On “Going to Church”

Fellow Christian and blogger John Pavlovitz makes an argument that going to church is not a necessity for the Christian.

I guess that depends on one’s definition of the word “church”. If one defines “church” as a “building”, that I believe John is 100% correct.

If one defines “church” as a “group of people gathered to worship God in community” than I disagree completely.

Why?  A cursory read through the gospels, Acts, the Pauline letters the entire Bible, will find the people of God worshiping in community. There is absolutely zero context for the worship of God and a relationship with him absent others.

In fact, we find the exact opposite. We see Jesus teaching in the synagogue. We find Paul and other church leaders worshiping in the synagogue. And yes, we find believers meeting in homes. And, while the location (except for the Old Testament) may matter very little, the thing that we consistently find is believers together in community.

To be sure, I’ve been in many “sacred places” outside the brick and mortar of a church building. I’ve found them while on a morning run, while listening to Radiohead (the guitar solo in the song “The Bends” is exquisite), in a morning cup of coffee and around my dinner table. And, I’ve worshiped God with others outside of the spacial context of a church building.

And yet, we consistently find communities of people, gathered for the express purpose of worshiping God, throughout the Bible. The Greek word for this gathering is (in English) ekklesia; it is defined as, “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place.” In the Christian sense, it is, “an assembly of Christians gathered for worship in a religious meeting.” Notice the phrase, “called out”- this is purposeful and intentional. Christians are indeed called to worship God in community.
Two thoughts:

You need other Christians who are committed to your spiritual well-being. They are the ones who will be able to get to know you and identify the fruit of new birth in your life…we are not good judges of our own hearts. Some people are entirely too easy on themselves. They imagine that they give evidence of genuine regret and repentance for their sin when in reality there is none. Others with a tender conscience are far too hard on themselves. They take every weakness and failure as evidence that they are hypocrites and false Christians. Being involved in a local church is immensely helpful for both kids of people- Mike McKinley, Am I Really a Christian?

My edits italicized below.

“Without this limitation (what is biblical), we leave ourselves open to calling anything we fancy a Spiritual Discipline. Thus, one might declare, ‘Gardening is a Spiritual Discipline (going to church) for me,’ or ‘Exercise is one of my Spiritual Disciplines (going to church),’ or claim that some other hobby or pleasurable habit is a valid Spiritual Discipline. One of the problems with this approach is that it can tempt people to assert something like, ‘Maybe meditation on Scripture (going to church) works for you, but gardening (playing with my dog, etc) does just as much for my soul as the Bible (going to church) does for yours.’ And the result is that virtually anything can be designated a Spiritual Discipline (going to church), and worse, it means that we determine for ourselves what practices are best for our spiritual health and maturity rather than accepting those God has revealed in Scripture (like the worship of God in community)”- Donald S Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.

I’m in agreement with John on this point- “we do not gather to sit with strangers and consume religious entertainment…”. Rather, we gather in community with people to worship God. And yes, while I can worship God “on my own”, and while we are to worship God with all we are and through all of our activities, thoughts and deeds, we are indeed called to be in community (see Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12).
The response to bad community is not “no community” or a retreat to selfishness. This is exactly the attitude and behaviors that Paul warned against in 1 Corinthians 12. The proper response to bad community is Christian community. And that design is described for us in God’s Word.

 

 

 

 

 

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On Pastoral Visits, updated

Thanks to this post by Thom Rainer, I thought I’d revisit the topic of “Pastoral Visits”. I originally blogged about this a few years ago, but have some further thinking on the matter.

 I ENJOY pastoral visits that allow me to know the stories about the people that I get to minister alongside. This post, then, is not about crisis calls, hospital visits or the “new to the church” person or even the, “I’ve been here for 50 years” person (and everyone in between). This post IS about the expectation that many in the church have that it is the Pastor’s job, and only the Pastor’s job, to visit someone.

And, the perception that, should someone else in the congregation visit in lieu of the Pastor, then those visits don’t count. What I am completely uninterested in is the posturing, gladhanding, baby-kissing and handshaking that is not really about relationships; but about the appearance of relationship.

To get this out of the way early, I fully believe that the part of the role of the pastor is indeed visitation. But, it is not ONLY the pastor who must visit.

