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Christian Life, Culture, Evangelism

Jesus and Comfortable Distance

November 28, 2016

 

 

Several years ago I had a somewhat heated discussion with some staff members at a church about whether or not it was reasonable to ask the congregation to take a somewhat significant step of faith in the realm of finances. I pointed to Jesus’ command to not worry about money or clothing but to instead seek the kingdom of God, and the general response was along the lines of “that’s a nice sentiment, but you’re still young and you don’t have kids or anything yet, so you don’t understand that you can’t ask that much from people.”

I left that conversation pretty frustrated and disillusioned. It felt like the church leadership was culling what, to me, seemed a clear and challenging statement from Jesus, making it into something safe and comfortable for the middle class crowd that showed up each week. Doesn’t Jesus’ command override what we feel we can or can’t do based on our life situation? Is our security and comfortability Jesus’ priority, or is he pushing us toward something else?

I’m older now (at least by a little bit), and I have a kid. My wife and I live in a nice three bedroom house that we’re able to afford only because of our landlord’s generosity. Over the last couple months we’ve had multiple conversations about the incredible pressure there is to conform to the comfortable – to co-opt following Christ and make it a means of making us feel good.

It does make us feel good to go to church, to sing worship songs, and to know that we’re going to heaven and our sins have been forgiven. It’s comfortable to go each Sunday and know what to expect, to smile and greet the people you see each week, and to sit in “your spot” in the sanctuary. Because we, pastors and church leaders included, so love comfort that we structure our churches and our lives (often unconsciously) to keep anything that might threaten us at a comfortable distance.

The problem is that when you come to Jesus – the real Jesus – he refuses to leave you any room for comfortable distance from the difficulties of the world.

Jesus’ Uncomfortable Closeness

Jesus went out of his way to get close to people and situations that would make almost anyone uncomfortable. We see him converse with a demonized, severely mentally ill man and bring healing up close rather than praying from a distance (Mark 5:1-17). He touches a man with a debilitating, highly contagious disease (Luke 17:11-19). He converses in public with a religious and political outsider (John 4). His whole life was a stepping in closer than comfort would allow for the sake of comforting those who were afflicted. He spends time with drunkards, the homeless, prostitutes, and all the people that make our conservative, middle-class sensibilities shudder and scrabble for “wise” reasons to keep our distance.

It wouldn’t be wise to give to the person begging for money at the intersection because he might spend it on alcohol, despite the fact that Jesus said “give to the one who asks from you” (Matt 5:42) with no qualifications. The church shouldn’t have to deal with people who are mentally ill or disruptive to the service, despite the fact that Jesus seems to welcome such disruptions and bring restoration to those who are broken. We shouldn’t have to give too much of our time or money or possessions because it wouldn’t be wise to not have boundaries, despite the fact that our lives are supposed to be living sacrifices.

My friends, Jesus is the epitome of wisdom, and his wisdom looks a lot like uncomfortable closeness – stepping into difficult situations in the power of God and bringing change. He most certainly did not stay at a distance.

Our Call for Closeness

Jesus said to his disciples, “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” If we are truly going to follow Jesus we need to get out of our safe spaces and go even into uncomfortable situations. Would you go with Jesus into a village where there was an ebola outbreak? Into the home of a prostitute? To sit with the man who is twitching on the street corner? I certainly hope so.

If you have the Holy Spirit, when you go into those places today you go with Jesus. Christ followers ought to be the first ones to go to the people and places that the world (the religious world especially) avoids. Any form of Christianity that makes us feel good and righteous apart from serving and loving those who make us uncomfortable is false religion. As James wrote in his Epistle, “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). Jesus exemplified it. He stepped out of the security, peace, and comfort of his position in heaven to come into this earth and get close with troubled humanity. the Father’s call for us is to go to those same people.

I don’t want to get 10 years into leading a ministry and be making excuses for why we’re not doing what Jesus said to do. I don’t want the American dream to have more say in my life than the Kingdom-of-God dream that my Lord offers. Let’s take conscious steps out of our comfort zones and into faith, befriending, loving, and serving those who the rest of the world rejects. In Jesus there’s no room for comfortable distance – only the dreadful, beautiful power of grace and love to break down any and all barriers for the sake of saving those who are wounded and wandering. Amen?

