Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Climbing Out of the Church Box

My just-completed Ezra series dealt with issues of church corporate and individual. The New Year is a good time to sum up where I have landed on the church corporate end of the spectrum, as many people may be resolving to join, leave or continue to put church off entirely for another year.

As 2014 arrives, I am thankful for the peace with the corporate church God has cultivated in me over the last 13 years. I have come to believe that many people (including myself at one time) become disgruntled with church because they put church before and very often in place of a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

This can happen through the church dropping the ball, as was the case with the church I grew up in which believed in liturgy but not in the Bible, Biblical Jesus or the Biblical teaching on fallen humanity. When I became a Christian, I could not set foot in a place with liturgy because of how my own experience with a liturgical church had blinded myself and the congregation into thinking it was Christian: that it could be Christian without Jesus and God’s Holy Word!

But corporate church life can also replace a personal relationship with and maturity in Christlikeness when born-again believers, not the church itself, define their Christian life by Sunday morning attendance and perhaps an occasional volunteer stint with Vacation Bible School and the fall soup-supper or participation in an occasional fund drive.

Thirteen years into my faith, God has shown me that church is a very small part of who I am as His child.

God has brought me to a contentment with and surety of Him so that I can worship the Triune God even in a place where He is not worshipped. Even in a church that is not a church because God and His Word are not acknowledged, revered or understood nor Jesus credited as the creator and author of faith itself, I can worship because I do know and acknowledge these things.

And when I leave a house of worship, be it religious or irreligious, I know that it is in the leaving of the building that the majority of worship, praise and bringing glory to God begin. The Bible is very clear about how we are to live our lives. And most of our lives are lived outside of church.

One hour on Sunday is not to determine our theology or limit our walk with Christ. It must not encompass the be-all and end-all of our faith. Sunday morning is just the tip of the walking-in-faith iceberg.

So, for me, back when I was lost and in darkness, I needed to find a Bible-based church with discipleship. But I also needed to find a Christian radio program outside of church, a Christian school for our family, a Christian summer camp and place of retreat, a community of believers (inside but mostly outside of a church building) to model and witness what a relationship with Christ looks like (and what it doesn’t). I thank God I did. I thank Him that He provided so much more than just a church address at which to show up every Sunday.

My becoming a Christian happened more outside of a church building than inside. It makes sense then that my Christian life and service not be limited to within the confines of a church structure or its programming.

Once I was ready to stand firm and not be swayed by any form of teaching, God gave me peace that I can worship Him in any church, just as I can worship Him in any secular, antagonistic, irreverent place, in Christian community or out.

If there is anything I have learned in my 13 years of being a Christian, it is that it is not only about church. Once we free ourselves from the bondage of living out our faith in the context of church only (and all the questionable membership presuppositions therein entailed), we are free to live full lives in Christ. It will take initiative, growth, being teachable and discipled on our part (and again, much of this happened for me by reading Scripture daily, and additionally, by not limiting myself to one church experience. “Parachurch” organizations and individuals outside the context of traditional “church” were integral to my spiritual growth and grounding).

A Biblical perspective on the true meaning and living out of church will carry us to a place of spiritual maturity we never thought we could go. It will free us to journey with God beyond the limits of the corporate church. Then it is that we will be changed, moment-by-moment and year-by-year, into the Christlikeness God commands.

Gathering together as a church body is Biblical and requisite to a Christian life. But it isn’t the only thing, nor the major thing. And all Christian growth and fellowship need not be limited to within a church building’s doors. Nowhere in Scripture is it mandated that we attend only one church. And nowhere in Scripture is it deemed we must sign on the dotted membership line and swear off attendance and fellowship with any and all other church bodies or believers.

With the freedom to ground my perspective, understanding and practice of church on Jesus and His teachings has come, finally, a peace with “church.” The church train with its unquestioned, blindly accepted boxcars of habit, empty tradition and denominational, pastoral, congregational and familial pressure has left the station, and I thank God I’m not on it.

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
John 4:19-26

Friday, December 27, 2013

POST #5: Personal Accountability

This concludes the series on Ezra: the church corporate and individual. 
Ezra 9:1-2 “After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.”