As Rainer does, I will appeal to Ephesians 4:12, then (as in my original post) 1 Timothy 5:1-16. As one who believes in the sufficiency of scripture, these texts ought to be “enough” for us. I’ll also present a pragmatic argument, in the spirit of having a conversation about re-thinking pastoral care.

Scenario: Perfect Christian Church has 100 family units, with an average family size of 2.54 people (2015 statistics), this means that PCC has an average of 250-ish people. Pastor Smith is expected to work 50 hours/week, which is 200-ish hours/month. The expectation is that Pastor Smith connects with 75 family units (only because 100 would be completely unreasonable) per month (Now, this is not written down anywhere, but neither are a great many other expectations that people place on pastoral staff members). Here are two options:

Option A: Pastor Smith plans out his 75 visits with a timeframe of an hour a piece. Figuring in travel time- let’s say that each visit will take 1.25 hours (how realistic is this for your context?). That’s 93.75 hours of pastoral care for the month. Divide that by 4 weeks/month and you get…about 24 hours/week of visitation. Divide that by 5 days a week and you get about 5 hours each day solely devoted to visitation. Since every church has the expectation that pastors will have office hours (because no one would ever wonder why the pastor is never in his/her office), these visitations would likely take place at night. And since none of the families at PCC are involved in traveling cornhole leagues, play instruments in the school band, sing in the school choir, participate in drama (other than at PCC), or play other sports, everyone is home and loves it when Pastor Smith comes over. So, Pastor Smith prepares and gives sermons, prepares and leads a small group or Bible study, prepares and leads staff meetings and equipping sessions, attends elder/board and ministry team meetings, deals with crisis care issues, and is then gone 5 nights/week, for 5 hours each night, out doing visitations. But hey, everyone gets their one visit per month, with some getting two visits. And, that’s the price of doing ministry. Didn’t Pastor Smith just give a message series on sacrificing our time, treasure and talent? Pastor Smith’s wife and family resents both he and the church. But, they just need to have a servant’s attitude about it.

Option B: Pastor Smith has an equipped team of elders, deacons, lay leaders and the other staff members. There are 15 small groups consisting of 7(-ish) family units/group. Each small group meets weekly for 2 hours. That’s 8 hours of pastoral care for the month per family group (8x more than Option A). And since EVERY family is involved in traveling cornhole leagues, plays instruments in the school band, sings in the school choir, participates in drama (other than at PCC), or plays other sports, they can pick the small group that works best for them and there situation (after all, there are FIFTEEN! to choose from). And even if they only get to small group twice per month, that is still FOUR TIMES the amount of pastoral care in Option A. Pastor Smith now has even MORE time to  prepare for sermons, prepare for and lead a small group or Bible study, prepare for and lead staff meetings and equipping sessions, attend elder/board and ministry team meetings, deal with crisis care issues and…bonus! He gets to eat meals with his wife and kids who will now be less inclined to hate both his guts and their church.

Option B is not only pragmatically better in terms of time and attention to people, discipleship-making and relationship building…it’s also biblical.

Some possible issues would be:

  • helping people see the small group as a primary means of pastoral care
  • communicating how the small group is a primary means of pastoral care
  • raising up and equipping the leaders to be the facilitators of these groups as pastoral care leaders
  • ??

 

 

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Die, Western Culture, Die.

According to the Facebook newsfeed, there was an issue last week regarding NBC’s Al Roker and the Ryan Lochte situation. Apparently, some people at NBC are upset over Roker’s direct (and true) statements about Lochte being a liar (because, he is). Now, I don’t know how much of an issue this really is, and, to quote Dennis Miller, “I don’t mean to go off on a rant here, but”…

Ours is a society that is completely off the rails. Some people (who clearly need to get out more and are likely off their meds) are upset that Gabby Douglas didn’t put her hand to her heart at a medal ceremony. Lochte and his pals are called “kids” and their behavior is largely excused. And when someone like Roker stands up and tries to hold people to a higher standard, Roker seems to be the one on the outs.

This same behavior is tolerated in the church. The church has been warned again, and again, and again about what Jesus and Paul both call, “wolves”- false teachers who are simply out to devour anyone and anything on their path to vain conceit and selfish ambition. Not a week passes that I do not hear of yet another so-called leader who is on a rampage.