 

 

 

Discipleship, Evangelism, Life

Six Key Ingredients for Relational Evangelism

October 3, 2016

 

 

We may need to rethink our default evangelistic methods. We’re not in Judea with the Jewish people who grew up hearing about the Exodus, God’s law, and Justice. We’re in Athens, where most people assume that every god is the same god and that man is free to do as he pleases so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else.

The problem with cold-call, door-to-door evangelism is that we live in a world where most people don’t have the backstory of the Christian worldview. They don’t have a mental structure where that story fits any more. We still need to do it as the Spirit leads (praise God for those who are street preachers and bold evangelists!), but we also need to leverage the relationships we have. I believe that without relationally-based evangelism and it’s ability to give people long exposure to the deep truths of the Gospel, we will see significantly decreased effectiveness.

Here are six things that I believe are essential to make our relationships truly evangelistic in nature:

1. Up-front declaration of your allegiance

One of the first things you should communicate about yourself is that you’re a follower of Jesus. Not mainly that you go to church, but that your life is Jesus’. This should be done in a natural, unforced way. It should be an easy thing for us to declare our allegiance to our King. To have that happen, point two needs to be a reality.

2. A life that imitates Christ’s

Relational evangelism won’t happen if you’re living a life that’s the same as those around you. As Jesus said, “it is enough that a servant should become like his master in every way.” Michael Frost calls it “living a questionable life.”

This is one of the greatest things about relational evangelism, in my opinion. Whereas door-to-door evangelism allows a person to hide their spiritual immaturity, relationships reveal the truth. The greater your life is lived in line with Jesus’, the more effective your relational evangelism will be.

3. Powerful prayer and the miracles that result

A central part of a life that imitates Christ’s in prayer. Powerful prayer. Prayer that sees results. If we want our relationships to be calling people into God’s kingdom we need to be praying publicly for others. When a friend shares a struggle or a need with you, stop and pray for them right there. Answered prayer is one of the greatest declarations to a skeptic that our God is real. It was the early church’s miracles that confounded the skeptics and opened doors for the Gospel in places previously closed.

4. Joy in the face of negativity

One of the side effects of living in a place of prayer and connection with God the Father is joy, that beautiful fruit of the Spirit that every human longs for. Joy regardless of circumstances. You’ll have plenty of questions about the reasons for the hope you have when you can laugh in the midst of painful trials and have joy when you’re being drug down.

5. Connection to a gospel community

Relational evangelism means the weight isn’t all on you. It’s a network of relationships in which the Gospel shines brilliantly. As Leslie Newbigin wrote, the hermeneutic of the Gospel is the local body of Christ.

6. Following the Spirit’s leading

Ultimately all of this comes down to one simple thing – following the leading of the Holy Spirit. When we do that our lives imitate Christ’s because he is the spirit of Christ. We pray constantly because we have a permanent connection with the Father. We have joy because he is the fountain of joy. We can call people to Jesus because he is the one who convicts them of the truth.
But where I want to point us to particularly is those moments when the Spirit calls us to do something that doesn’t make sense, seems risky, or totally out of left field. Maybe you’ve been developing a friendship and the person is extremely anti-Christian, so you’re worried that they might respond negatively if you clearly call them to repent of sin and put their faith in Christ. Set aside those worries. If the Holy Spirit is calling you to take the risk and lay out the Gospel clearly, do it. If he’s calling you to stop and pray for a stranger on the street, do it. Take risks, follow the Spirit’s lead, and watch as the relationships you have turn into an infinite array of opportunities for people to encounter Jesus and receive the salvation that he so freely offers.

 

 

 

Culture, Discipleship, Evangelism

Evangelism and the Prodigal Son – Part 1

August 8, 2016

 

 

 

Have you ever noticed that the father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) never allows his son to fully proclaim his repentance? Instead of allowing the son who took and wasted half his wealth to speak his rehearsed apology and offer himself as a hired hand, the father cuts him off in the middle of his declaration that he’s not worthy by saying, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his fingers and sandals on his feet…” The apology is interrupted by the father’s celebration of the son’s return. The son isn’t given any space to prove his repentance or wallow in his sorrow. He’s returned. It’s time to celebrate.