Syncretism in Ezra manifested in the inter-marriage issue. In this post, I am not going to discuss marriage. However, suffice it to say that the pitfalls of a person of faith marrying a person of a different or non-existent faith is pretty much the same today as it was in Ezra’s day: If mom and dad aren’t on the same page spiritually, someone will either have to sell out in their faith or change his or her doctrine in order to please their spouse. The only other choice is to go it alone spiritually within a marriage. I’ve talked to couples who live this way, and lived it myself for a year before my husband came to Christ, and it isn’t a joyful scenario. And then, what will the children of these marriages choose: faith, no faith, or a syncretistic version of faith modeled by a parent who tried to appease a spouse by making un-Biblical compromises?

           This issue of marriage is crucial because everything flows out of the family. As the family goes, so goes the culture and community.
We’ve already looked at what syncretism in the church corporate and individual looks like in Post #3. So how do we avoid compromising our faith, be it in marriage, a career, the music we listen to, or the thoughts we allow to simmer on our mind?
The best way I know is to be in God’s Holy Word. If there’s anything at all we’ve learned from Ezra it is this essential thought: without the Word of God, we will grow distant from God and His Holiness.
In researching this topic, I came upon a comment from Ann, dated January 2013, posted on a website discussing various elements of philosophy and religion:

           “Maybe it’s just the path we’re on, but from my vantage point, there are very few biblically literate people around anymore, particularly newer believers. Everyone sets to work serving, but no one is studying to show thyself approved or entering through the narrow gate; being holy is not talked about much.”

          She’s right. The only way to grow spiritually and build up resistance to the world, replacing worldly desires with Godly, holy desires, is to be in the Word, illuminated by the Holy Spirit. Personal Bible reading must always be central and the foundation to everything a Christian does.
Scripture can also be taught and encouraged in church and one-on-one discipleship, and understood more deeply through further study via an online class or enrollment in a Biblically legitimate seminary.

            Scripture is lived out and fine-tuned through fellowship in Christian community. As iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17), Christian support, encouragement and accountability is a must for staying uninfluenced by the world and the people and trends in it.
The Christian life, as with anything worth doing, takes discipline. It’s similar to a work out. If I halt my bike-riding routine, it’s exceedingly difficult to start up again. Plus, when I stop working out, I also cease caring about what I eat. On the other hand, when I have just burned off hundreds of calories through exercise, junk food loses its appeal. It’s the same with holiness. The more we get of it, the less we want of the other stuff. 
One of the quotes Christians and non-Christians alike love to drool over is the quote attributed to Ghandi (but may not be exactly what he said):

            “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
That’s the humanistic take for you! 
We need to be diligent in separating ourselves from this sort of philosophizing that claims “I” can do this or “I” can do that in my own power. Because truthfully, “I” can never “be the change,” and to be quite honest, change based on what I or anybody else wants to see in the world (which is different for everyone) is scary! I mean, we already have that. We already have dictators who are being and effecting the change they want to see in the world. We already have television and movie executives being the change they want to see, with the result being movies that idolize hang-overs and casual sex. Based on the logic of the Ghandi quote, people are being the change they want to see in the world, and it doesn’t appear to be having a very positive effect overall.
If one must have a clich√© to hang their theology on, how about this: "Be the church the Bible calls us to be in the world.” And each person individually is the church.
Ezra was the church, and look at the change he effected in the life of the Israelites. Though any decision the returnees would have arrived at would involve sorrow, they allowed Ezra’s Godly influence and example to bring them to repent and change their ways (Ezra 10:2-3).

            As individuals, we are tempted to think that legitimizing the world over Scripture is the way to impact and reach the culture. And how, I might ask, is that working for us? Does the world seem to be improving?
Ezra separated himself from the world unto God and isn’t it ironic that the world responded and was better for it.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Series Post #4: It's Not About Ezra

             Ezra 7:6, 10:  “this Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.”
For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.”

