The Out of the Way Church

“I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
-Matthew 16:18

The Out of the Way ChurchIt stood as a silent beacon of hope. Only farmland and the bleakness of East Tennessee in winter surrounded it. There was no gym or recreation center. It only had one building, with architecture of no real consequence. There was no flashing sign, no marquee proclaiming its presence on the web, and parking was both in the lot and on the grass nearby. It was out of the way, and only my errands on that road made me aware of its existence.

But this little country church was exactly where it should be.

When Peter finally accepted his role as the founder of the organized church, he never forgot that its primary role was to be the great proclaimer of the Kingdom. As history has demonstrated, the forces of evil and hatred have time and time again assailed the walls of the church, but have broken like waves upon cliffs of stone.

In order to do that, however, the church was first and foremost local. All throughout the travels of Paul – and affirmed by Peter – the great missionary planted churches in order to take care of the local needs of Christians. These churches – often no more than house gatherings – were to take care of the poor and the widow, to instruct in faith and witness, to pray for the government in whatever form, and in all things to proclaim the Gospel of Christ.

The combined might of the Roman Empire was no match for this simple idea.

Think what would have happened if the American church had adopted this idea of outward expansion of the church thirty years ago at the beginning of the “tall steeple” movement. We would not have the sprawling campuses that describe many churches, but the country side would be dotted with buildings that call together the people of God. We might not have worship centers that can project pyrotechnics that would be the envy of any rock concert, but we would have sanctuaries where Christians can humbly gather to worship their Savior. We might not have Executive Pastors, Chiefs of Staff, or other hallmarks of the postmodern church. But what we would have is a local church that addresses the unique needs of the community, in all things proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.

So here’s to the small church that stands alone in the back roads of East Tennessee. Your building might not be the newest thing on the block. Your sanctuary may be drafty in the winter and stifling in the summer. Your pastor may have to work another job in order to support his calling to be a shepherd of the community of faith. But against your simple walls, not even the Gates of Hell can stand.

The church is Christ’s deep longing
And His good pleasure too.
His every word and action
Is made with her in view.
His heart’s love is established,
And nought can Him deter;
Before the earth’s foundation
His thoughts were filled with her.
-The Church is Christ’s Deep Longing

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Simple Obedience Part 2: True Freedom

But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night.
-Psalm 1:2

Swing with FenceSeveral years ago a group of sociologists set out to study how children act on a playground. On the first day they observed the young people within the fenced-in area participating in a variety of activities. Some were playing organized games, others were on the swing sets and climbing bars, while still others were at the perimeter of the fence looking outward. The next day the scientists removed the fence. To their astonishment, this action did not result in the youth scattering themselves in every direction. Instead, the children huddled together in the center of what used to be the defined limits of their play area. Without that boundary, the children did not feel free to play.

Although it sounds contrary to logic, obedience to God actually results in freedom. Disobedience to His commands leads not to freedom, but licentiousness that results in a slavery to the results of sinfulness.

Can we truly say that disregarding God’s boundaries for us has made us more free? By setting our own standards for relationships are we more truly fulfilled, or do we go from liaison to liaison wondering why we can never be happy? Has our utter disregard for the Sabbath lead to more productive lives, or are we drowning in stress and lack of direction? While we are covet what the Joneses have, are we truly content in the many blessings that we already possess? Has the increased sexualization of society lead to a freedom of enjoyment, or are we left craving a true sense of intimacy?

Simple obedience to God leads to freedom – not to DO what we want but to BE whom God wants us to be. By following the boundaries that God has set in our relationships with each other can we truly know and appreciate the unique creation that each of us are. Knowing that the Sabbath was made for our benefit allows us to be creative in the ways we worship and rest. Only by praising God for His gifts and not comparing ourselves to those around us can we truly be blessed by God. When we understand the necessity of loving Christ with our entire beings can we be free to know love.

The commands of God are indeed a fence. But, it is a fence that truly sets us free.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
-Robert Robinson

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Simple Obedience Part 1: It Makes No Sense

If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.
-John 14:15

PerelandraIn his wonderful novel Perelandra, C.S. Lewis describes a world that is made up of rolling oceans, vast floating seaweed beds that can support humans, and fixed islands of land that tower into the sky. As Ransom – the lone human sent to this planet for a purpose unknown even to him – wanders this world, he comes into contact with one of the two only people who inhabit this world. Tinadril is searching and waiting for her husband, who has been driven off by a storm.