Is this how people are treated when they return to God and step into the Christian community? In my experience, I don’t think Christian culture at large has practiced this well. We tend to want people to really prove their repentance before we celebrate their return. We want to see the “fruit” before we put the robes and rings on them. By fruit we generally mean show some real sorrow and agony over the bad stuff done in the past. Then when they’ve realllly demonstrated that they’re back to stay we can celebrate. But not too much, lest someone get the idea that sinning and leaving the father isn’t that big of a deal.

Does that align with God’s attitude and practice? Not if the father in this well known parable is an accurate reflection of God the Father.

Say you’re sorry

This kind of attitude has given us a mode of evangelism that’s aimed mainly at getting people to feel bad about their sin (i.e. be convicted) so that the forgiveness offered by Jesus will be appealing. They’ll see the beauty of the savior when they feel the fear of God, right? When they realize how far down their sin has taken them they’ll reach out for a savior to rescue them, won’t they?

There’s absolutely biblical merit to this. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that the law was given so that we might realize just how sinful sin was. The Old Testament prophets play strong and loud the note of God’s judgment and justice. John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness for repentance and fleeing from the wrath to come.

Here’s the thing though. In each of those instances the message is directed primarily at the people of God; those who already knew the law, had been raised with the stories of the Exodus, and had the context for a just God and a baseline knowledge for what sin was. They already had the mental framework on which to build that message.

For those of us in modern America, particularly those working with young adults and the coming generations, that’s no longer our context. It’s increasingly common to talk with people who have literally never read the Bible, have been to church maybe twice, and don’t have the moral groundwork that traditional bridge-diagram type Gospel presentations assume.

I believe the story of the prodigal son an often-overlooked element that can help us communicate the gospel to a culture that doesn’t have that context.  We need to ask the question, what was it that made the prodigal son return home to the father?

The Son’s Realization

Was it that he realized how sinful he was and that what he’d done was wrong? No. The text tells us that the son says to himself, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” (v.17) It was the son’s realization of his need (“here I am starving”) and remembrance of how good his father’s servants had it (they “have food to spare”) that drove him home.

It wasn’t a conviction that he had done something wrong that drove him home. If anything that conviction and shame of his wrongdoing is what kept him away for so long after squandering his inheritance. It was his need for food and memory of the good things that his father did for his servants that inspired his return.

Are our churches places where the goodness of God is on display? Are they places where people see something that they long for? Does our life together in Christ communicate that the Father’s children and servants “have food to spare”? When we present the Gospel, are we communicating it in a way that is actually good news for those to whom we are speaking?

Where Jesus, John, and the other apostles are blunt, often brutally so, about the need to repent when talking to religious people, the tone changes drastically when they are speaking to pagans who feel the shame of their sin but don’t have the knowledge of the law. Rather than trying to convince them that they’re sinners in need of grace (as most modern evangelistic trainings would have you do) they start with grace.

Witness the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) – Jesus welcomes and answers her questions, offering her the water of life and true connection before he ever mentions her sin. The thief on the cross simply hears the words “today you will be with me in paradise,” no repetition of the wrongs he’s done. In John 8 we see the woman caught in adultery who Jesus actually defends from the justice that the law demanded be meted out to her, explicitly saying “neither do I condemn you” before gently telling her to leave her life of sin. Zaccheus too, that wee little man, is never told to repent in Luke 19. Jesus simply says that he’s coming to stay at his house. It is Zacheus himself who brings up the wrong he’s done, repenting in that very moment.

Encountering Goodness

My friends, If we want to reach those who are not religious, we need to give them an encounter with the goodness of God rather than beginning with the battering of God’s wrath and justice. In their spirits they already know those things well, because the Holy Spirit is at work. As Paul writes in Romans 2, it’s the kindness, tolerance, and patience of God that leads people to repentance.
When you’re sharing the Gospel with someone for the first time, begin with the infinite grace that is found in Christ. Welcome prodigal sons into your midst where they can taste and see how good the sons and servants of the Heavenly Father have it! As we do so it’s like setting up a beautiful feast at the Father’s house next door to the pig sty that they’ve been living in. They’ll smell the rich food, hear the joy and laughter, and see just how good the Father’s servants have it. They will come home, and the Father will once again be ready to run to them with arms wide to clothe them with the righteousness of Christ.

