Wanting the Impossible

12 02 2017

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”

(Matthew 5:21-22)

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany –  Deuteronomy 30:15-20;   Psalm 119:1-8;   Matthew 5:21-37


If you did not squirm in your seat, at least a little bit, when these words of Jesus were read, then you are either holy, on the level of Mother Teresa or have allowed yourself to be made numb by our post-modern age— where personal expression– whether in strong emotions, human sexuality or political action and speech, has arisen as the inviolable law of the land.  Indeed, any attempt to restrict personal expression and self-definition is met with a ferocity that would make the most ardent Nazi and Fascist slack-jawed with awe and admiration.  Make no mistake, if you were to share these words of Jesus with your unchurched co-workers, friends and neighbors, it would fall upon their ears as incomprehensible nonsense.  For they have drunk deeply from the wells of our day– a generation (or two or three) convinced that to be truly happy and fulfilled, one must surrender completely to the strong desires that well up within.  Even if that desire is to be a woman, despite being born a man, and vice versa.


So, can these crucial words of Jesus from his Sermon on the Mount be of any use in our day– so overthrown with self-worship, so awash with re-definitions of foundational and fundamental concepts– male-female, marriage, family, right-wrong, good-evil?


First, you and I must embrace these words as true and crucial for you and me.  I suspect that most of us immediately put these words of Jesus into the category of  the “thou shall not…” list of items to avoid.  However, this list adds the seeming impossibility to check, not only our outward actions (murder, adultery, etc),  but our inward motivations as well.  It is not unreasonable for us to respond, “Jesus, I MIGHT be able to avoid open murder, divorce and adultery, but you have established an unrealistic expectation when you insist that I keep my angry and lustful thoughts in check as well!”


It’s not unlike when the undeterred Yoda asks the petulant, immature Luke Skywalker to use the force to lift his X-wing out of the bog and place it on firm ground.  After Luke failed in his efforts, he angrily turns on Yoda and declares, “You want the impossible!”   Yoda then proceeds to accomplish what young Luke could not.  In exuberance, Luke shouts, “I don’t believe it!”  To which Yoda, with sad expression, says, “That is why you fail.”


The wise words of Jesus are much more than a moral check-list we need to tick-off on a daily basis.  Instead, they are words that cut to the very heart of our inner motivations– the secret movements of our thoughts.  They are words of great hope and good news– we do not have to be held captive by every selfish, angry, lustful, prideful thought!  These bonds are meant to be broken by the power of the risen Christ and the strong wind of the Holy Spirit.  The only question is, do you believe Jesus’ instructions to be true and achievable?


Second, the church as a whole must hold steadfast to these words as life itself and live them out visibly in community.  It seems most church leaders and preachers avoid teaching with authority on these words of Jesus– for a multitude of seemingly sensible reasons.  It’s too controversial, too hard, no one believes it possible anyway, too offensive to seekers, etc.  So we turn to other more socially acceptable topics– how to handle finances, grow our ministry, fill our churches, retain visitors, acclimate new folk to our particular church culture, etc.  But in our day and time, what could be more important than the difficult and messy work of helping one another to live out these hard instructions of Jesus?  Within our own churches, how many marriages, families, confused teens, shattered homes, dysfunctional neighborhoods could be made new  if the redeemed of the Lord were to visibly, and with joy, live out these words and lovingly help one another to do so?  We fear being viewed as legalists, prudes and “holier-than-thou” Christians.  And that fear prevents us from being a beacon of light, freedom and true, lasting joy.


Third, all believers in Christ must proclaim these  words, in speech and action,  as breath, life and true joy to a world under the dominion of merciless false gods.  In short, the church must be an Ark  in a flooded, tempest-tossed world.  The jetsam and flotsam of the ruined lives that surround us due to the false-god and false-promise that sexual free expression will bring happiness to life are reaching such overwhelming numbers that we should clearly see the “fields white unto harvest”.   In other words, the church is like the Avengers or the Justice League who look around and see a super-abundance of imperiled folk who need rescuing by super-natural powers.   But if we see fellow human beings caught up in sexual addiction, divorce or emotional dysfunction as just another “normal” member of society, then instead of a rescue effort, we will simply attempt to use marketing techniques to win them to our local church “club” so that our numbers may swell and budgets increase.


These words of Jesus should be a bucket of ice-water dumped on our heads, church.  Either because we need to cease and desist from being wrathful, lustful, selfish, promise-breaking people; or because in stead of offering life and freedom to the dying, enslaved folks around us, we have done little more that invite them to “club Christian”– where real, lasting, internal transformation is assiduously avoided because it is messy and unpredictable and may derail us from our vision and plans for our church.


