Tuesday, April 14, 2009

True Hope and Change

It's not what you believe that counts;
it's what you believe enough to do.
- Gary Gulbranson -

If you have been following my ramblings you might be tempted to incorrectly assume that I don't like the church. In reality, I love the church. I believe it to be the best and only hope for our world. Further, I believe that the remnant of those believers who are pursuing the heart of God are growing daily and I consider myself a recent addition to that number. In the words of C.S. Lewis, "Aslan is on the move!"

But I also believe that the only way that the remnant will become the majority that is necessary to produce world-wide change is through honest introspection of both ourselves as individuals and of this organism we call the church. We must stop making excuses and pretending that our condition is better than simple observation plainly shows. We must stop turning away from suffering and instead be broken by it. We must stop using the comfort of our churches as a retreat from the uglyness of the world and instead use it as a foundation from which we confront it as the hands and heart of Jesus.

Simply put, we must stop pretending that we have the priorities of God, be broken by how dim a reflection of Him we have become, and allow Him to remake us in His image. And we must do this without regard for our own comfort.

We have just celebrated Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, and it is so easy to miss the point of these holy days entirely. God loved the world so much that He died for it. That love was not just for those of us who filled churches on Friday evening and Sunday morning. It was for the entire world, including the masses that remain unredeemed. And this generation of the church is responsible for this generation of the dying world. Jesus' call is that we give up everything we have and follow Him into that world to touch and change lives.

So, what does this look like? Here are a few suggestions:

As individual believers...

  • Understand that we are to lay everything we have and are on God's altar, realizing that He did not save us to make us comfortable but to make us world-changers.
  • Downsize our lives in order to free up the necessary time, energy, money, and resources to invest in the things that really matter to God.
  • Listen to God's call and follow it whole-heartedly. He has gifted us and called us to get involved in an area that is a priority to Him. If we miss it, we will miss our purpose and others will suffer.
  • Stop limiting God with our own excuses. (Yes, He would ask us to give up our homes and our jobs and uproot our kids. And He would expect us to do it joyfully after all He has done for us!)

As churches...

  • Realize that most of the the things we have cared about have not been important to God. He is not concerned with our facilities, potlucks, budgets, and committee meetings. He is concerned about a suffering and lost world.
  • Change the focus of our time, energy, and budgets to the things that are important to God. Instead of 90% of our money being spent on ourselves why can't we spend 50% or more on true outreach even if it means downsizing facilities, getting rid of coffee and doughnuts, and downsizing staff (and letting ministry be done by volunteers instead).
  • Look right next door and around the world for needs and go meet those needs as the hands of Jesus and share the love and hope of salvation as His voice.

As you read these thoughts you might be tempted to dismiss them as extremist and unpractical. But in light of the Word of God are they? In fact, as we stand in the shadow of first century disciples and the incredible needs of our world they seem tame in comparison. How could we do any less?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dreams (Part 2)

In my last entry I shared two dreams that I had in the two weeks following my return from Guatemala. What I did not share was the incredible sense of brokeness I felt in the days following those dreams.

In recent years I have become a very rational person. In my younger days I would often respond emotionally and, at times, be driven by my emotions. That is not the case as I have grown and matured. In fact, I am sometimes accused of being too detached when making decisions. However, as I processed these dreams and sought God for a response I was frequently overwhelmed with sorrow (and still am, though not as frequently). I could not speak of the children of Hermano Pedro or tell of my dreams without breaking down in tears. There is a collage of photos of my little friends from HP that hangs above my computer in my office and I could not look at them without weeping. On a couple of occasions, my wife came down to my office only to find me quietly sobbing with my face in my hands.

The sense of burden and pain was so intense at times that I could not function, and I struggled to understand the purpose and the appropriate response. And through it all I felt a firm conviction that I was responsible to change things. After a week of this I found myself crying out to God, "What are you doing to me?"

If you know me, you know that I am not the brightest person in the world, and at times I can miss the obvious. But eventually I had one of those cartoon lightbulb moments when it became clear to me: God was allowing me to experience a small taste of the pain He carries for our dying world. And that very tiny glimpse of His heart was overwhelming to me. For the first time I became dimly aware of how much He truly loves the world and how much He carries our sorrows and it devastated me.

During these weeks of processing I have felt myself continually being drawn back to Isaiah 58. In this chapter God communicates with His people through the prophet Isaiah and says this:

Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.
"Why have we fasted,"
they say, "and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?" Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Isaiah 58:1-4

As I read and re-read these words I could not help but think of the modern church in America. It sounds like an excellent description. Yes, we usually stop short of "striking each other with wicked fists" but not far short. Christianity in our culture is often characterized by division and quarreling and is definitely on the decline. Meanwhile, we talk frequently about the need for "revival" and spend time, energy, and money on books and seminars on church growth and effective church leadership. We look to solve the church's problems with the latest guru's formula and program while failing to realize the heart of the church is deeply and profoundly broken.

Isaiah 58 gives a very clear path to revival for the church. It is written in black and white. It is found in true fasting which is described in verses 6 - 11:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. "If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.

What a beautiful description of revival! And what a simple and clear path is shown to that revival! In essence, God tells His people that He does not hear them or respond to them because they do not care about the things He cares about. He aches for a dying world while those who bear His name care only for themselves and their own needs. This definitely characterizes the church in the U.S.

According to recent statistics the average church in America spends its money in the following ways:
  • 42% on salaries
  • 20% on facilities
  • 23% on internal programming and needs
  • 15% on outreach*

* It should be noticed that much of this 15% is not true outreach. Many churches list programs as outreach that are really for the church body but is simply open to the community. And only 2% of the typical church's budget goes outside of the U.S.A.

In other words, the way the church in Americal spends its time and money shows a huge preoccupation with itself and its own desires. Meanwhile we have meetings and conferences and seminars to address why the church in the U.S. is declining. And the answer is found clearly spelled out in Isaiah 58.

Let me just say that I am a pastor and I have been for nearly 20 years. I love the church and believe that God can and will use the church for great things. But before that can happen we must first be broken by our sin and disregard for the things that matter to God. If we want God's presence, power, and blessings in our midst we must first make His priorites our priorities and show it in the way we live as both individual believers and churches. Then our light will break forth like the dawn, and our healing will quickly appear!

I have begun this journey back to the heart of God through personal repentance and seeking to allow Him to rearrange the priorities of my family and me. I have been a part of the problem for far too long. My desire is to now, through His grace, be a part of the solution. Please join me.

Much more to come on this journey...