 

 

 

 

Discipleship, Evangelism, Ministry Update

Support Us

June 14, 2016

 

 

For the last five and a half years I’ve been working to make disciples among the young adults in the Fargo-Moorhead area through Threshingfloor Communities. For the last year and a half I’ve also been on staff with Verge Ministries, expanding that disciple-making scope to include coaching ministry leaders and helping launch ministries throughout Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Iowa.

There’s a ridiculously huge need for ministries targeting this age group (roughly 18-34 years of age, according to most demographers). In Minnesota alone there are 1.2 million young adults. According to national studies from the past few years, only 22% of those young adults are evangelical Christians, with that percentage declining as you move to following generations. According to Kinnaman and Lyons, “one third of college-aged adults want nothing to do with religion, and 59 percent of Christian young adults drop out of church at some point in their twenties.” (Good Faith, 12)

That means that there are at least 1,170,000 young adults in Minnesota alone who don’t self-identify as evangelical Christians. Informal studies here in Fargo have shown that under 5% of the 70,000 young adults that are residents are engaged in a local church, meaning there’s well over 66,000 in just my city that aren’t connected to the body of Christ.

The harsh reality is, as Jesus makes clear, simply self-proclaiming on a survey or attending church regularly doesn’t equal being born again. There are literally millions of young adults and college students in our cities and states for whom Jesus’ beauty, power, and love are, at best, a nice myth.

My passion is to see those numbers change. I want to see thousands of churches, individuals, and ministries rise up in the power of God’s love to see the Kingdom of God established in the lives of those wandering twenty-somethings. I want the depressed 23 year old girl in Bismarck to discover the joy of the Spirit of Christ. I want the porn-addicted 19 year old student at Bemidji State to find freedom in the Gospel. I want to see the 30 year old man in Des Moines whose past few years have been devoured by video games encounter the powerful purpose that God has for his life.

It gets me pumped up just writing about these stories. I’ve seen ones like them become realities over the past 5 years of ministry as we’ve worked, prayed, and stepped out in faith. The momentum is growing, and both Kelly and I are feeling the call to do more.

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To do that we need your help. For the past year and a half Kelly and I have supported ourselves with a few different income streams; I’ve worked three days a week at a vendor for Microsoft and raised enough support to fund two “full” days of ministry work, enabling me to travel to cities like Park Rapids and Bismarck to coach young adult and college ministry leaders, as well as grow Threshingfloor towards having deeper impact in Fargo, going from one to three communities. Kelly’s worked full time. Our combined income has been enough to cover both ministry and living expenses thus far.

But things are changing in the next month. We’re expecting our first child at the end of July, which means that Kelly won’t be working full time for much longer. My part time job and minimal support won’t be enough to provide for our family. I need to make an important decision in the next four weeks: do I go back to working full time to provide for our family and significantly cut back the ministry I’ve been doing, or will God provide the financial support to enable me to continue with the ministry work?

Regardless of which one happens we’re going to continue disciple-making and working with the young adults God has put us into contact with, but in a more limited capacity. In order to stay on track and increase the hours I’m putting towards making disciples of young adults throughout the Midwest, we need to raise an additional $2000 a month of support. Some of this money will go directly to ministry expenses and launching new ministries, and some will go towards our living expenses. If you want a specific breakdown of how donations are used, email me – ben@verge28.org.

Would you consider helping us reach young adults and train ministries leaders by investing $25 or even $100 a month, or giving a one-time donation?

There are so many huge opportunities amongst this generation. Even as the world is getting darker and more distant from the “Christian” culture of 50 years ago, there’s a deep hunger among young adults for something true and lasting; something that’s found only in Jesus. Your support is a true blessing and investment in seeing those young adults reached.

 

If you do want to give you can do so here.

If you want to join our prayer newsletter and stay up to date on the ministry that’s taking place, go here.

 

 

Christian Life, Evangelism, Faith

By God, the Camel Can

April 25, 2016

 

 

Each of you, if you’re a follower of Christ, have at least one or two people in your life who seem like they’ll never put their faith in Christ. They’re the coworker who you watch your words around lest they begin berating you about the evils of religion. They’re the family member who is more than ready to enter into a quickly-escalating debate about the existence of God over the dinner table, much to everyone else’s chagrin. They’re the friend who you’ve known for years and love and are beginning to despair of them ever seeing the truth of what you so passionately believe.