Let us be careful to not get caught up in playing “church”– to confuse our agendas, visions, and hopes for the clarion call of the one true Gospel.


Let us choose life.  Let us offer life.  Glory to God— Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And blessed be His Kingdom, now and forever, and to the ages of ages.   Amen.


Spiritual in the Flesh

10 02 2017

If our view of heaven and the afterlife has become white-washed intangibility with clouds and harps and bodiless spirits, it is largely because we have stopped believing in the Sacraments.   —  C.S. Lewis, from “Transposition” in The Weight of Glory


It is rather frightening to watch how consistently Hollywood depicts Heaven and the after-life:  a bright light, sky and clouds, figures dressed in pure white togas.  The lack of creativity is stunning.  Because this vision of Heaven is so monochromatic and bland, Hollywood must make movies about other worlds, dimensions, and galaxies that display in digital HD the stunning beauty we all long and hope for.

Recently, upon watching Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story, I departed the theater haunted by Eden.  Why?  While the plot and heroics were mildly inspiring, I could not get over the painfully beautiful  planetary landscapes.  Now, I realize our own planet has breathtaking beauty, but for some reason we want to see and experience that beauty in an entirely different, even mythical context.  We long for the other-worldly– somehow innately sensing that this world is not our true and final home.  All of it’s beauty and adventure just leave us increasingly homesick.


So, why do I have to go to the movie theater to have this experience.  Shouldn’t I be having a glimpse of the other-worldly at church?  Sadly, no.  At least, not in the tradition in which I was raised.  My honest confession is that I am weary to the point of being angry to have to attend Sunday morning services in my current context (which is overall good and necessary).  Songs and a sermon (with announcements and a few VERY brief prayers and Scriptures).  My particular ecclesiastical tradition seems to be terribly allergic to the tactile and aesthetic .  We are fearful where that may lead, so we keep to purely “spiritual” practices in our worship– like songs and sermons.  I arrived at home after the morning service and attempted to watch the Divine Liturgy on YouTube just to have some taste of what I longed for (alas!  The quality of the video was poor, and I found I was a mere observer and no real participant!).

For you churches in this stream of the Christian tradition related to Worship practices, hear me:  I would rather watch a movie or drive into the mountains than sit through your worship services.  And if I, a committed believer raised in the church, have this opinion, how much more so do the unbelievers who sleep in on Sunday morning.  Good grief!  Even the early church suffering under heavy persecution took the time and effort to make beautiful mosaics that decorated the floors and walls of their worship spaces which tended to be in the large homes of the wealthy.

Would it really kill our churches to make our worship spaces beautiful, rather than merely utilitarian?!


There is a good deal of irony being in a Holiness tradition– our walls are all white (or the same colors as the local Starbucks), with no art-work to be found (except for the occasional banner with a bible verse), our pulpits and communion tables have been removed to make room for the praise band and casually dressed preacher, but in many cases we still have the “altar”, which is actually the altar rail, where communicants, once upon a forgotten time, would kneel to receive the consecrated elements of the Lord’s Supper.   All furniture our forebears used in worship have disappeared except for a piece that is not used as originally intended!

Holiness churches, if we really want to be more spiritual, we need to become more physical in our worship services.  Christians have always done so until the Anabaptists.  It is the natural human inclination across time and cultures.  But sadly, being more spiritual does not seem toholy-communion-cross-in-cup be the goal.  Rather the aim is to be more appealing to visitors and outsiders so that attendance averages and budgets increase.  I know our leaders voice the belief that all such efforts are a means to the end of saving souls– getting people to Heaven and away from the wide highways to Hell.  But in all our efforts to be relevant and cool, we’ve forgotten the body of Christ who have been assembling with us all these years, and how they and we need the vision of Heaven constantly and consistently renewed before our five senses.   Maybe, just maybe, with the bright beauty of Eternity shinning out clear and true from our eyes, hearts and mouths we would all be more effective evangelists, a hundred-fold.  Then such scheming, marketing and contemporizing would not seem so necessary and we can return worship to the center and heart of Christian life as much more than a tool to attract and keep the new and hip.

The Point of It All

21 04 2012

Quoting C.S. Lewis IS a most unyielding addiction! I cannot resist this lengthy quote since it deals with the heart, the living-center, of the purpose of the incarnation AND the Church. God did not create us for an eternity sub-human existence, torment or oblivion. We were made for a never-ending existence filled with the very life of the Trinity with us becoming ever more and more like God– especially Christ. As the Beloved Apostle declares it: “We are God’s children now [because of the work of THE Son of God], and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him….” (1 John 3:2).