             I had a phone conversation with my 22 year-old son recently, and the topic, as it often does, turned to theology. I asked him, “What is the point of theology?” We discussed this for a while, and then I said, “You know, I don’t care how well anyone can exegete a passage of Scripture if there is no living it out.”
Many theologians do not read Scripture; they read other theologians take on Scripture.
So, how does Ezra measure up as a theologian? Our Scripture verse states that he “was well versed in the law of Moses” and  “devoted...to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.”
Pretty straightforward: He was a theologian in the sense that he was “well versed” in God’s Word and devoted to its study and observance, but Ezra was also a teacher. And it sounds a lot to me like Ezra spent regular, consistent time in the word out of a dedication to teaching and living it. His prayer in verse nine is described by one Biblical commentator as part sermon to the people. So Ezra is also a leader and pastor. Nowhere in Ezra do we see him attempting to draw folks to his ideas. In fact, after his prayer, it was the people listening who came up with the solution to the problem of the Israelites marriages to foreign women, not Ezra!
Fast forward to the year 2006. I walk into my church worship hall to what has increasingly become dramatic theater for the 30-something pastor to orchestrate his “radical, counter-cultural” worship ideas he is learning in Seminary. This day he has outdone himself in creating a circus atmosphere. This emerging hipster pastor had brought in a guest hipster pastor (I think they both wore black). The auditorium was dark, the video screen spitting images at the speed of light. The Christian rock music was blaring. Congregants shouted greetings to their neighbor over the cacophony. My head hurt and it was only 10:30 a.m. The pastors were “revved” and the fair trade coffee was flowing. Wide-eyed toddlers held their baggies of snacks tightly. I wondered if there would be elephants.
The guest pastor energetically hopped onto the stage and began his  “challenge” to us to imagine a “radical” faith based on a new paradigm. He wanted us jazzed about Jesus! But I wasn’t so sure. The pastor of this church is the same one who, weeks earlier, had told my husband and I that the congregation “wasn’t ready” for the Gospel. He said the congregation was “asleep.” So the Sunday morning service now finds its only function to be an alarm clock to the people (and on this particular morning, that it was!) But an alarm clock to what?
Perhaps that was the underlying reason for my disposition this particular Sunday morning, and my perception that the guy on stage was more ringmaster than proclaimer of the Word. When a pastor says the people in his own Christian church congregation “are not ready” for the Gospel, everything flowing out of that will feel empty, because it is. When presenting the undiluted, pure Gospel is deemed “something to be done later,” then the message being presented up front is a show.
Peter Furler of the Christian band the Newsboys sings, “I dunno when it’s a ministry and when it’s a show.” That’s a good distinction for worship and teaching leaders to keep in mind: what is the purpose and motivation of worship and who, ultimately, is the service to glorify? If it’s to elevate the praise band or the charismatic pastor—or their creative “take” on church—then the congregation is relegated to being groupies. How much of Ed Sullivanesque qualities are we to tolerate before we say “enough?”
I mention this so as to contrast this strong-arm, trying-way-too-hard-to-be-relevant (which in many ways is very condescending) leadership with Ezra’s approach.
Why did our man Ezra elicit the response from the people that he did when they, not he, decided they should divorce their foreign wives? Because Ezra lived out the word when he repented for the people. He taught the word by reminding the people what God said. He gave them God’s truth whether they were ready for it or not! And obviously, when he did this, they all showed they were ready, as there were only 4 dissenters when it came time to adopt the people’s solution. If Ezra had thought they “weren’t ready,” it would have been an insult to God, who alone knows the heart, as well as to the people.
When Ezra’s listeners felt the conviction of God, helped along by Ezra in his humble godliness and repentant prayer, they responded with a call to action. None of this would have happened if Ezra had thought, “they’re not ready.”
Here’s what Ezra did next:

Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the room of Jehohanan son of Eliashib. While he was there, he ate no food and drank no water,...” (Ezra 10:6).
Great leadership is non-manipulative. It is honest. It is humble. It doesn’t draw attention to itself. It never assumes. Ezra doesn’t condemn the people but he doesn’t excuse their behavior either. He is grieved over their deeds, tells them so, reminds them of God’s goodness to them and His law, prays and voila! The people repent and want to turn away from sin and make things right.