It’s discouraging to go month after month, year after year in prayer and faithful truth-speaking and see no apparent fruit. But don’t give up just because it’s hard. In fact, don’t give up just because it’s impossible.

In Mark 10 Jesus makes the statement, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” His disciples, rightly appalled at this statement, begin to question Jesus about how exactly someone can be saved if it’s something as utterly impossible as fitting a six-foot-tall dromedary through a needle hole. With his typical, beautiful brevity Jesus replies, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” By God, the camel can and will fit through the needle’s eye.

Those people in your life who are fiercely against Christianity? That friend you’ve been longing to see encounter Jesus in a life-changing way? They’re the camel, and all things are possible.

Don’t give up on that person – those people. Continue faithfully demonstrating and declaring the glorious truth of the Gospel. Continue in your prayer. No matter how hard-hearted or resistant the person, God is still able to accomplish the impossible. It is there, in the fitting of camel-people through the eye of the Gospel’s needle, that God gets the greatest glory. He can still raise a dead soul to life and open those blinded eyes to see the beauty of Christ. Believe it, and act accordingly.

 

 

 

Christian Life, Culture, Evangelism, young adults

Five ways to bear witness in a post-Christian culture

December 28, 2015

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

  • 1 Peter 2:11-25

 

In the last generation and a half Western culture’s opinion of Christianity has shifted from generally positive to downright terroristic. Christians have gone from being seen as nice people to being characterized primarily as dogmatic bigots, sexually backward traditionalists, and ignorant conservatives. The backlash from four hundred plus years of Christendom is coming full force, and as others have noted (See here and here for a couple insightful articles along these lines) we need to set aside our assumptions of being a majority with significant cultural clout and learn to live into the role of exiles and a minority.

This is especially true for millennials, young adults, and the following generations who will (and do) live in the midst of this quickly-coalescing anti-Christian culture., The book of 1st Peter will become an increasingly valuable Biblical guidebook for how to live in light of exile and how to bear witness to Christ in a world that has little to no positive associations with Christianity.

In 1 Peter 2 the apostle lays out a strange strategy for bearing witness to Christ in exile. In contrast with the common evangelism tactics used over the last fifty years or so, Peter’s strategy doesn’t have much to do with cold-calls, getting people to acknowledge their sinfulness, or preaching on street corners. Honestly it doesn’t have much to do with speaking at all; it has everything to do with living a kind of life that brings up questions. Here’s what Peter calls the people he’s writing to to do in order to bear witness:

1. Stop sinning

In verse 11 he writes, “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” How can a believer bear witness to the power and glory of the Gospel of Christ in a post-Christian culture? By removing the sin from their lives. Cut out lust and pornography, lying and manipulation, self-praise and laziness and the world around you will begin to wonder what the source of your transformation is.

2. Do good

It’s not enough to stop doing bad things. Instead, we must “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”Our lives should overflow with good deeds – from helping a new neighbor move in to congratulating a coworker on their success to giving generously of our finances. Our lives should be so full of good deeds that other people can’t help but be impressed.

3. Submit to authority (even bad ones)

“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority.” Oh how hard this presses against our American tendency to assert our right to overthrow unjust and ungodly authority! We’re quick to fill Facebook feeds with articles insulting Obama and calling for the reform of American government, but does that truly reflect the character of Christ who submitted silently to the questioning of Pilate and bore stoically the utterly unjust weight of the cross?

The world, post-Christian or otherwise, knows well how to buck the authorities they dislike. What will bring questions and bear witness to patient faith in God is not mainly civil disobedience and moral outrage; it is submitting, for the Lord’s sake, to even unjust human authorities. (Disagree? Comment below.)

4. Honor everyone

“Show proper respect to everyone…fear God, honor the emperor.” Not only are we to submit to even evil authority, we are to honor everyone. Everyone here means – you guessed it – everyone.

Christian, do you know how to honor homosexuals? Are you equipped to honor, regardless of their policy on immigration/taxes/social security/ISIS/gender norms, the next President of our country? Will you be prepared to honor your boss when they fire you simply for being a Christian or will you take to social media and release your righteous, fully justified indignation? Trevin Wax has some wise words about honor and social media. (http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/trevinwax/2013/11/25/does-your-facebook-rant-honor-everyone/) We followers of Jesus should be known for the way we are fair and honorable towards those who we disagree with and dislike.