Let these words challenge you and your church. Are you living a mere religious life, or a surrendered and transformed one? Is your church doing lots of stuff and programs that seem Godly, but failing to make disciples that, in a substantive way, look like Christ? Or is your church careful to align all its doings and programs with the goal of making little Christs? These questions must be wrestled with and answered honestly: What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be the Church?

And now, here’s C.S. Lewis saying it much better than I can (from Mere Christianity, Book IV, chp. 8, “Is Christianity Hard or Easy?”):

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self–all your wishes and precautions–to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good.” We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way–centered on money or pleasure or ambition–and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.

That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through. He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When he said, “Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder–in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

May I come back to what I said before? This is the whole of Christianity. There is nothing else. It is so easy to get muddled about that. It is easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects–education, building, missions, holding services. Just as it is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects–military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden–that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.

(One thing to note is that the inner being of the purpose of Christ and the Church is to glorify the Father, but the way that is manifested is to do the work the Father is most interested in: the rescue, redemption, and metamorphosis of those created in His image; and secondly, the redemption of the whole created order which we have allowed to come under the dominion of the Evil One. I think Lewis does not here discuss the overriding purpose to glorify God because he takes it as a given.)

Christ the Wrath Bearer?

27 02 2011

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14-15, ESV)

No doubt we have all heard the following in sayings or songs: “Christ died for me.” “Jesus paid the penalty for my sins.” “He took my place on the cross.” The question is, what do they actually mean? Did Jesus really take a divine hit that I deserved? It is my purpose here to make the case that this is NOT what happened on the cross. In other words, it does not seem correct to say that the Atonement achieved by Christ’s death was about Him receiving, on our behalf, God’s righteous wrath.

Now, of course, the idea that the Messiah is getting a punishment from God that we deserve seems to be an obviously Scriptural notion. For example note: Isaiah 53:4-5, “Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.” OR Romans 5:9 “…having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.” (Note what Paul is saying before and after this, however.) OR Ephesians 2:3 where Paul refers to us as “children of wrath.” (It is important to read on to the next two verses where Paul states: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ”).

The bulk of the New Testament verses on God’s wrath seem to be referring to God’s wrath at the end of time or the Great Judgment and are not connected with the Atonement (to see this, have your Bible program pull up all the verses with “wrath” in them from the New Testament).

So, read me very carefully, I am NOT attempting to deny the existence of God’s righteous wrath or that He deploys it now and again. But I am pleading that we who are the inheritors of a Western, Medieval interpretation of Scripture seek to place the emphasis of the Atonement on a syllable other than Divine punishment. This emphasis has been so overwhelming that it wasn’t until I was in seminary and was reading Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Faith that I encountered for the first time how Jesus had defeated Satan, Sin, and Death by his death and resurrection. I am thankful that I learned this seminal truth of the Gospel before I began preaching every week, but it is sad commentary on the preaching and teaching I had been sitting under for the previous twenty-four years! I’m sure such I ideas were mentioned– but that was precisely the problem, they were never more than mentioned. All the while the Evangelical mantra: “Jesus took our place on the cross and died for our sins so we could go to heaven” was relentlessly propounded.

That Evangelical message may have played well for a certain stretch in our history– a stretch where many grew up with some level of understanding of human sin and Divine judgment, etc. But take note: that message now falls on ears who find them utterly irrelevant. The good news is that we don’t need to change or water-down the Gospel in order to connect with and persuade the post-modernists in our midst. We just need to reclaim a more ancient emphasis. One that tells the story of Satan’s domination over the human race through the power of death (a domination that we have freely chosen, by the way). A story that includes a daring rescue borne of an undying Divine love. A story whose ending is certain, but in which our place in it depends on our choices– shall I choose the darkness or the Light, death or Life, captivity or Liberty?

Once again, in order to bring light to this discussion, I’d like to present the instruction of Athanasius concerning the Atonement, from paragraph 20 of his On the Incarnation:

We have dealt as far as circumstance and our own understanding permit with the reason for His bodily manifestation. We have seen that to change the corruptible to incorruption was proper to none other than the Savior Himself, Who in the beginning made all things out of nothing; that only the Image of the Father could re-create the likeness of the Image in men, that none save our Lord Jesus Christ could give to mortals immortality, and that only the Word Who orders all things and is alone the Father’s true and sole-begotten Son could teach men about Him and abolish the worship of idols.

But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrected. . . .