To the churches that allow these wolves to reign free without accountability, Paul has something to say to you:

“You think you are so wise, but you enjoy putting up with fools. You put up with it when someone enslaves you, takes everything you have, takes advantage of you, takes control of everything, and slaps you in the face”- 2 Corinthians 11:19-20.

In short- western culture is a pale reflection of itself. The fall is coming and TS Eliot is correct- it is with a whimper and not a bang. And, christendom (NOT the church- the gates of hell will not prevail against her) is also on its way out.

To the failure of both, I raise my cup of Starbucks and bid you a fond farewell.

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Hey dads…what the heck?

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul gives a long list of the physical things he endured as a follower of Christ (these things are the “suffering” spoken of in Acts 9:16); at the end of the list he writes, “I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches”. Paul is NOT talking about the buildings, or even the institution of the church- he IS talking about the people that make up the church. As I approach year 11 of vocational ministry, I understand this latter “suffering” more and more.

My heart is heavy today dealing with families in which the father has simply jettisoned his spiritual responsibility to promote and proclaim the gospel of Jesus to his family and spouse.

Last night in our Family Life Small Group we discussed the concept of biblical fatherhood. Rob Rienow said something like, “as the father goes, so goes the family; as the family goes, so goes the community, as the community goes, so goes the nation.”

As we lament and lament our current political climate and choices, maybe it’s time that we, the church (the people AND the institution) take a good, hard, honest look at what we are doing and not doing to hold fathers to the standard that God does.

To paraphrase Paul in Philippians 2- “Does Jesus matter to you? Do you find any comfort in knowing him? Are you living with the Holy Spirit? Is your heart receptive at all to God? Make my joy complete and lead your families spiritually. Because picking up the pieces of what you’ve shattered in your pursuit of self, talking with your wives as they cry and watching your kids fall into destructive patterns is getting really, really old.”


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Love (What We Should Be Know For)*

Acts 17:11- “The people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica…”

Luke defines “open-minded” as:
– “listened eagerly to Paul’s message” and
– “searched the scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.”

As a result, “many believed”.

Many Christians have this backward.
– Rather than, “listening eagerly to the gospel” they, “listen eagerly to their favorite (or least favorite) political candidate”.
– Rather than, “search the scriptures” they, “search the internet for memes and one-liners about their political enemies.”

Additionally, they fail to learn whether or not what they are seeing is true, so they simply pass on falsehoods and lies for the sake of scoring political points and making themselves feel better. The Bible calls this, “bearing false witness” and make no mistake, it is sinful.

The result? Few, if any, are actually converted to anything, this only fosters anger, cynicism, and mistrust. For the Christian, as we retreat into our echo-chambers of self-righteousness, our ability to demonstrate empathy, sympathy and compassion is diminished as are our opportunities to speak truth into a culture that is deeply in need of it.

The WOPR computer in the movie “WarGames” had it right- “The only winning move is not to play”.

I challenge those who identify with Christ to:
– care as much about the health of your local church as you do your government;
– be as interested in, and as committed to, the local church as you currently are in your government;
– pray often for and with the leaders in the local church;
– point people to Christ as the answer, instead of any political leader, policy or law;
– recognized the truth found in the words of Derek Webb: “we’ll never have a Savior on Capitol Hill”;
– demonstrate empathy, sympathy and compassion to those of a differing political opinion than you;
– if you do not have a relationship with someone who has a differing political opinion that you…GET ONE, and…

above all else…

Remember the words of Jesus in John 13:35- “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are [his] disciples.”

Not the bumper sticker on your car. Or what school you went to. Or the flag that you salute. Or your country of origin. Not the creeds you affirm or the political party you support. Not the church you attend or the position you hold in that church.

Your love for one another proves it.

Love.

 

*a play on Derek Webb’s “T-Shirts (What We Should Be Known For)”

 

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Saul and Ananias- Contrasting Responses

A read through Acts 9:1-19 reveals two people both spoken directly to by God.

The first is Saul, on his way to Damascus to find and arrest Christians. Instead, he encounters Jesus on the road and is immediately obedient to his instructions.