In my personal opinion this practice of honoring everyone may be the most powerful tool for bearing witness to Christ in a post-Christian culture. We need to learn how to leverage it.

5. Love other believers

Peter commands us to honor everyone, but to “love the family of believers.” Echoing Jesus’ command in John 13, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” Peter echoes that indeed, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Love goes above and beyond honor. Where honor can be done solely on the outside, bowing externally while the inside is raging, love demands a peculiar level of affection. Love covers over differences and focuses on the good of the other. Love ignores petty divisions and searches out common ground on which to stand. If we want to reach young adults and millennials and a post-Christian world, love must be the tone of every conversation and interaction we have with other Christians. Petty divisions be damned, love be all.

 

As I look out over the collapse of Christendom I see a world of opportunity. I see a generation of young adults who are hungry for true spirituality and who are eager for purpose in life. in the midst of our culture’s is increasing opposition to Christianity we have a massive opportunity to help them correctly redefine what it means to follow Jesus. It is as we “live such good lives among the pagans” that we will bear witness and be the re-writers of those definitions.

Let’s begin to live that kind of life and “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” As we do so we will begin to see the fruit of true conversions and discipleship take place. Truly, there is no other way.

 

 

 

Culture, Discipleship, Evangelism, Leadership

Celebrate the right sheep

December 16, 2015

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.’

-Luke 15:1-7

 

Jesus constantly seems to go against our expectations. Our priorities are, more often than not, in direct opposition to his.

No where is this more clear than in the world of ministry when we look at what is talked most frequently about and celebrated most consistently. In my experience we generally default to celebrating the fact that we have a whole bunch of really good Christians in our ministry/church/small group. Oh, we’re not so backwards as to measure only attendance. Our measurements hinge on the holiness and “christiany-ness” of the people who we’re ministering to. Do we have a group of people who are really working hard at obeying Christ, studying their Bibles daily, and praying together? Let’s celebrate! Have the believers in our care grown spiritually? Time to party!

Jesus, however, says that there’s more celebration in heaven over the recovery of one lost sheep than there is over the many already found. Jesus says that there are more parties in heaven when someone moves from lost to found than for when someone who is already in Christ gets in a small group or develops a Bible reading habit.

Which one are you and your ministry celebrating? Which are you prioritizing; the keeping, feeding, and training of your existing sheep or the recovery of lost ones?

Judging by the parables in Luke 15, Jesus thinks the priority (and the party) is for the recovery of those who are lost. Those who are the shepherds of God’s people are called to be missionaries, not managers. Somewhere along the way we get caught up with managing the growth of those who are already saved and lose sight of finding the lost. If we want to line up with God’s priorities for us  we need to shift how we operate and what we celebrate.

Drawing from Jesus’ three parables in Luke 15, there are at least four things that we can to do create a culture that aligns with heaven and celebrates the recovery of lost sheep more than the management of the saved ones.

Trust God with the ones that are already found

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”

What a foolish shepherd! He leaves 99 sheep alone in the open country to go after one! Doesn’t he know that sheep are defenseless and there are predators around and that other sheep will wander off while he’s gone? That, at least, is how we generally operate. But not so for the ideal shepherd that Jesus portrays here. This shepherd trusts God to protect the sheep that are already with him. He operates as a missionary rather than a manager and goes after the one, knowing that God will keep those who are his.

Are we truly trusting God with those who are his, or are we spending our time fretting over keeping the sheep that we already have?

Go searching

The shepherd doesn’t wait for his lost sheep to come back. The old woman doesn’t wait for her coin to show up magically. In both cases they search. Want to have lost sheep rescued through the ministry God’s given you and brought into the kingdom of God? Step out of your safe, found-sheep security and get out into the wilderness. Get down on your hands and knees and look in the places where a coin might go. Go where the lost are. Stop expecting them to come to you – they’re lost. Start searching.

Do you have time set aside in your schedule – especially if you’re a vocational minister – to be in places where people who aren’t believers hang out?

Welcome sinners and eat with them

But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

When you go searching, don’t drop in to throw out a gospel presentation and then disappear. Instead, settle in and share a meal. Make friends. Jesus makes a point of spending his time in places where the lost spent time.

When was the last time that you shared a meaningful meal with someone who wasn’t a believer? Who can you name as a real friend that’s not a “found sheep”? If the religious people are muttering about you, you’re probably doing something right.