The Body of the Word, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished. Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid. Wherefore, the Word, as I said, being Himself incapable of death, assumed a mortal body, that He might offer it as His own in place of all, and suffering for the sake of all through His union with it, “might bring to naught him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might deliver them who all their lifetime were enslaved by the fear of death.” (Heb. 2:14ff)

Again, nowhere does Athanasius bring into the discussion the need to deal with the righteous wrath of God. Yes, Jesus took our place on the cross. BUT he did it to pay the death-debt incurred in Eden, and NOT to deflect or absorb the fiery flames of God’s righteous anger. To some, this may seem like a nuance with which we should not occupy our time. But I would strongly argue that this distinction is crucial if we are going to walk steadily in the Father’s holy love– something we will struggle to do if we have misconceptions of Him. And certainly the Enemy of our souls seeks largely to convince us of wrong pictures and narratives of the Father.

Do you hear the difference between Athanasius’ narrative (which I believe to be the Biblical one), and the narrative borne out of Medieval Europe? In the first one, we have a loving and holy Father-Creator who allowed Adam and Eve to freely embrace or reject Him; and when they chose wrongly He allowed them to suffer the natural consequences– the biggest one being death. He did not, however, abandon them utterly to this curse. The story of the Old Testament is the painful tale of God’s unrelenting love and grace offered again and again to those whom He had created (which was, again and again, rejected!). Yes, God did have entire populations of men, women and children put to death. But I would argue that these rare acts of wrathful judgment are equally acts of mercy and grace, for the Lord cut short the years of horrendous evil that these populations where perpetrating upon one another and those around them. In those cities, God lovingly brought to an end murder, rape, child abuse, torture, child sacrifice, and worse! Our Creator-God could have allowed us to continue on indefinitely under the curse of death– we certainly deserved it. Instead, in the fullness of time, He sent His eternal Son to take on our human flesh in order that He could fulfill and put to an end the punishment of death.

In the second narrative (the false one), we seem to have a heavenly Father who is continually building up a righteous wrath that will one day be unleashed upon humanity– unless He sends His one and only Son and then lets loose upon Him instead. Here, Jesus had to save us from His Father, our Creator, instead of from Satan and death. Here, we have a God whose wrath must be appeased. (This is never the case even in the Old Testament, where we routinely see Yahweh relenting, or “repenting” as the King James has it, from his intentions to send forth His judgment– as with Nineveh, for example). Here is a God whom I will always fear in an unhealthy way, and whom I will strive to please out of that fear rather than out of love and adoration. Here is a heavenly Father that I will likely come to loath. As a consequence the joy, peace, and abundant life that Jesus promises will always be far from me– all because I believed a lie.

Personally, I have, in fact, believed a similar lie. I struggle continually to be free of the false narrative which describes God my Father as a harsh task-master, to whom I had best be grateful for even the smallest crumb from the meager store of blessings that He only sparingly dispenses. He must be harsh, for my good, you understand. Otherwise I may become soft and spoiled and incapable of growing up to maturity. This is NOT the Father Jesus depicts in the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is NOT the Father of Jesus who eagerly awaits to pardon, restore, and reward those children who turn in His direction.

It is no longer a theological curiosity for me– this business of the Atonement and what Jesus was doing on the cross. I MUST reject, as false, the idea and narrative of a wrath-full, heavenly Father who will have his vengeance doled out– either upon His eternal Son or us! This is a lie of Satan’s liking. God did not send Jesus to save us from Himself! He sent Jesus to save us from the dark clutches of the Enemy of our souls who owned us because of our sin and rebellion. May the light of Christ, who willingly gave himself up to death to set us free from death, shine brightly upon our false pictures of the Father so that we can all know the freedom and joy of loving the One, true God and Father of all.

What is a Healthy Church?

31 01 2011

(What follows is my response to the question, What are and are not the marks of a healthy church? The question was posed by the leader of the Asbury Wesleyan Community at Asbury Seminary. Therefore, some of the comments are specific to the Wesleyan Church.)


Since what follows is a little long, I offer this bullet point summary (but I hope all will read on!)


  • A church’s health is not defined by its programs and ministries but by it’s identity as Christ’s continuing presence in the world.

