A sure sign that idolatry has slipped in is when the bulk of your resources are spent on the building, those activities  that happen inside your building, and the staff to maintain those activities.  If 75% or more of your budget is used inside your real estate then you are inwardly focused and not externally mission driven.  Your concern is more for your church than for the Kingdom of God.  Your Sacred Pillar is your programs.

4. You Cannot Change Communion Table / Worship Table Except For Communion Sunday And The Liturgical Calendar.

     I’m speaking now to more traditional congregations who have existed for some time, and I know some of you will take me to task for this one.  You know what I’m talking about:  that large brass cross, the 2 candlesticks, and that big family type Bible.  I’ve often wondered where did this come from or how did it start.  Right now I’m thinking about when Rehoboam became King.  He did not seek God first and as a result, Jerusalem and the Temple was plundered by the Egyptian army.  Among the many things stolen were his father’s shields made of gold.  He replaced them with brass shields.  These brass shields could be polished to shine like the gold ones, but they were only inexpensive substitutes.

     We are living in a world that learns more visually.  Worship tables that speak to the theme of the message help them connect with the eternal truth.  But some congregations insist that it is sacrilegious to have anything on that table but “The Brass”.  Like Rehoboam, you have substituted the real thing for an almost like imitation.  Rather than focusing on the One to whom our sacred symbols point, you have made a Sacred Pillar of symbols.

5.  You Must Use The King James Version

     Now before you jump on me, read my statement carefully.  I have not said anything against the KJV.  In fact, when I’m in the mood for great poetry, it’s the KJV that I reach for.  But for some, perhaps even many, the only translation is the KJV.  At the root of this love affair for the “authorized” version is something much deeper.  It is that love for the words of the KJV rather than their love for The Word, to whom the KJV and all other translations point towards.  The insistence that there is only one true Bible translation clearly indicates a worship of paper and ink rather than the One who breathed inspiration over those who wrote and preserved these wonderful manuscripts.  If you insist on the KJV, then you have made a Sacred Pillar out of the Bible.

6.  You Cannot Remove For Any Reason The Memorial Furnishings Nor Their Plaques

     If your local church does not have any of these, then take this moment to give thanks to God for this.  Let me be very clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with offering God a tribute in honor or in memory of someone who has deeply touched your life.  These saints are to be recognized as that “great cloud of witnesses” who challenge and encourage us in our Faith Journey.  However, when those remembrances become more sacred than the Mission of the church, then something has gone terribly awry.

     When that memorial was given, the furnishing or whatever it was, had both meaning and functionality.  As the Mission of the church changes, sometimes our furnishings need to change.  I was once told that I did not need to remove a particular furnishing because that family meant for it to be used and to be seen.  That became more important than the Mission of the Kingdom of God.  When Mission becomes secondary, you have made memorials the Sacred Stone.

7.  You Cannot Alter Nor Change The Purpose Of Certain Rooms.

     As the church expands because it has made a commitment to the Kingdom of God over church programs, inevitably there must be reassignment of spaces and rooms in order to make room for what God is doing.  For some, this a cause for great alarm.  Certain rooms have always had certain functions and they believe, wrongly believe, that those spaces cannot take on new meaning with new purposes.  As the Body of Christ grows, new people appear whom God has called to make a difference in the world.  The Sacred Parlor may need to become part of the children’s place.  The library full of books that are rarely if ever checked out may need to become the food pantry.  That largest room that once held scores of class members but has dwindled down to just a dozen or so, may need to become the single adults room.

     And what I am about to suggest will be blasphemous to some and some will suggest that I need to be burned at the stake as a heretic.  Perhaps it is time to change the sanctuary to a worship center.       And when such changes are suggested, even urged, the reaction is sheer anger that such a thought could even be contemplated.  That room has always been that and should stay that until Jesus comes back.  When the old purpose is more important than the movement of God’s Kingdom, then your Sculptured Stone is the history.


     And it’s not just the traditional folks that erect Sacred Pillars or Sculptured Stones.  Even more “modern” and “contemporary” folks can like their stuff to the point that it becomes more important than the Relationship with God and the Mission of The Kingdom of God.  So to keep us away from those Pillars and Stones, may I suggest we continually engage in some of these spiritual disciplines:

  1. Pray!  Don’t pray that things stay the same or the way you want them to be.  Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Don’t pray for God to bless what you and your church are doing.  Pray that you and your church are doing what God wants done.  If we do this, then we never have to ask God to bless it–for He is already blessing it without us even asking.  (A footnote:  If you feel you must ask God to bless what you do, maybe it’s not what God wants done.  I’m just saying…)
  2. Make sure the Vision is fresh.  Visions serve a purpose but change according to what God is wanting to do in our current world.  Vision is what we want to look like in 1 year, 2 years, or 5 years down the road.  This image will be consistent with God’s planned work of redemption in our current world.  A God-given Vision will be expressed in a single sentence or thought.  Vision statements that require a paragraph or more are nothing more than an idea for the next Dilbert© cartoon.
  3. Evaluate the Mission, the things that you do and cherish.  Measure the Mission BY the Vision.  Ask the toughest question:  “Are the things we do helping us become what the Vision says we need to become?”
  4. Get to know your community and world.  This means getting to know people, and not just the people you normally hang around with.  The way to know them is to do 2 things:  First and foremost, see them through the eyes of The Father.  Remove all human labels and categories.  Second, as you see them with the eyes of The Father, take the time to listen.
  5. As you do that previous point, go back to Point 1 and work your way back down the Spiritual Disciplines again.

Can you think of any other Sacred Pillars or Sculptured Stones?  Feel free to add the to the comments section below.

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