When a sheep/son/coin is found, party!

What we celebrate is a huge statement about what we value. Three times in this chapter Jesus emphasizes how much God values the return of a lost person. Heaven rejoices at the recovery of a lost sheep. God the Father throws huge parties when his lost children return home. We ought to do the same thing. After all, what better reason for celebration than the salvation of an immortal soul?

When someone who was lost is found, gather your friends and neighbors and party! Go all out in extravagance. Let your celebration echo heaven and be a statement to those in your ministry that what gets you stoked is the saving of the lost. Invite those who aren’t believers in to the party and let it be a statement to them that coming to Christ is more than just assenting to a set of rules.

 

I want to be like Jesus in this. Over the last few months I’ve found myself getting frustrated at the slow growth of the found sheep under my care. God used Jesus’ parables here in Luke 15 to push me back and challenge me to evaluate what I’m valuing, and I believe he may want you to do the same thing.

Let’s get our priorities straight. Celebrate the return of the lost sheep. Be a missionary, not a manager.

 

 

 

 

Culture, Evangelism, Verge, young adults

Creation on Mission

December 14, 2015

Missionaries to countries where another language is spoken must, inevitably, learn the language or languish in incredible ineffectiveness. In order to disciple people to and in Christ, you have to speak a language they understand.

So what do we do when the young adults, college students, and teenagers that we are trying to make disciples among don’t speak our language any more? How do we communicate when the people we’re ministering to don’t understand us?

Several years ago the National Study for Youth and Religion found that most teenagers (now young adults) are “incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs, and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives.” Not only do the majority of young adults not know how to express their faith, many also simply don’t speak the language of faith at all or are operating on vastly different definitions than most ministry leaders.

It’s not just young adults. The language of western culture is shifting increasingly away from the religious. Biblical literacy is swiftly decreasing, both within and without the church walls. How are we to communicate the gospel to those who don’t speak the language that the church has trained us to speak?

Creation Speaks

In Psalm 19 David writes;

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.

(Psalm 19:1-2, ESV)

Somehow the skies are communicating God’s glory across cultural and language barriers without any problem. While many with decades of ministry experience are using language that’s increasingly insular and incomprehensible to the majority of millennials and the wider culture, creation is making moment-by-moment proclamation of the glory of God.

Hard Facts

In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath lay out a framework for communicating ideas in ways that gives them “sticking” power. The third principle they lay out as critical for stickiness is concreteness. They state that, “Trying to teach an abstract idea without concrete foundations is like trying to start a house by building a roof in the air.“ (115)

The problem with much of our evangelism and mission is that we start with abstract ideas that many have little to no concrete foundations for. What exactly does “saved” mean? Why should I care if Jesus “died as a sacrifice for my sins”? What exactly does justification mean? Does it even matter?

Read the rest of this post at the Verge Ministries blog.

 

 

 

Christian Life, Commentary, Evangelism

When People Get in the Way

November 23, 2015

People are inconvenient. They keep you up late, stay longer than you’d like, talk louder than you want, don’t get what you’ve been trying to communicate, and cause a thousand other problems.  People are also who God loves, who he sent his Son for, and who we’re called to disciple, and it’s in those times of inconvenience that there is the most potential for God to work greatly. The question is, how will we respond in the moments when we’re inconvenienced and our plans have to be trashed?

Several days ago I listened to a great message from Christine Caine given at Bethel church on some lesser-observed pieces of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000. What she said sparked some thoughts that have caused me to reevaluate how I respond when I’m inconvenienced.

Here’s the scene: Jesus’ disciples have just returned from their first solo (and by solo I mean apart from Jesus, not alone) missionary trips. As usual the crowds are surround Jesus, asking for healing, wisdom, and whatever he’ll give. His disciples are working like crazy, so much so that they don’t even have time to eat. Remember, all this is immediately after their first missions trip. They’re wiped. Jesus, knowing his disciples are tired and in need of rest decides to escape away to somewhere that they can chill for awhile.

The people, however, have different ideas. When Jesus and the disciples arrive at their retreat spot all ready for some peace and quiet there are literally thousands of people waiting for them, clamoring for attention. Jesus and his team came expecting dinner and possibly a day or two or rest and peace. What they get is people. Inconvenient, plan-shattering, energy-sucking people.