  • What the church DOES should flow naturally from who she IS.
  • The church does what Jesus did– advance God’s Kingdom through the restoration of people and things to the way they were meant to be.
  • The church is in danger of creating a community of worldly “Christians” if it has an outward focus and simultaneously fails to fully and intentionally disciple those who are already attending.
  • Too many churches use the standards of the secular business world in establishing their goals and defining “success” (for example: numerical growth and program growth).
  • I am deeply concerned about the Wesleyan church and other kindred denominations. I fear that in our deep passion to evangelize we are failing to make disciples and failing to train our church members in the ways of Jesus. By heritage, we are a “holiness” denomination– but where and how are we training people in the way of holiness?  (To be frank, within the next generation, I fear we will be in the same boat as the “liberal” churches around us are today.)
  • It’s time to stop letting the world around us define the church and her activities, AND to get serious about discipleship, spiritual disciplines, and worship.
  • 1Peter 2:9-12 is a good passage describing what the church IS and what flows from that. Acts 2:42-47 is a helpful picture of what a healthy church looks like.
  • Join me in the discussion on my blog: https://rcwollan.wordpress.com/ (esp. my recent post “Evangelism vs. Discipleship?” and the comments by Dallas Willard that I posted there.

    What is the Church?

    A healthy church is a church that is being and doing what Christ intended it to be and do. So, to begin with, we need a basic definition: The church is the redeemed people of God in Christ who, empowered by God’s Spirit, are the continuing presence of Jesus in the world.

    If this is a solid definition, then we will have to have a firm grasp about what Jesus did that the church is supposed to continue doing. (As John Eldredge has stated, Christ’s story is meant to be our story.) In His person Jesus ushered in God’s Kingdom. The Incarnation was an invasion of the Kingdom of Light into the kingdom of darkness. We see glimpses of God’s Kingdom or God’s Rule, in Jesus’ teaching and miracles. Both His miracles and His teachings let us know how things will be under the Father’s rule– the broken people and things of this world will be restored to what they were meant to be. This restoration is seen most clearly in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension through which He overthrows the rule of Satan, sin and death. Jesus makes all things new, including and especially, me and you.

    What the Church Does

    Therefore, the church as Jesus’ continuing presence in the world, does much more than just preach and extend altar calls. The church not only proclaims the good news of the Kingdom– the church must also embody the Kingdom, just like Jesus did. This means that the church will look significantly different than the world around her. The church will not only teach the truth of Scripture, but will train her members to be power-filled disciples of Jesus. These disciples will be transformed people for whom sin and addiction no longer have the final word. Because “the Kingdom of God is at hand”, there is freedom from sin and addiction and healing for the deep wounds we all carry. This freedom enables disciples to love others as Christ loved them. These disciples intentionally use time-tested and proven spiritual disciplines to draw closer to Christ and to be more and more changed into His likeness (the old term for this is “holiness”). Also, being the continuing presence of Jesus in the world means that miracles are not a foreign and strange occurrence within the church. Miracles are signs of the Kingdom and the restoration of things as they were meant to be. It also means that worship is Christ-centered as we bow before Him in adoration and as we re-tell and re-appropriate all that He has accomplished for us and the world. Local churches are supposed to be outposts of the Kingdom of God in the midst of a dark and hostile world dominated by sin and death. For those on the outside who are seeking life and freedom the church should be a refuge– a community they have been longing to be a part of.

    Bottom line: If the church is being Jesus to one another and advancing the Kingdom within themselves and into the darkness around them, all while praising and glorifying the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the church is healthy and functioning as the Lord intended.

    Outward vs. Inward Focus

    Ok, now for the controversial part: In light of what the church IS, it is a mistake to strive to make the church outward focused. Many church leaders believe that their main task is to shift the focus of their local church from inward to outward. This is the wrong strategy. If the people in your church are immature and riddled with worldliness, any new people coming in will never grow past the maturity level of the people who were already there. The most effective way to evangelize the communities around us is to intentionally disciple the people who are already in our churches in the way Christ. If these people are truly transformed they will naturally take God’s Kingdom with them to their homes, communities, and work-places. This is far superior to manufactured, market-driven “outreach” programs (perhaps not in terms of sheer numbers, but most certainly in the quality of disciples formed). Failing to make solid disciples while also bringing unbelievers into our churches is to guarantee that our churches will soon look little different from the broken world around us.  To do this is to remove the hope of the lost that Jesus meant His people to be for the world.

    I understand the negatives of an inward focused church where all effort and energy is spent in order to maintain the status quo. But an inwardness that is focused on making disciples of the people already attending is an appropriate and necessary “inward” focus. Personally, I find the “outward” vs. “inward” distinction a poor vehicle for discussing local church dynamics. It is, frankly, a false dichotomy. Simple logic dictates that a healthy church must be BOTH inward AND outward in focus. I would prefer an entirely different paradigm and I would like to propose my own cheesy, but memorable, line: The church should be neither inwardly nor outwardly focused, but upwardly focused. Our focus should be the Triune God we love, worship and obey. If our focus is anywhere else we have become a purely human institution, regardless of what verbiage we use or activities we participate in.

