#4 Form Rather Than Substance

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(This is the seventh in a 10 part series.  Item Number 3 will be released tomorrow.  If you are just starting to read this series, you will need to start with Top 10 Things That Are Killing The Church! first, then #10: Choosing Religion Over Relationship;  #9 Ignoring That We Are In A War#8: Wrong priorities7: Cookie Cutter Attitude;   #6. Self Reliance; and finally read #5 Fear Of Change before reading this one)

In this exploration of those things that are among the most vile things that are destroying the western church, particularly in the U.S.A., I hope you have seen a common thread.  In each item there is a corresponding Scripture.  The passage is either an indictment against that attitude or it is a passage that shows the exact opposite and how the church needs to embody that positive trait in order to be faithful in and to the Kingdom of God. Any single one will diminish the impact a local congregation has on a community.

Coming in at a very strong #4 is one that has plagued the church since her inception.  It has rightly earned its place on this list.  It is Choosing Form Over Substance.  Look carefully at 2 Timothy 3:1-5 from the New Living Translation:

You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!

Hone in on verse 5:  “They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly.”  The King James Version puts it like this:  “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power .”  Unlike the other symptoms of a dying congregation, this particular one manifests itself in 2 diametrically opposed systems, and we need to look at both of them.

First, there is the form of traditionalism.  Now, do you go spouting off your mouth and revealing your ignorance by saying that I do not like traditions.  I know we live in a free country where you are free to act and speak as stupid as you so please, but don’t abuse this freedom.  I love rich traditions both in family and in the family of faith.  But I did not use the word “traditions”; I used the word traditionalism.

Traditionalism does not value the rich traditions because they elevate them to the status of idols by making them simply a means to create a faux self that they think looks good on the outside.  And they believe they can produce this themselves.  It is all about human effort.  You can look through that litany of things Paul writes about to Timothy and one thing becomes evidently clear.  They are promoters of Self.  Everything is about the external and nothing is about the internal.  They are more concern with their outward appearance than they are about their true inward being.  Seems like I recall Jesus having some tough and harsh things to say to, who were those really religious folks?  Oh, Pharisees!  I seem to recall something about them being low down snakes and something about looking like a cemetery on Decoration Sunday; really pretty on top but below they were nothing but dead bones.

Traditionalism is all about keeping up the appearance and it becomes a cheap substitute, much like when King Rehoboam replaced the gold shields that had been stolen with brass shields.  It keeps a person from dealing with the truth because many Tenured Pew Sitters simply cannot handle the truth.  Rather than looking for where God is at work and pursuing those things with Him, they are more concerned with going through the motions rather than being swept up by this fresh wind of the Holy Spirit.  This is one extreme.

The other extreme of this is where brokenness that comes from sinfulness is celebrated and worn as a badge of honor.  It’s like, the more brokenness you reveal and share, suddenly the more holy and Christ-like you become.  This idea of celebrating brokenness has gotten a bit out of control.  Yes God loves us where we are and as we are.  But God wants to do more.  He wants to bring about a complete transformation.  But instead, some seem to take pride in their brokenness by calling it, “the way God created me”.

There is a movement afoot that promotes that God is such pure love that just about anything is permissible, within their definition of reason of course.  In this group no one wants to embark on the journey to become who God created them to be.  But it seems that some want to celebrate how they feel rather than how God’s grace makes us whole and brings us back to our true self–the self HE created us to be.  They insist that it is God’s love and His love alone, without anything else happening, that makes them whole.

But notice that last line of Paul  They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly.”  The Gospel Jesus came to share and the Kingdom that His Gospel points to is the one that yes, loves us just as we are, but goes much further and even deeper.  It is about trusting His power to change the brokenness that truly exists in all of us into that intended design God has for us.  He wants to make us holy and this image of holy is to become exactly like Him.  It is not about self polishing or throwing away old ideas of what sin is and does to us.  It is about radical transformation that comes from His power working on the inside of us.

One of the founders of my Tribe was a fellow by the name of John Wesley.  He once wrote:

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I am seeing Wesley’s troubling concern coming true in my Tribe.  But not only in my Tribe, but in other Tribes as well.  We can be just as beautiful as a cemetery on Decoration Sunday but without the power of the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin and without His presence and power to help us overcome our sin, we will remain sinners–sinners that are lost without the Savior.  We become a form that has no substance.  Oh Lord, save us from ourselves!

#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

And We Are Keeping This Because?

Holding On To Spiritual Clutter

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Something amazing happened yesterday that absolutely surprised me and filled me with indescribable joy.  Some of the Worship Team came to remove the Chrismons from the tree in the sanctuary and to take down and put up all the decorations from the Advent Season.  Down the hallway from the sanctuary is a series of storage closets with those louvered bi-fold doors.  I had looked in them before and they were filled with a lot of stuff, I mean a LOT of STUFF.  Now here is what surprised me and created a sense of euphoric joy.

The Worship Team leader asked me if they could clean up those closets, remove what we did not need and then organize it.  Do you know what I did?  I made the sign of the Cross over them, ordained them to the task (if I had a bottle of anointing oil I would have anointed them with oil) and blessed them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost!  And they went to work sorting and determining what we actually use.  Among the many items was an old metal box that we determined that at one time was the heart of the church phone system.  There were a few coffee pots, some “made in China” bud vases covered in about 15 years of holy dust (it is a church you know), assorted sizes of nearly used-up candles, and a variety of items too numerous to list.

