Pushing the “Easy” Button

3 03 2017

1st Sunday in Lent – Matthew 4:1-11

Let’s be honest, you and I live in a time and place that unleashes all of its resources for the sole purpose of persuading us to give in to our temptations.  But, it’s actually worse, we are told that the most healthy lifestyle choice we can make is to identify with our deepest temptations and to embrace them as the truest picture of who we really are.  We are told that the most unhealthy choice is to deny our temptations and wants.  In fact, if we publicly voice our opposition to these lifestyle choices, the social media powers will descend upon us like the very fury of hell (and here, I’m speaking literally).  Businesses have been destroyed, good paying positions taken away, friendships undone, reputations left in ashes from this demonic fury.

Ivan Kramskoy's 1872 Christ in the Wilderness

So, it ought to be a fearful thing that the one we call Lord and Savior is seen here so obviously standing against the temptations thrown at him.  And not only resisting, but coming out very much the winner.  But it is all too easy to go with the flow and think:  Wouldn’t we all be a lot better off simply giving in to some of our temptations, or at most, maybe very, VERY quietly resisting them in the privacy of our prayer closets?  Anything more public may make us look like intolerant holy religious people who are always mean and judgmental!


But I suspect that most of you want to beat back your temptations, at least most days, and wouldn’t mind having some help and assistance.  So, let’s look at how Jesus handled it.


Now first, Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus has been tempted in every way that you and I have ever been tempted (but did not give in!!).  So, what we see in the Gospel in Satan’s three temptations, only shows us some of what Jesus had to resist– although, perhaps these three were the most difficult ones he had to overcome. We also know from the Gospels (Matthew 16:23) that Jesus was also tempted by Satan to avoid the Way of the Cross– and he used Peter’s mouth to do the tempting.  So, I think we can safely assume that the ‘ole Serpent rarely let up on his attacks on Jesus, especially during his ministry years leading up to his crucifixion.  I’m sure you have all felt there are many times when you’ve yelled to heaven, “Can I just have a break for a while from all these constant, never-ending temptations!!”  I’ve done that, multiple times.


Second, look at what Satan is wanting Jesus to do– hit the EASY button!!  “Hey, Jesus, you are the Son of God, the 2nd person of the Trinity– so use your ‘God’ power and make yourself some bread from rocks, or make yourself look like a super-hero by jumping down from the high-point of the temple and landing safely on the street with thousands of onlookers–they’ll call you Messiah and make you king!  OR… skip the whole cross-thing by bowing before me (I mean, really, it doesn’t really mean anything does it?!  It’s surely just an empty gesture) and I’ll give you what you really want– to be the loving King of the world that everyone will adore.”

Ary Scheffer's The Temptation of Christ

Ary Scheffer’s The Temptation of Christ

Jesus knew he was taking the very, very hard road to save the world, and the Great Liar was trying to get him to cheat and take the easy road to accomplish his mission.  NOTE:  Jesus uses Holy Scripture, God’s Word to crush every temptation.  And guess what?  You have access to that same mighty weapon.  But do you take daily advantage of it?  Do you really know it well enough to use it effectively?  A weapon’s no good to you if you don’t know it well and practice with it constantly.


Third, Jesus accomplishes the Great Reversal.  Do you recall another time that the Deceiver, Satan, made a famous temptation and succeeded?  Yup, in the Garden, with our original parents, Adam & Eve.  He convinced them to distrust God, to take matters into their own hands, to become like God.  He got them to believe that God was holding out on them by forbidding them to eat from just one tree in the Garden.  Satan sowed seeds of doubt, and they fell for it and the rest of world history records the sad, tragic consequences of their decision.  One of the details we often miss is the in-action of the man, Adam.  Genesis 3:6 makes clear that Adam was “with her”, Eve, and yet he said and did nothing to defend his wife from the lies and deceits of the Serpent.  He could have told the Serpent to “shut up”, or even crushed the serpent to keep it from 071714_0240_TheTablethe2.jpgtalking any more. But he failed, utterly.  Note that Jesus undoes this most horrible of failures, by standing up to and defeating Satan’s lies and temptations.  Now, if Jesus has undone Adam’s failures, he has surely undone all of yours as well.  Paul calls Jesus the second Adam– giving us the ultimate and perfect “do-over.”


If you choose to buck the system, and break the pre-programmed code of our current cultural Matrix, and resist temptation, sin and selfishness and fight the Big Fat Liar of hell, you must needs know the dirty little secret that the Enemy of your soul does NOT want you to know:  The same Jesus who handed Satan his lunch in the desert two-thousand years ago is in you, with you, surrounding you.  You are never, ever alone when facing temptations of all kinds.  The mighty Warrior-King who has put-down and crushed every single temptation you have faced, are facing or will face is in you–your heart, mind, soul and body.  And he’s itching for a big win!