    Defining Success

    Last summer my family and I got to experience the candidating process of the Wesleyan church. As we interviewed and visited several churches I discovered a disturbing theme. Almost without exception, church boards defined a successful, healthy church as one that is growing numerically and is able to offer dynamic youth and children’s programs. I confess this made me angry and depressed. Nowhere in the New Testament do I find such notions of what a healthy or successful church is and does.

    In Acts 2:42-47 we find the first church stubbornly devoted to Scriptural teaching, being a sacrificially loving community, prayer, and sacramental worship. The church in Acts was marked by miracles (“signs & wonders”) and by disciples of Jesus who were filled with joy and praise. It was from this fertile environment that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved”. Our energies should be spent on being the church and from that God will have a healthy community into which he can place seekers and new believers. Currently, many churches spend entirely too much time and money in their attempts to attract outsiders. These efforts often lead to trying to make our churches look more like the culture around us in order to attract folks from that culture. And then what? We hit them with the Gospel and a lifestyle that is very much counter-cultural? In the business world that is called “bait and switch”. More often than not, we water down the gospel and lower the standards so that the newcomers don’t quickly turn around and leave our churches.

    If the goal is simply to get people in the door so that they can hear the Gospel, then why not offer “free beer Sundays”?! Lots of people will come and we can have a chance to get them saved! Things like high-tech media and praise band worship are fine if they are oriented toward facilitating the maturing of church members. If they are used primarily as a means of attracting seekers or reaching the next generation, then it is a misguided exercise. Such things are out of tune with who the church is. Notice that Jesus attracted the crowds because he was doing things that were consistent with his identity as God’s Son. While He ate with sinners he did not try look and act like sinners so that they would like him and accept his message. Often Jesus and his message were rejected– why are we so surprised when people reject us or refuse to come to our churches? We automatically assume that we’re doing something wrong if our churches are not growing numerically. No doubt, we are doing many things wrong! But no one ever seems to ask, “What if people aren’t coming in droves because they are offended by the full and true Gospel?” On the flip side, why is it that no one ever asks, as Augustine did, “Why are so many new people coming to our church? Have we softened the Gospel so that people will like us?”

    Defining Salvation

    Contrary to our revivalist heritage, getting someone “saved” involves much more than a repeated prayer at an altar call. Salvation is more than a contractual agreement because it involves a relationship, not a business venture. God’s goal is not bigger churches, better programs and more effective outreach. His goal is to bring us back to Himself where we can thrive as the sons and daughters He meant for us to be before we capitulated to the Enemy. We are not mere tools in His hands for the purpose of growing His Kingdom. He does not evaluate our worth based how well we have “produced” for “the team”. We are His children. Our service to Him must flow from our love for Him and not from a need to feel valuable or to win the approval of denominational leaders or even the approval of God Himself. He makes a daring rescue of us from Satan, sin and death; He redeems us and makes us new; He heals our many heart-wounds and trains us in the ways of the Kingdom. He does all of this because He delights in us, not because He needs more hands to work His Kingdom-farm! Salvation is NOT getting our sins forgiven so we can squeak into heaven when we die. Salvation is a journey from being God’s enemy to being united to Him in unfathomable intimacy– where we can know unlimited joy, love, strength, and freedom.

    Defining Health and Success

    In the Wesleyan church, in far too many instances, we have allowed and even encouraged the world, specifically the business world, to tell us how to run our churches. By so doing our understanding of what the church IS has been redefined. Currently, we seem to believe that the church is primarily an evangelistic machine that is failing in its purpose if we do not have a certain percentage of growth. But the church is not a tool in God’s hand, we are His Bride! Is a successful marriage defined solely by the number of children produced and the quality of activities participated in? Obviously a marriage produces some children and does certain things, but that is not the same thing as what a marriage or family IS!!

    My somber, prophetic warning is that unless we soon turn from these worldly strivings, we will very quickly be little different from those denominations that we now criticize for their apostasy and biblical infidelity. In our evangelistic fervor, we have capitulated to the unredeemed world around us so that we can hope to attract them into our churches. We have become the world to win the world. This is folly and it is dangerous. Simply being the church as Christ intended will be attractive enough to those who are truly hungry and seeking. We can no longer afford to allow the world to define what a healthy and successful church looks like. Let’s turn to Jesus and the pages of the New Testament instead.

Evangelism vs. Discipleship?