Some items were moved to a new storage location we call the dumpster.  Other items were moved to the stage in the fellowship hall, neatly arranged.  An announcement will be made for the next two Sundays inviting the folks to browse through those items to take home with them if they have any value to them, after which those items will be re-purposed at the local thrift store.  Then they organized and stored the items we actually need and use.  It was a beautiful sight to behold.  As a pastor, it was one of those moments when God affirms to you that your work in the Lord is not in vain.  But this morning it caused me to think.

How much spiritual clutter do we carry around with us that is either unnecessary or is no longer needed in our spiritual journey?  Right now I am thinking about my Old Testament professor at Birmingham Southern College, Dr. Wells, God rest his soul.  On top of his office desk were piles and piles of paper and in front of those piles was a sign I have never forgotten.  It said:  “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what’s the sign of an empty desk?”  I admit that most of the time my desk top is, well I won’t say cluttered, but I will say it’s “organized chaos”.  I do know where to look when I need something, well, some of the time.  And I am also realizing more frequently, that my “organized clutter desk top” is a sign that I am keeping spiritual clutter that needs to be gone.

Paul understood the tendency to hold on to things that were once thought to be important but no longer serve a useful purpose.  Look carefully at Philippians 3:2:-14  from The Message

2-6 Steer clear of the barking dogs, those religious busybodies, all bark and no bite. All they’re interested in is appearances—knife-happy circumcisers, I call them. The real believers are the ones the Spirit of God leads to work away at this ministry, filling the air with Christ’s praise as we do it. We couldn’t carry this off by our own efforts, and we know it—even though we can list what many might think are impressive credentials. You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book.

7-9 The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’srighteousness.

10-11 I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it.

12-14 I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.

Our life in Christ is a forward moving life.  I love the way The Message renders verse 14: I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”  But sometimes the Enemy tries to get us to hold on to some things that keep us from the onward movement with Jesus.  For some it is old guilt; for others it is old fears; and for many it is old failures.  The Enemy entraps them with all that “used to be” and lies to them by saying “that’s all there will be and it will always be that way.”

All of the trash and junk of sin was nailed to the Cross and onto Jesus.  He bore all of that guilt, fear and failures.  And because He carried it all the way to His grave God offers to set us free from all of it, I mean ALL of it.  He makes this offer as a pure gift, absolute grace: You no longer have to carry it around!  I am setting you free!”  God liberates us and then declares us righteous, right with Him by giving to us all of the righteousness that is Jesus.  It’s like trading in an old clunker of a car for a brand new car, a new car that has no payments to make because the price was paid in full for us.  Just accept God’s gift, plain a simple.

But then there’s that “other” clutter we carry around sometimes.  It’s like all that stuff stored in those closets.  At one time they were useful and beneficial, but they have served their purpose.  Something new and better has arrived on the scene.  But sometimes we long for the comfort of the old and familiar rather than the fresh and new of the Holy Spirit.  So like that old PBX system, we hold on to it just in case that new PBX system fails us.  What I’m trying to say is that sometimes the Enemy wants us to be more religious than righteous.  And to be religious means we hold onto the old ways simply because they are the old ways.  It can become like Paul warned young Timothy in 1 Timothy 3:5,

They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!

Please do not misunderstand me and say things about me that simply are not true.  I am not against the rich traditions of the Church.  They are priceless reminders of the faithfulness of God and God’s promises to guide us into a new future with Him.  But these rich traditions become spiritual clutter when they are no longer used as reminders of God’s faithful presence and His promises of a new future.  When Jesus was talking about the New Covenant and true Kingdom of God He compares it with new wine.  He summed up the New Covenant this way in Luke 5:38-39 and The Voice© puts it like this:

New demands new—new wine for new wineskins.  Anyway, those who’ve never tasted the new wine won’t know what they’re missing; they’ll always say, “The old wine is good enough for me!”

“The old is good enough for me and it should be good enough for you!”  Such are the words of those who have traded in their relationship with God for a religious attitude.  It is easy to hold on to the past as if it will be enough.  So we store it away and it collects dust.  Dust collectors serve no useful purpose.  I’m sure if there had been a committee there to decide what items were kept and what items were disposed by the Worship Team, some, if not most of those items would have been kept simply because “some day we might need them” or “we use to use them so keep them”.  I read somewhere that if you haven’t worn an item of clothing in 2 years you need to get rid of it because if it’s been 2 years since you wore it why do you think anything will change?

Have you ever watched one of those shows about “hoarders”?  It is both sickening and heartbreaking to see people surrounded by stuff that is stifling the life right out of them.  It is even sadder when people who have been touched and transformed by the grace of God hold on to the old stuff rather than embrace the new movement of the Holy Spirit.  I believe with all my heart that traditional means of worship is a powerful way to experience the presence and promises of God.  But if we do it just because we’ve always done it that way, well it is simply stored clutter.

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Not long after I had met our local Superintendent of Education he was sharing with me his dreams and vision for our local schools.  It was bold and daring, and much-needed.  He briefly lamented the fact that some were not seeing the vision.  It was at that point the Spirit prompted me to share with him this enduring truth.  I said, “Keith, do you know the 7 words of a dying church?  These 7 words will also fit into any organization, even schools.”  He asked me, “What are they?”  I replied:

“We’ve never done it that way before!”

The clutter simply is a way to hide from the movement of God through the Holy Spirit.  Is there spiritual clutter in your heart?  In your mind?  Things that are not helping you connect to the Presence and Promises of God?  If we cannot connect to the Presence and the Promises, then we will never connect to the Power.  Without the power we are just another religion, and Jesus did not die for another religion.

Love God with all your heart; love others the way God loves you; and make sure all the glory goes to Him!  Let’s pray:

Lord, I pray with all my heart Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.”  If I am a spiritual hoarder, help me see the clutter and especially help me allow YOU to take out whatever offends you.  Amen and Amen!

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