Will you say yes to Jesus so you can experience that victory?  That’s the only question you need to answer.


Items to remember– because there will be a test, every day of your life!!


  1. Jesus knows exactly what you are feeling and thinking when you are being tempted– he’s been there.  He is not shocked and surprised that certain things are a huge temptation to you.  He does not think less of you.  But he does offer hope!
  2. Satan plays dirty and will use your friends, (even Christian ones!051714_2225_ThingsAreNo1.jpg!) and family to tempt and discourage you.  Remember, he used Peter’s big mouth against Jesus.  You must always be on guard.
  3. Don’t hit the easy button and take the easy way out!  Man-up, Woman-up, and get your nose into Scripture often.  A true warrior sleeps with his sword, or bow & arrows, or fire-arm because he could be attacked at any time, day or night.  Do you see the Bible as that crucial in your life?
  4. Jesus has already undone your past failures.  Don’t live there for it is a life of defeat and misery.  Live only in the present, and recognize that the victorious Jesus is with you, right inside you.  Say yes to him, and no to evil and sin.   You can and you must– so many are depending on you!  Never stop fighting and never give up, because Jesus never gives up on you!

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.

Repetition & Beauty

3 01 2016

For two relatively short years my family and I lived less than a mile from the shores of Lake Erie.   Naturally, we greatly enjoyed spending time on the beaches nearby. We loved the sand, shallow waters, and smooth, black slate rock– not to mention the frozen waves in winter which formed large mounds we could climb. During the warmer days of summer, one of the favorite activities for my wife and kids was to carefuseaglasslly comb the beach for “sea glass”. I realize it’s a bit of misnomer given the fact that we were on the shores of a lake, not a sea. Nevertheless, the finds that were made was akin to finding sparkling gems of great price. Often very small, coming in a multitude of colors with smooth rounded edges, the sea glass embodied an amazing icon of redemption.


Broken, useless glass, which was formerly a useful vessel of some sort, cast into merciless, cold waves.   A tragedy to be sure, but not the end of the story. Those same waves that initially appeared so menacing become an instrument of transformation for the jagged glass. Waves plus time plus rocks and sand eventually round off the sharp edges of the discarded glass. And at the last the waves wash the glass ashore, now a glittering jewel to be discovered and treasured.


Please forgive me if I have lead you astray to believe that I am making an analogy between the elements that create sea glass and our redemption and Jesus’ work on our behalf. I’m not intending to make an overly simplistic and cheesy sermon illustration. What the sea glass gave me was yet another glimpse into a world where our heavenly Father seems utterly obsessed with making all things new and glorious. He has made sure that our encounters like this are plethora.


The one point I want to make is much more pedestrian and dull than the grand scope of human salvation. The broken glass cannot become rounded and beautiful without the repetitive pounding of the waves.


We live in a time and place that seems to despise repetition of any kind (except commercials, of course!). We are hopelessly addicted to the “new”. New versions of our favorite books, comic-books and movies (note the endless string of re-makes and re-boots!). New news, new tweets, new tech (like the latest i-phone), new kitchen and bath, new relationships— on and on it goes in an endless parade. Now, let me be clear. I am the chief of sinners in the cult of “new”. If I had my way, I’d live in a new-construction home and drive a new car wearing my new favorite shirt.   But it’s worse: in this I’m also a terrible hypocrite! I want everything to be new, except in worship at church where I want all things old. And part of my love for the old worship is that it is relentlessly repetitive like those cold Lake Erie waves.   And being a creature of great forgetfulness and many sharp, broken edges, I cannot overstate my desperate need for the steady, reliable repetition that the waves of the old liturgies provide.


Such repetition is not fun, entertaining, tweet-worthy, or in any way “new”. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, and a much needed antidote for our “new” obsessed land.


What I’m currently trying to figure out is how it is that the same churches who constantly labor to produce new and exciting elements in their worship services give me the feeling that it’s the same-ole, same-ole. While the “boring”, repetitive liturgies of the old days seem always fresh and rejuvenating to me. A mystery and a paradox to be sure, but there are explanations that I will not go into here. (But I will confess that I’m not sure how many more liturgically un-rooted and disjointed worship services I can endure– heaven help me!!)


Despite my digression, the point is that as disciples of Jesus repetition is indispensible and unavoidable if we are to be made nemarthamchurchstainedglasswindoww. The repeating of prayers, Scriptures and Sacrament will be irreplaceable elements in our redemption and renewal if we willing submit ourselves to them. Just like the broken glass in the waves of the sea.

