Monday, May 25, 2015

Hiding Behind Closed Curtains

14 “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15 “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. 16 “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17 “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. 18 “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. – John 17:14–18 (NASB95)
Many Christians observe the world from behind closed curtains, bemoaning culture instead of engaging it. Many local churches are isolated from the wider community and world … suffering from fear of an open public square with divergent viewpoints and lifestyles. – Krish Kandiah, "An Explosion of Joy," Christianity Today (June 2014)
For much of my lifetime, I have endured a theology of the church that has caused a great deal of struggle on my part. The struggle has nothing to do with doubting, lack of faith, or any form of unbelief. The struggle has been how I see the church and her purpose in the world and what I’ve heard from so many well-intentioned Christian leaders. I thought they were wrong for years. I still think they are wrong. Bear with me as I try to explain.

Many of us labor under the mistaken idea that the church should be withdrawn from the world. It has caused us to hide in our church houses and reject the idea that we should engage the world around us. We have become isolationists. We frown on all but a very few connections with the community at large. We refuse to participate with others around us, even though they might be doing a great deal of good for others. We don’t want to associate ourselves with anything, or anyone because we fear it will somehow taint the purity of the church and cause us to compromise our beliefs.

Today’s church is often a secluded little bunch of hardheads who pride themselves on being “gooder” and “righter” than others, all while ignoring the fact that many others are shaming us by reaching out to a lost world, preaching a gospel that we refuse to take anywhere outside our building, caring for people in countless ways while we do little but talk about all the ways we disagree with their doctrines.

We talk a good game. We play a poor one.

Our members have forgotten old-fashioned doctrines like the priesthood of all believers. Newly-minted theological terms like “missional” are laid out as if the idea that the church ought to live in the world as a missional society is something new. It’s not. It’s a very old concept, it just got laid on a back burner somewhere along the way and now there is a new generation of church leaders who have never seen the church live this way. That’s sad!

We’ve become the church that is proud to possess the truth, but we’ve decided to keep it to ourselves instead of sharing it with anybody.

We let the hurting, miserable people around us suffer without hope, doing little to relieve them with the good news of God’s kingdom.

We often quote the verses that tell us that faith without works is dead, but refuse to practice the works that would prove our faith to be alive and vibrant.

We’ve become self-centered, selfish, and hard to satisfy. Instead of focusing on life-changing, world-changing activities, we fuss and fume over silliness.

We’ve become addicted to ritual, ceremony, and tradition while denying that we have any of them.

We’re slowly dying, retreating further into our cave, and with ever step of retreat we erect another barrier to the world around us.

Jesus did not call us to such a life. He prayed that the Father would not take his people out of the world. He said we are not “of” the world, but we must live “in” the world. The world needs the church that we are supposed to be, but it will never get it while we are hiding behind closed curtains.

Two Secrets To Growing A Church

9 ‘Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’ Matthew 22:9 (NASB95)
     Our family was entertaining new acquaintances for dinner. Before they arrived we told our three-year-old, Reggie, to be on his best behavior. When he questioned us, we explained, "We're having special company for dinner. You'll like them."
     Reggie, scrubbed and mannerly, joined us at the dinner table. Immediately after the blessing, he said in a loud voice, "Would you please pass the company? My mom says I will really like them." – Betty Bishop, Hampton, Florida. Christian Reader, "Kids of the Kingdom."
While never an expert on the subject, I have long been interested in the topic of church growth. I have read many of the books written both by researchers and scholars, and by those who have managed to grow large, successful churches. I have worked with more than one church that experienced measurable success in growing from a small handful to a much larger congregation. I have a personal friend who earned his Ph.D. in church growth who used to often call to talk about what we were doing, and I’m sure he used some of the insights I shared with him to become a recognized expert in the field. I say all that, not to brag, but to let you know that I think I know at least a few things about what goes into growing a church.

I have also come to some conclusions about why churches do not grow. One of the biggest reasons is that churches do not want to grow, and worse, they actually resist growing.