The second is Ananias, a follower of Jesus in Damascus. His immediate response to his encounter with Jesus is fear, argument, and a general attitude of unwillingness to acts upon Jesus’s clear instruction to embrace someone that we’d likely consider far from God.

A few weeks ago, friend Kiersten DeLong posted part of David Platt’s book, “Counterculture” on her Facebook page:

This, I am convinced, is a needed word for every Christian (and prospective Christian) in our culture today. Gone are the days when it was socially beneficial to be in church at the beginning of the week. Gone are the days when it was publicly acceptable to follow Christ ever other day of the week. Here are the days when holding fast to the gospel, actually believing the Bible, and putting it into practice will mean risking your reputation, sacrificing your social status, disagreeing with your closest family and friends, jeopardizing your economic security and earthly stability, giving away your possessions, leaving behind the accolades of the world, and (depending on where and how God leads you)) potentially losing your life.

This exactly what the Lord was calling both Paul and Ananias to in Acts 9, and it’s exactly what Christians in 2016 are called to.

Like Saul, we are often on a quest to chase down and convict the “heathen other”. May we encounter Jesus on the road. Then, stumbling into Damascus, blinded by the God who will not remain bound by our own faulty understandings, misconceptions and assumptions- may we humbly submit to those who lay hands on us, intent on removing the scales from our eyes. As awareness and reality assaults our senses let us go out and lead others to Him.

Like Ananias, we often respond in fear to God’s clear commands to love those who persecute us. What’s worse, is that we don’t even face persecution from people, they are simply different than us. They simply sin differently than we do. Or speak a different language or have a different skin color or culture. May we humble ourselves to the greater picture of God’s grace and mercy and realize the God has more in store for us and with us, than just us.

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On the “Jezebel Spirit”

I recently completed a read and study of 1/2 Kings; one of the most fascinating characters was Ahab. He reigned for 22 years and was married to Jezebel. They were pretty much the worst husband/wife team ever. The phrase “Jezebel Spirit” has often been used to show that someone is a wicked troublemaker, sowing seeds of rebellion and undermining a biblical leader. A few minutes ago, I saw a series of posts on Twitter from Jonathon Stone, pastor of Renovatus Church in North Carolina regarding his thoughts from 1 Kings 21.

The story is simple: a man named Naboth had a vineyard near Ahab’s home, and Ahab wanted it. Naboth told him it wasn’t for sale, so Ahab did what any strong leader would do- he went home and cried about it to his wife (Jezebel). The next day, Jezebel had Naboth brought up on false charges and executed.

Ahab got his little kindom. Here’s the tweets:

  • I don’t know if there is any such thing as a “Jezebel spirit,” but it often gets defined as oppositional and control seeking.
  • But based on the Naboth story, Jezebel is only able to function to the degree that Ahab is dysfunctional. No one talks about “Ahab spirit?”
  • When someone accuses a person or system of operating with a “Jezebel spirit” they are more likely expressing frustration towards Naboth.
  • Maybe you’re not fighting a Jezebel spirit, maybe you’re just sulking because Naboth won’t give you what you want.
  • Jezebel did not oppose Ahab, she got for him what he insisted on having at any cost.
  • If a “Jezebel spirit” can only operate in conjunction with a “Ahab spirit,” then it might be helpful to define an “Ahab spirit.”
  • Maybe this, an “Ahab Spirit” is fretful, anxious and undifferentiated leadership that deals with the answer “no” w/sulking & self-loathing.
  • Unfortunately, accusations of a “Jezebel spirit” often get associated with strong female leadership.
  • However, Ahab and Jezebel are not about men and women. Not even about marriage.
  • Instead, Ahab and Jezebel are about undifferentiated leadership abdicating its authority to cruel and vicious pragmatism.
  • If you are a leader, opposing voices are more likely to be Naboth. Jezebel is the voice promising to get you what you want at all cost.

To Ahab’s “cruel and selfish pragmatism” I’d add unbridled selfishness, unfounded fear and malignant narcissism. Because those consumed with themselves need only the slightest encouragement by a wicked “Jezebel” to wreak havoc on and destroy the lives of others. Regardless of cost or consequences.

And those same tyrants, like Ahab and Jezebel before them, will eventually be brought down in a spectacular way, and the Naboth’s among them will be lifted up.

 

 

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