O you afflicted one, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay your stones with colorful gems, And lay your foundations with sapphires. I will make your pinnacles of rubies, your gates of crystal, And all your walls of precious stones. (Isaiah 54:11-12)

Christians & Their Idols

26 01 2014

We can bear neither our vices nor their cure. — Livy

It is a difficult day and time to make disciples of Jesus the Messiah– especially in our churches. Entirely too many of our churches have bought into the beliefs and practices of the culture surrounding them. As a result, they look much like the Jerusalem in Solomon’s time: yes there is the Temple of the one, real God, but throughout the city are also temples and idols to a plethora of other “gods” and powers. Many of us Christians sitting in the pews of our sanctuaries (or the chairs of the auditoriums of our “worship centers”), do not have idols on our shelves, but we do have idols in our thinking and our doing. In other words, we (and I include myself in this) worship many of the same “gods” that our declining culture worships, but we haven’t yet awakened to the fact of it.

It’s odd that we don’t see the homage we pay to the deities of our time. For example, many of us would agree with Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s assessment that our culture

“…has already gone far down the road of abandoning the Judeo-Christian principles of the sanctity of life and the sacred covenant of marriage. Instead, it places its faith in a series of institutions, none of which can bear the weight of moral guidance: science, technology, the state, the market, and evolutionary biology. Science tells us what is, not what ought to be. Technology gives us power but cannot tell us how to use that power. The liberal democratic state, as a matter of principle, does not make moral judgments. The market gives us choices but does not tell us which choices to make. Evolutionary biology tells us why we have certain desires, but not which desires we should seek to satisfy and which not. (2013 Erasmus Lecture, FIRST THINGS, January, 2014)

And yet, how many of us bow at the altars of science, technology, government, consumerism, entertainment, and the rest? When someone is sick in your home, what is your first impulse? To pray or to reach for a bottle of pills? I am in NO way advocating that “true faith” avoids doctors and medicines– they are from God as well. I’m simply asking about our initial reaction? I can tell you mine: I wonder how many specialists will have to be seen, how many prescriptions; and I wonder if science will find a cure. I seem, mostly, only to come to prayer when the illness or condition appears to be beyond the reach of today’s science. Or how about the number of people you know who love Jesus and go to church but usually look to government to solve their problems and make life better? And how many Christians do you know who spend entirely too much time and money on the latest technology in order to have an optimal gaming or movie or sports watching experience (not to mention what we spend on phones & tablets!)?

We look, I look, to these idols and expect them to fill me. And when they don’t I get frustrated, angry and depressed. These false “gods” cannot answer the deepest questions of our souls or heal our debilitating wounds. And we seem to have a love-hate relationship with them. We say, “I know I spend too much time and money on X & Y, and I need to be a better Christian, but I don’t want to be one of those religious freaks who is always reading the Bible, going to church, fasting and helping those in need! That’s just too much!” And so we find that we can bear neither our vices nor their cure.

The bottom line is that we will not feel fully ourselves by any of the following: the latest exercise program, the newest tech, the most up-to-date medical science, great sales at the mall, the election of “our guy” as the new president, eating the latest “super-foods”, or our team winning the championship. Equally true, we will not be who we were meant to be simply by singing the newest worship song, buying the hottest Christian book on spiritual health, or finding a “dynamic” church and preacher.

If we would be cured and made whole, we will, as C.S. Lewis puts it, have to “go in for the full treatment” from Jesus. He cannot be just another “idol” on our life’s list of things we enjoy and look to for happiness and fulfillment. We must allow him to be King of the Mountain of our lives, with all other idols lying broken and in disarray at the bottom of that same mountain.

How we accomplish this is a matter for another time. But it begins with recognizing the false “gods” we worship (even if we worship them in church!) and seeing them for what they are: used car salesmen who bait us with polished greatness, and switch us to a money sucking lemon. For that is what the demons do– these false “gods”. They promise us the moon, and leave us naked in the dark. It may be time to seek out and submit ourselves wholly to the Light, the One who is real and whose promises are true.

I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.

— Jesus of Nazareth (John 8:12)

Shepherds & Thieves, Life & Death

13 05 2011

How is it that those in the entertainment media (movies, TV, internet, and print) continue to make money even though they keep re-telling the same stories over and over, again. In movies, we’re getting to the point of having re-makes of re-makes. It can surely seem that there is nothing new under the sun. But there is obviously something deeper going one here when the masses continue to pay money to experience plots and themes they’ve already heard and seen a thousand times over: good guys verses bad guys in the midst of a romance set in a perilous and dangerous environment. Critics scoff at such things while the cheese and wine crowd congratulate themselves for having more grown-up sensibilities. Still, why do we keep telling ourselves the same stories over and over again?

Simply put, these basic themes are written into the very DNA or our hearts, minds, souls, (and yes!) bodies. We all long to know love, to be rescued (and to rescue others), to see evil go down in defeat. AND, we all long to have a key role in the events taking place around us. That is why we continue to read and watch the same old stories, over and over again– they touch a deep and essential aspect of our being.