21 01 2011

Too many of our churches have put the cart of evangelism in front of the horse of discipleship— and have done it for far too long now. The horse has run away and the cart remains unmoved full of rotting fruit! We can be sure that the evil forces of the spiritual realm and our society will continue to gain ground and come to dominance as our churches continue to seek cultural acceptance and “success” at the expense genuine discipleship.


Conservative, Evangelical churches take pride in being guardians of the truth of the Gospel and the Scriptures– the doctrine is right for getting people saved. This is contrasted with liberal, main-line churches who have jettisoned the Gospel for political and social gospels. It must be asked, however, are we “true believers” any better off than the liberals in forming our members into the likeness of Christ? If not, then what use has our doctrinal fastidiousness served us?! Now, granted, good discipleship must spring out of good and true theological, biblical soil. But why should we take pride in believing the “right” things if the people in our churches live and act little differently than Joe and Jane Pagan (or Harry and Hannah Heretic)?

What to do? It starts with me. If the Lord should see fit to make me a pastor again, I will, by His powerful grace, BE a disciple, lead my family into being disciples, and guide the people God gives me into the Kingdom-joy of being and making disciples of Jesus Christ. So be it!


Below I have an extended quote from Dallas Willard that spurred my passion and thoughts on the topic of discipleship. Also, you can click here Discipleship: For Super-Christians Only? to read a great article also by Willard (and even though it is 30 years old, it remains relevant– indeed I believe its relevancy is even more potent now!).


Willard is here making the case at the end of this chapter that if we would see real and godly improvement in our communities and in our nation the church and her ministers must do a much better work in discipleship (from: The Spirit of the Disciplines, chp. 11 “The Disciplines and the Power Structures of this World” Pgs. 246-47).



“The people of Christ have never lacked for available power to accomplish the task set for them by their Master. But they have failed to make disciples in the New Testament sense of the term. And naturally following upon this they have failed even to intend to teach people to do all that Christ would have us do. Certainly this was, more often than not, because they thought it impossible. But in any case they have failed to seek his power to the end he specified, and they have not developed the character needed to bear his power safely throughout the social order, or even within the church itself.”


“At this point in history, every leader among those who identify with Christ as Lord must ask himself or herself: ‘How can I justify not leading my people into the practice of disciplines for the spiritual life that would enable them to reign in their lives by Christ Jesus? How can I fail to give them this opportunity? How can I justify not giving myself to those practices until I am a spiritual powerhouse, the angels of God evidently ascending and descending upon me in my place?'”


“Ministers pay far too much attention to people who do not come to services. Those people should, generally, be given exactly that disregard by the pastor that they give to Christ. The Christian leader has something much more important to do than pursue the godless. The leader’s task is to equip saints until they are like Christ (Eph. 4:12), and history and the God of history waits for him to do this job. [I would add here that if the pastor/church leader really loves the lost and wants to employ the most effective means of evangelizing them, he or she should first make disciples of the folk already attending because they will stand an infinitely better chance of “winning” the lost of the community than the pastor/leader ever will! The best and greatest hope for the “un-churched” around us is a Christian community who effectively disciples its members!]

It is so easy for the leader today to get caught up in illusory goals, pursuing the marks of success [which I have are found are typically reduced to: a church with increasing numbers of attenders accompanied by “dynamic” children’s and youth ministries– if a church has these marks it is generally considered to be “successful”] which come from our training as Christian leaders or which are simply imposed by the world. It is big, Big, always BIG, and BIGGER STILL! That is the contemporary imperative. Thus we fail to take seriously the nurture and training of those, however few, who stand constantly by us.”


“Everyone who has a pastoral role to others, whether as an official minister or not, must strive for a specific understanding of what is happening to those who come regularly under his or her influence and must pay individual attention to their development. This is the absolutely sure way to ‘win the world’ (John 17:21-23).”


“There is a special evangelistic work to be done, of course, and there are special callings to it. But if those in the churches really are enjoying fullness of life, evangelism will be unstoppable and largely automatic. The local assembly, for its part, can then become an academy where people throng from the surrounding community to learn how to live. It will be a school of life (for a disciple is but a pupil, a student) where all aspects of that life seen in the New Testament records are practiced and mastered under those who have themselves mastered them through practice. Only by taking this as our immediate goal can we intend to carry out the Great Commission.”