Here’s where I want us to zoom in and watch closely. How do the disciples respond to this interruption? How does Jesus act? How should we respond when we encounter situations like this, albeit (most likely) on a smaller scale?

Mark writes,

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”

But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
Mark 6

The Disciple’s Reactions

We don’t get their initial response in Mark’s writing, but the way the disciples come to Jesus a bit later and drop not-so-subtle hints by saying, “This is a remote place…and it’s already very late. Send the people away so they can get something to eat” speaks volumes.

They came for a retreat and for some rest. People are getting the way of this, so the disciples cunningly use the people’s hunger as an excuse to get what they want. “Jesus, the people are hungry. Send them away.” But who’s really hungry here? We see a few verses earlier that the disciples are the ones who haven’t even had time to eat. It’s probably safe to assume that at least some of the crowd had eaten whatever the last meal was and had thought about food on their way into this “remote place.”

Unlike Jesus the disciples are focused on themselves and their own plans and needs. These lenses only let them see the crowds as a problem that needs a solution – in this case, to be gotten rid of. To them the people are an inconvenience, and when people are seen through the lens of a problem to be solved or an inconvenience to be removed, we’re blinded to the places where God often does his greatest works.

Jesus’ Actions

In contrast, Jesus’ response to this “inconvenience” is compassion. He sees the crowd not through the lens of “what do I want” or “what are my plans,” but through the lens of the love that asks “What do others need?” and the faith which wants to know “What are God’s plans?”. For Jesus, the crowd isn’t a problem to be solved; it’s an opportunity for demonstrating the Father’s character and power.

Because he sees this “inconvenience” as an opportunity rather than a problem, a miracle happens. He submits to God’s changing of his plans and the disciples get see the glory of a God who provides abundantly for thousands.

The question for us is, whose perspective are we living with? The disciples’ or Jesus’? When inconveniences come our way are we living in the self-absorbed world of the disciples, eager to remove any obstacles to our plans and expectations for our lives and ministries? Or are we living in the faith and love of Christ and seeing through God’s eyes, viewing every inconvenience as an opportunity for God’s glory to shine through?

In his essay “On Chasing After One’s Hat,” G.K. Chesterton puts it well when he says,

Most of the inconveniences that make men swear or women cry are really sentimental or imaginative inconveniences–things altogether of the mind. For instance, we often hear grown-up people complaining of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train. Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains… An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

People are inconvenient. They’re slow to understand, they don’t follow expectations, want help with the most ridiculous things and don’t seem to grasp the simplest of truths. But people are who our Father has sent us to, and it’s in those inconvenient places that we are given a choice to focus on ourselves or to walk in love and faith.

Let’s be like Jesus, looking over the crowd with compassion. Let’s be the boy at the train station, full with wonder and expectation that God is in every crack just waiting to do something glorious. Next time someone gets in the way of your plans, follow God’s lead. See an adventure rather than an inconvenience. Who knows what will happen. You may end up feeding thousands.

Christian Life, Commentary, Discipleship, Evangelism, Theology

God On Mission

October 14, 2015

The Father didn’t send Jesus on vacation; he sent him on a mission. Throughout his adult life, Jesus had a goal. He wasn’t dropped randomly in an inconsequential place at an inconsequential time. Quite the opposite. Jesus was sent on a mission by God the Father “at just the right time,” and he was sent “not to be served, but to serve.” After his resurrection Jesus appears to his disciples and says to them, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21) Wonder of wonders, he says to his disciples that they’re being sent in the same way that he was, on a mission.

Jesus wasn’t doing something new in his mission-oriented life. From the very beginning – even before the fall and sin – God has been on mission. His goal: that the earth be “full of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” or, to put it as he did to his image bearers Adam and Eve, “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” Jesus, however, gives us an extended, up close, and truly human glimpse of what it looks like when God shows up on mission.

I want to take the next several paragraphs and zoom in on a specific scene from Jesus’ life that I believe gives a beautiful picture of God on mission in all it’s wild and frightening strangeness. From this scene we’ll see six things that are always present when God is on mission. The characters: Jesus and twelve young men – a few fishers, a tax collector, a zealot, and some others. The scene: rural Israel in the first century.

 

Read the full post at the Verge Ministries blog