I know it sounds strange, but I’m convinced it is true. One of the fastest growing churches I’ve worked with had this problem. We started with 55 people, counting my wife, our two children, and myself. In about two years, we grew to around 200, having baptized more than 70 people. But one day, that original 50 or so folks woke up and realized, “It’s not our church anymore!” There were more new people than we had started with, and the new people had now become the leaders and the ones deciding on the direction of the church and how we did things. That realization in the minds of the original group was the beginning of the end. We moved within the next year, and with two years after that, the church was back to almost exactly the original 55 people.

For a church to really grow, it cannot be afraid to grow, and it must be willing to bring new leadership on board, new ideas, new projects. It’s not that the original group must be replaced, but the original group must be willing to adapt and move with the “newness” happening in the church.

I have also come to believe that there is one thing that all growing churches have in common. You can find all sorts of variables in growing churches that differ from one church to another, but a small number seems to remain common to all of them.

For example, all growing churches are churches where the members bring people to church. Show me a church where that doesn’t happen, I’ll show you a church that doesn’t grow. Show me a church where the members consistently and constantly bring friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc., to worship with them, I’ll show you a church that grows.

In fact, this might be, at leas in my mind, the single most important factor to make a church grow. Members must bring in the new growth. That’s exactly what happened in the church I wrote about above. We grew because our members brought people to church.

The challenge to us is obvious. First, we need to be aware that we might be afraid to grow, or that we’re resisting growth. Second, we need to realize that if our church is going to grow, we have to bring people to church. Those two factors, one negative and one positive, just might do wonders if we handle them correctly.

That first one requires some deep soul-searching and a willingness in our current membership to change. The second requires some purposeful action from our members to bring visitors.

I Really Liked That Sermon!

1 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.– 2 Timothy 4:1–4 (NASB95)
Allow me to reveal something that every preacher would love to know. We want to know, not so much how well you enjoyed the sermon we just preached, but whether it was a “good” sermon, a “helpful” sermon, a “useful” sermon. Different preachers might attach a few additional descriptive words, but you get the idea. We want to know, “did it work?”

I have to tell you, this is a major concern of any and every preacher who wants to succeed at delivering God’s word to his audience.

Preachers are accustomed to getting a few responses after the assembly is over. We stand near the door to shake hands and greet people as they leave. We hear lots of comments:
“I really liked that sermon!”
“I enjoyed that one.”
“You really told them today!”
“I wish _____ had been here to day to  hear that one.”
“That was the best sermon I’ve ever heard.”
“Thank you for that lesson. It was helpful.”
“I’ve always wondered about that passage.”
“I’ve never heard it put quite like that!”

Those are the positive comments (and others). Sometimes we’ll hear a negative response. I’ve heard everything from, “I disagree with everything you said today” (really? everything?), To “I’m so upset I can’t even talk to you right now.” Usually when people don’t like a sermon, they just slip out quietly and say nothing, or they simply speak, shake your hand and move on. But preachers always wonder whether or not the sermon they preached was, in any way, positive.

H.B. Charles, in an article titled, How’d It Go? (, gave some excellent guidelines to measure Sunday’s sermon. Condensed to just his main points, here is his list of measures:
A faithful exposition
A prepared message
A Christ-centered focus
A pastoral concern
A consecrated heart
A trusting abandonment

Some of those points might not make sense to those who don’t preach, but most of us who do will likely see his points as valid. Still, the problem is that even this list is mostly focused on the preacher and his message. Truth be told, a sermon can get five stars on each of the above points and still fail. Or it can be a one-star sermon and end up being great.

I quit trying to judge the value of a sermon long ago. I still marvel that sermons I think are home-runs, few, if anybody, has much to say about it. Then I preach a sermon that I think stinks. A dozen people will tell me wonderfully positive things and ask for CDs. I don’t get it. Never have, and probably never will.

Preaching God’s word is somewhat of a mystery. Isaiah 55:11 So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.  (NASB)

A sermon, if it is true to God’s word, won’t fail. The problem is there just isn’t any way to measure it’s worth. Well, perhaps there is one way. But it’s virtually impossible to measure in numbers. You have to look at the lives of the people who hear the sermons. Even then, the sermon might have been excellent. But no sermon is over until those who hear, act.