Communion in 3-D

1 08 2010

I offer here some quotes and reflections from J. Ernest Rattenbury’s study, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley (Akron, OH: OSL Publications, 3rd American Edition, 2006)  [This work was originally published in the mid 1900’s]

“The antithesis [that many mistakenly place] between social and personal Christianity, neither of which is really exclusive to the other, is nearly as absurd as that between Sacramentalism and Evangelism; both antitheses unfortunately mislead many people.” (pg. 135)

Rattenbury spends the first couple of chapters describing how the Wesleyan revival in 18th Century England often took the form of overcrowded Communion services!!  Our own American revivals of the 19th Century often brought sinners to the “altar” (which is actually the altar rail, the real altar being the Communion Table) but rarely resulted in brining them regularly to the Table.  Few things raise my ire more than to hear pastors and worship leaders speak disparagingly about celebrating the Lord’s Supper too often for fear of alienating the “seeker”, who would apparently be offended, frightened or irreparably confused by such an arcane ritual.  On such matters I’m little interested in being diplomatic.

Such pastors and leaders are simply wrong and misguided, while Rattenbury is right when he states: “And even today [in mid 20th Century], when in many Protestant churches the Atonement is a subject of which nothing is ever heard, and the pulpit is often confined at its best to the preaching of Christian ethics, there never can be a Communion Service, whether simple or elaborate, which does not show forth the death of our Lord till He come.  So long as a single Eucharist remains, the fundamental truth of the Gospel is declared.” (pg. 118)  I question the sanity of those who claim heart rending concern for the lost and unchruched while simultaneously exhibiting a nonchalant attitude for the dust gathering on the Communion Table, now hidden behind the drum set and the glare of the giant screens.

Rattenbury, in exploring Wesely’s Communion hymns, also reminds us that we cannot escape the issue of sacrifice (chp. 7).  First, there is Christ’s unrepeatable and impossible to duplicate act on the cross which the bread and wine help us to recall and enable us to re-present.  But second, there is the reminder that the Church, Christ’s followers, are the Body of Christ, who are called, for the sake of the world, to suffer and die with Christ, by offering up ourselves as living sacrifices in loving service to God and others.  Perhaps this second aspect of sacrifice is one reason the Table is too easily neglected and forgotten—we do not like to be reminded that to follow Christ is to take up the cross and walk the Via Delarosa.  Rattenbury graphically states, “The Church can do nothing apart from Christ and out of union with Him.  In reality, apart from Christ it would only be a decapitated corpse, not a body. When not only in ideal but in practice she is one with Christ, she shares alike His suffering and His glory.  Such a realization and implementation of the oneness of the Church with Christ would be indeed a manifestation of the sons of God for which the whole creation waits.” (pg. 128)

Please allow me one other short quote before offering Rattenbury’s brilliant summary of the significances of Holy Communion.  The Lord’s supper points to our need for union with Christ and union with each other.  He states, “Our life in Christ can only be His life in us, which can only be ours by perfect trust in Him.” (pg. 133)

Now, here is Rattenbury’s golden summary of his study on Wesely’s Eucharistic hymns and the multivalent nature of Communion:

“The Lord’s Supper, though primarily a memorial of the crucifixion of Jesus – of Christ crucified – is much more; by means of it the risen and ascended Christ is called to mind, the Victim-Priest in heaven, whose death is ‘ever new’ and always availing for sinful men.  Though ascended to heaven, He is present in His Church, because his ascension does not localize Him.  Heaven is just behind the Veil.  The Elements, the tokens of His dying Love, are the organs which the ever-present Christ uses to feed and refresh His people.  Not only is He really present at the Supper, but heaven come with Him, and His people find their joyful experience heaven on earth and taste of the fullness that is to be.  Furthermore, the bread and wine are the offering on earth of the tokens of the eternal sacrifice in heaven and correspond with that sacrifice, echoing as it were below, the plea made to the Father by the Priest-Victim, the Lamb of God who is also the Shepherd of the Sheep, who ever liveth to make intercession for us.

“But the symbolic offering of Christ is not the whole sacrifice of the Church, which is a real oblation of itself, that is, of the body of Christ, for His body are we.  The sacrifice is corporate, made by the collective body of believers who are priests of God, who altogether offer both symbolically and really the body of Christ to God.  The collective body is not a machine of regulated parts, but a congregation of people, each with his own individuality, although in relation to the body, members of it, bound together not by organization and hierarchy, but by the spirit of love, which is the Spirit of Jesus.” (pg. 139)

The next time you approach the Table (or pass and partake of the bread and juice in your seat) ask the Holy Spirit to help you see beyond the two-dimensional, “I remember that Jesus died for me”, to the three-dimensional, living color glimpse and taste of all that Christ has done, is doing, and will do AND our union in Him!  Try chewing on that this Sunday.

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore, let us keep the Feast.  Hallelujah!!