In the midst of the discussions and adventures that follow, Ransom asks the woman why she does not sleep on the fixed land. While she is allowed to walk on it, drink of the water that is there and eat of the fruit – at nightfall she must leave. Her only response is that she is forbidden to do so by God. “It makes no sense,” says Ransom. “What is the difference?” Her reply:

I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that?

As the story unfolds, the fate of Tinidril and the entire world rests upon this obedience that just seems unreasonable.

Obedience to God often does make sense. We don’t commit murder because it is heinous to us, or we fear the consequences. We don’t steal or tell lies (at least under oath), or break any of the other “major” commandments. In reality, it makes simple sense to follow them.

True obedience, however, comes down to obeying when doing so does not make any real sense. Excuses like “Hey, we both wanted to” or “It is legal here” or “I can do what I want as long as I don’t hurt someone else” all too often are indeed true! If a utilitarian mindset drives our ethics and obedience, then of course if it works and feels good, then do it!

We are obedient to God because He loved us when we were unlovable. We follow His Law because that is our response in love. We trust that – while it might not make sense at the moment – God has a purpose for His commands. Our job is simply to follow.

Today’s quote is not a hymn (but should be!)

If God would have wanted discussion,
Then God would have “Let’s discuss it!”
Then you, me and God would have chat, to see what we would do.
But God didn’t say “Talk it over.”
So we ain’t gonna have us discussion.
And that my boys, is that.
-Noah in Two By Two

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The Irrelevant Church Part 4: No Foundation

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: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.
-2 Tim 4:1-2

AnchorAccording to Anchorsaway, a non-denominational organization located in Indianapolis, between 69% – 91% of all college students fall away from their faith – and very few return. (Anchorsaway) Astounding, for it means with every passing generation people are moving farther and farther away from the church.

Even relying upon the low end of these numbers leads to a disastrous conclusion – churches are not preparing young people – or any age for that matter – to meet the challenges and influences of today’s culture. The final reason why the church has become irrelevant is that it has failed to provide any foundation for its members, nor is it training its members in how to engage the culture around us.

Consider for example the following questions:

  • Why is the Lordship of Jesus Christ unique among all faiths of the world? Does that mean that the faithful followers of other religions who are trying to do good things perish?
  • How do we rectify the Gospel’s overwhelming message of peace with gun ownership? On the other hand, how do we react to a physical threat to our families and loved ones if so confronted?
  • Can we separate faith from practice? Can we proclaim that we believe one thing, but will not pass laws that “push” that faith on others?
  • If we are believe homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle, how do we justify that with Scripture? If we believe it is a sin, how does that measure up to Christ’s chief message of love?

The majority of Christians today probably would not be able to answer these questions. When pressed, they usually end with “Well, that is just what I believe,” or “I just feel that to be right.” Neither statement works – and ultimately ends in a moral relativism that neither wins hearts to Christ nor advances His kingdom on earth.

In order to become relevant, the church must stop teaching “what” to think and instead start focusing on “why” we believe what we do. For example, it is simple enough to say “Jesus is God” in our worship every week. It is not so simple a matter to wrestle with the idea that God – the Eternal and Undying – died on the cross. At church children learn the ideas of a divinely created universe, but the rest of the week they are bombarded with an idea of evolution that has no plan. Conservative churches are taught conservative views and liberal churches are taught liberal views without stopping to ask critical questions that would help to understand both.

It is no wonder that Christians get mowed through like soldiers on Normandy when faced with today’s cultural issues. The church has failed to give them the necessary critical thinking skills to address these challenges. Thus, faced with well-thought through philosophies or science, is it any wonder why people do not look to the undisciplined church for any guidance in moral or practical choice?

The increasing non-persuasive value of the church is not, and has not, been an act of culture. The church has abandoned its role as an ambassador of the Kingdom of God and has allowed itself to become marginalized and disregarded as just one voice among many. Until the church – its pastors, elders, and members – actively and intentionally take up their roles as the salt of the earth, it will continue its downward decline towards irrelevance.