             In addition, Ezra surrounded Himself with spiritually mature leaders:
  Ezra 7:25 “And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them.”

            Verse 25, in a nutshell, is the basis for how to go about a church plant: Find a leadership team and initial members who are filled with and have produced fruit born of God’s wisdom and who can pass it on through discipling others. Pretty simple, right? The leader and his team are to teach the Word of God and administer justice in the knowledge and under the authority of God. There you have it: “How to run a church, 101.”
            Ezra was devoted in all aspects to the Word of God. It was his first and only priority. As the leadership goes, so goes the congregation. We desperately need Ezra’s today to lead the people out of exile and back into right relationship with God, His Word and each other.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Blog Post #3: If it Looks Like a Duck...

Ezra 4:1-3 “When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.”
But Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.”
According to Dictionary.com, syncretism is the ”attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion.”
Here’s a taste of what syncretism looks like in the Christian church corporate: a certain denomination (who will remain unnamed), opens their general assembly convocation with a procession of members dressed up as skunks and eagles doing interpretive dance; evangelical churches offer their “secular-ready” sanctuaries for use as public school graduation venues (the church never put up crosses to begin with so as not to offend seekers); Halloween parties and visits with Santa held in fellowship halls; Bible-based youth group junkets to teen conferences that include a selection of “free time activities” such as swimming in the hotel pool or shopping at the local mall, while attendance at Christian small group seminars remain  “optional;” and beer-drenched bingo bashes and charity wine and cheese fundraisers. It’s all about “contextualizing” to the current trends, being “relevant” and  “trying to reach people where they’re at.”
Here’s what it looks like in the church individual: Christians investing precious hours every week in television and facebook as well as wasting time shopping for things they don’t need; families up to their ears in debt and materialism; kids shuffled off to soccer camps and music lessons, while little to no spiritual discipleship takes place at home (that responsibility has been farmed out to the local youth group). Bible reading takes place when and if it can be fitted in.

           Whether in the church corporate or individual, syncretism gains a foothold because someone let it. Lax faith and a desire to be affirmed by the world—not God—or to please personal desires—not God’s—leads to adopting the ways of the world, be it in worship services, statements of belief or how we raise our kids and conduct our marriages.

            Seriously, If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. If we, church corporate and individual, look like the world, behave like the world, and think like the world, then we are the world. We no longer have legitimate status as faithful people of God.
Theologian Bruce Waltke writes, in An Old Testament Theology, that the reason the Israelites refused the help of “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” ”is because the Israelites were rejecting “beliefs and practices that turn their religion into something other than itself and leads to the ignoring of I AM’s nature and expectations.” They were refusing to allow syncretism to creep in. The Israelites knew from past experience what alliances with non-Jews led to. Not only that, but they knew this offer of help came from “enemies,” and hence, ulterior motives.
            Why do Christians need to be on guard? Because the “world” of secularism, humanism, agnosticism, atheism, etc., will attempt to undermine Christianity because, in the words of Billy Graham, “the Cross is an offense.”
Mark Galli, in a June 10, 2010, Christianity Today article, makes an excellent point when he says, “And why is it that church staff, called by God to enable the proclamation of Jesus' lordship, cannot grasp...that Christianity is ruled by a Lord who has a habit of making people feel uncomfortable and offended because, yes, he demands their unqualified allegiance?”
 For non-believers whose hearts are hardened, or who try to silence the inner conviction they feel when they even think about Christ, the Gospel will offend. Jesus encountered this very situation in John 6:60-67 with His disciples. He had just finished making some pretty strong claims about Himself, to which His disciples responded:
“’This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’

  Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, ‘Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.’ From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve.

              Jesus didn’t hold back the truth, water it down or wrap it up in an inoffensive package of whateverism. And people walked away from Him. Just like they’ll walk away from us and our churches. Some will even become persecutors or wolves in sheep’s clothing who try to infiltrate the church with a “gospel” more palatable but un-Biblical. They will do whatever they can to intimidate the followers of Christ.

             We can stand up to this, however, in good company with the Israelites whose response to this same sort of taunt was the acknowledgement that “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel.”