Now here is where I get frustrated: Why do so many Bible-believing Christians (especially scholars!) neglect to read Scripture with the eyes of their hearts? Hearts, by the way, that long for the themes of rescue, love and the defeat of evil to be true. For it is in God’s holy word we have the tremendous joy of finding out that these themes are actually, truly real. We have been putting them in stories that we have put forth as fiction, but in Jesus of Nazareth fiction becomes truth. Or as C.S. Lewis has it, in Christ myth becomes fact.

(In much of the preceding I owe a great debt to the ideas and writings of John Eldredge. See for example, his books: Epic, Waking the Dead, Wild at Heart.)

Let me take you to two passages, the famous 23rd Psalm and John 10, where we must be very careful to read with the eyes of our story-filled hearts.

The Lord is our shepherd– Jesus is the good shepherd. Beautiful isn’t it?! Quiet green meadows, babbling streams and glassy pools– a warm sun and puffy white clouds, and a loving, caring shepherd who makes sure we’re well fed. Wonderfully idyllic isn’t it? It is unfortunate that sometimes the Christian reader’s focus ends there and misses some important stuff. It’s almost like the reader has skipped to the last chapter in order to be comforted by the words, “And they lived happily ever after.” There are some extremely important things that must happen before one can arrive at the happy ending. And, there are certain elements we need to know if we’re going to truly appreciate the goodness being described in the happily ever after.

In the 23rd Psalm, in addition to soft grass and refreshing water, there is a mention of a dark valley, an unnamed evil and some enemies. Hmm. . .that changes the kind of story God is telling. Or, how about Jesus in John 10? Yes, he talks about a full and abundant life, but He also mentions thieves, wolves and something about stealing, killing and destroying!

My fellow Christian brethren and sistren, let’s cut to the chase: the land surrounding our pasture is not entirely safe, AND we have an enemy Hell-bent (yes, pun intended!) on our destruction! And yet . . .yet so many of us don’t live as if those things are true! I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that in the midst of a particularly bad day I act surprised! Or worse, I blame my Shepherd! One of the great treasures of the Bible is that we get the inside scoop on our life in this world and we SHOULD be completely un-surprised when bad things happen to good people. Not that we need to become indifferent and callous to suffering, but we can rejoice in its midst because we know how the story ends– the Shepherd totally thumps all the thieves and wolves and provides for our safety and all our nourishment.

Now we must ask how this future hope helps us every day, here and now, where our environment is not quite safe and there are enemies prowling about. The answer? Scripture is trying to tell us that the future is also now. What king David understood about his Lord is that the story began with Him and it will end with Him. That makes the middle part of the story where the going gets tough not only bearable but joy and life filled. See, that Great Shepherd is with us now, providing a good measure of that future victory, peace, love and joy now! Jesus tells us in John 10:10, He has come for the express purpose of bringing us this life, fully. And let me be clear that his not just talking about the sweet by-and-by of eternity in heaven. Our Good Shepherd didn’t come just to lead us up to heaven, but to bring heaven into us here and now.

Let’s look at the famous 23rd Psalm with the eyes of our hearts:

The Lord (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is my Shepherd, therefore, I have all I need! I’m stubborn, so He makes me rest, eat and drink so that my life can be restored. Because my Shepherd is good (and holy) He only ever takes me on good and right paths. I believe this even though some trails take us into valleys that are terrifyingly dark and foreboding. But, there is no reason for me to succumb to the fear of evil as long as I keep my focus on my Shepherd who is never far and who carries the tools that can rescue me and crush my enemies. Speaking of my enemies, sometimes I see them and sometimes they cause me pain. Nonetheless, I laugh heartily with true joy because my Shepherd is preparing a Table of Victory in front of their very noses– they see that their days are numbered! My enemies also see how at that Table my Shepherd-King anoints my head with His oil of blessing and favor. Imagine! Me, a lowly, smelly sheep being treated like the King’s own son! My enemies also see that not only does my King give me the wine-cup of His joy, but He also makes sure that it is never empty– what glorious, extravagant waste (like bringing out the best wine after everyone is already drunk– it is either utter foolishness or the trumpet blasts of joy unleashed!). Therefore, despite my worst days, I have no doubt that I am being chased every day by goodness, mercy and love; and that my home is not this broken world, but is the unending palace and green fields of my Shepherd-King!

Oh, Jesus our Good Shepherd, may You plant Your Kingdom reality deep in our hearts, minds, spirits and bodies that we might not be overcome by the wolves and dark valleys of this life; but rather advance the Realm of Joy within us and without us– all to Your glory and the glory of the Father and Holy Spirit, who live and reign with You Lord Christ, One God, now and forever, Amen!

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.”