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
-James R. Lowell

Anchor Photo: Leo Reynolds

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The Irrelevant Church Part 3: A PR Nightmare

Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.
-Col 4:5-6

Church BillboardIt is very important to understand that most churches are laboring to proclaim the Gospel of Christ as they see fit. Many give away millions each year in missionary efforts both at home and abroad. Their members are engaged in the local community. In themselves, all very good things.

Those outside the church do not know any of these activities. The church has become irrelevant because it has a massive public relations problem. A short conversation with unchurched folks will reveal the following perceptions:

Churches are too big!

While a vast amount of churches are under 300 members, the churches that people do see are the sprawling megacenters that encompass multiple buildings and acres of land. Non church members see architecture that no one can get into without a special key and soccer fields that are fenced off from the surrounding community. What people see is not a church, but a private club that caters to its members, gobbles up land, and ignores the local neighborhood.

I grew up in a big church – albeit one that in today’s standards would not be considered a megachurch by any stretch of the imagination. I know the good things that big church can do. But, we do have to ask, have churches become too big? Public relations aside, can the vast amount of money used to expand these complexes – which is what those outside the church are thinking of – be used more suitably elsewhere?

How do we address this issue? Churches really need to ask – do we need to be this big? Do we really need to build a new soccer field, or a new gymnasium? Should we plant churches instead? There will always be a difference in size of churches – depending on the size and economic status of the community. But churches must always ask if their sprawling complex really does win over hearts and minds to Christ.

Churches have become too glossy!

Several times a year I get a really stylish, well laid-out, glossy postcard from local churches advertising their congregation. Because I work in marketing, I know how expensive these mailings are to produce and mail. I also know that the average rate of return on these or any other kind of mailing is less than three percent.

Slick advertising campaigns, cute billboards a mile in the sky and flashy websites do nothing to attract the nonchurched of the community. What these people see is an organization that is no different then Burger King – trying to break through the noise of advertising to gain their attention. Again, they see the money it takes to create such campaigns – and they shake their heads and walk away.

The answer to this problem is simple – stop! Really. The non-churched know what is out there. Those advertising dollars are better spent elsewhere.

Church members are hypocrites!

Christians are fallible. We make mistakes and are inconsistent with our faith on a daily basis. Yet, followers of Christ are to constantly be attending to these behaviors – asking for forgiveness and the grace to correct them.

Over and over again, however, non-Christians see believers who engage in shady business practices, who treat spouses poorly, or who use foul language as a regular part of their repartee. These Christians have expensive homes, expensive cars, and expensive taste – but who are miserly in the treatment of employees or those who need help. Then the non-churched see these same cars in the parking lots of churches on Sunday.

Scripture is very clear that one of the main purposes of the leaders of the church is to help members in their Christian walk. Church membership should involve accountability – at all levels of faith and practice. Until elders and pastors are willing to discipline themselves and their members, this unchecked hypocrisy will continue to hinder the church.

The church throws the Bible at me, when all I want to do is just talk!

In the midst of the present culture debate, churches and religious organizations are cranking up efforts to get the word across of the “Christian Response” to whatever current issue is the hot topic. We see church programs, web casts, videos and books galore – all designed to plaster an unwilling public with Christ’s message.

The Kingdom of God is not shared by throwing a Bible at someone. Disciples are not won by distributing pamphlets, nor by decrying their sins and transgressions. The Kingdom of God is built one person at a time. It is not built by Bible beating or program enrollment, but by forming relationships and sharing the saving Word of Christ one person at a time. When will our churches understand that it is through simple and sincere discipleship that people get to know Jesus?

I am not advocating that the church decide its direction based on non-Christians. There are some things that the church does – communion for example – that will always be a mystery to those outside the fold of God. And there are many hearts that are hardened against the Word no matter how effectively the church goes about its commission.

But we need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot.

If I have wounded any soul today,
If I have caused one foot to go astray,
If I have walked in my own willful way,
Dear Lord, forgive!

If I have uttered idle words or vain,
If I have turned aside from want or pain,
Lest I myself shall suffer through the strain,
Dear Lord, forgive!

If I have been perverse or hard, or cold,
If I have longed for shelter in Thy fold,
When Thou hast given me some fort to hold,
Dear Lord, forgive!

Forgive the sins I have confessed to Thee;
Forgive the secret sins I do not see;
O guide me, love me and my keeper be,
Dear Lord, Amen.
-C. Maude Bat­ters­by

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