A group of students from a student ministry led by my son Drew gathered in our backyard for a bonfire last night. You know the drill: large pile of brush, limbs and yard cuttings set ablaze, faces reflected in the flickering circle—and S’Mores!
The idea of a spreading blaze has always struck me as a compelling image of the revival that must come from God to the church in the United States. To be more specific, the revival that must come to our church, which like so many is struggling to break from a plateau and to regain missional energy necessary to reach the vast numbers of people who desperately need Jesus and His gospel.
So, while watching the blaze last night and thinking about the church, some thoughts came to mind:
+That which appears most dead may be most primed to burst into flame. The brush pile had been on the back edge of our lot since mid-summer—through the scorching, moisture-sucking heat of summer days and the humid nights, cut off from root and source. But ironically, it was that very lifelessness that primed it for a blaze.
The essence of gospel renewal is resurrection, that the Risen Jesus brings what was coldly dead back to teeming life again. But the real key for revival is that a church sense, name and own its deadness. That realization leads to a heart of welcoming desperation.
+Just one spark can erupt into a blaze and change everything…suddenly. It literally took one spark to set our brush pile ablaze. One spark, and within seconds, a fifteen-foot-high wall of fire rose in front of me. One spark, and the roar and crackle filled the night. One spark, and the darkness gave way to the light.
One Holy Spirit moment in a cold, languishing church could be the spark to transform everything. It may come spontaneously or as the result of steady leaning in God’s direction, like the repeated striking of a flint.
What might that spark be? A profound encounter of awe in worship that elevates a people’s view of the holy, sovereign God they claim; desperate, pleading, unyielding prayer for a fresh move of God on His people in a particular place; a willingness to give up selfish preferences, endure discomfort and crash through comfort zones for the sake of gospel advance; taking God’s Word more seriously so that it begins to shape daily choices and foster courageous, Kingdom-directed obedience; deepening relationships with brothers and sisters who will help one another more faithfully live the Christ-life; engaging in genuine friendships with people outside Christ’s grace–broken, indifferent, secular, self- satisfied—so they encounter Jesus’ love with skin on; breaking past the church walls to live Jesus’ mission in the world’s mess.
Or the spark that breeds a reviving flame could come from something completely unexpected that the Holy Spirit determines to use for His reviving purposes.
+ After the initial flame erupts, it requires a continuing supply of fuel to keep it burning. The brush pile was so dry that the flame consumed it in a matter of minutes. So, we had to scramble to use boxes from the recycling bin, pine straw and other sticks in the yard to keep the flame alive
I can’t tell you how often I have seen a Holy Spirit moment erupt in a church, only to have it reduced to dying embers in a short time. Why? No fuel. No courage from some to step into a movement that was wild with newness and short on precedent. Or the bucket brigade made sure to douse the spark before it became a flame, having more passion for the status quo than the Spirit.
What is the fuel to fan the Spirit’s flame? An increasing number of churchmember hearts, tender and adventurous with more faith than sight. Life-shaping passion for both the things that delight and break the heart of God Love for people who need Jesus, a hatred of hell, a longing for heaven — the perspective of eternity.
It’s essential that more hearts join the first spark, fanning it with even more Holy Spirit power.
+ The flame consumes what is unnecessary and prepares for what’s next. By the morning the flames and embers had died. The eyesore old brush pile was gone, and that spot in the yard is leveled and ready for something new to grow.
The Holy Spirit flame will consume what is not of God, inconsistent with the gospel. not necessary or in keeping with His mission and the display of His glory in a particular place at a particular time. The consuming may feel like destruction to some, but it may in fact be the prelude to life.
There are things in many churches that have grown up –stacked structures, systems or styles that are lifeless and dry. They have become such a part of the background for insiders that they never see them. But those very things are sucking the life out of Christ-followers and blocking outsiders from seeing the beauty of Jesus.
The church needs revival, a Holy Spirit blaze that draws people out of the dark and into the Light of Jesus.
It needs a revival to consume what is not of God and prepare the way for the new, fresh, beautiful and transforming work of Jesus.
We need Holy Spirit fire to fall, so that God’s people know that He has acted to “turn their hearts back” and will then “fall on their faces and cry “the Lord, He is God!” (1 Kings 18:37, 39)
Thus set afire, those who are His will take that flame into the world, spreading the light of the world who promises that all who follow Him “will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (Jn.8:12)
Are you seeing Holy Spirit fire in your local church? If so, share for our encouragement. If not, how are you praying for Him to come?
In a talk at TED Global in 2009, British architect Carolyn Steel spoke about ‘How Food Shapes Our Cities”. She traced how, from ancient times, cities developed in tandem with the food sources that surrounded then. There was literally an organic connection between the cities and the farms, fields, lakes and seas nearby.
What was most interesting was that analysis of ancient city maps shows that the cities’ design was directly related to the paths that food stuffs took into the city or to where markets were originally established. For example, the fish markets that developed near the River Thames in London were in place from the 15th century until the late 1980’s. Streets were named “Bread Street” or “Chicken Lane”, first informally and then in time the names were formalized.
It appears that once the food paths were introduced, they simply stayed in place as the city developed around them. There was a sort of cultural memory that locked food pathways into place. Centuries later, the memory is still there in the structure of the city, long after the fresh markets have disappeared and people now shop for their food in big box stores in sprawling suburbs.
I wonder whether same truth may be at play with the introduction of spiritual “food” in parts of the Bible Belt like Kentucky and other strongly Christianized parts of our culture.
Jesus identified Himself as the “bread of life” and the “living bread that came down from heaven.” He said that anyone who ate of this bread would “never hunger” and that this bread was different from the mere manna of the wilderness that led to death. He claimed that whoever fed on this bread, will not die, but live forever.” (John 6: 36, 48-51, 58) It’s an astonishing claim and promise.
The gospel of Jesus comes to one person, one sinner at a time. That one sinner turns from sin, gladly trusts and submits to Jesus and is made new. (That is what Jesus means by “eating this bread.”) Lives thus transformed by Christ bind together into churches. Over time, Christ-followers and the churches they create impact communities with the life, love and truth of Jesus.
The path of the gospel is established in a community through the interlocking web of relationships of the followers of Christ in that community. Influence follows as the life of Christ is enfleshed there by people who are walking as Jesus walked (1 Jn. 2:6) in their neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. Disciples live as Jesus and live out the gospel in a community, for the good of the community and the spread of Jesus’ fame. When Christians are obedient and churches are healthy, the unique energy of the Holy Spirit flows in and through that community, spotlighting Jesus and doing the work of wooing, convicting, and convincing people..
Over time, individual Christians and churches can grow stale to the things of Jesus. Faith can become centered around an appointment on Sunday mornings at the church rather than seen as the center of every aspect of life. Religion becomes a nice part of life. Good-neighborliness, upright morals, love of family, and conservative politics can become equated with discipleship. Most people may identify with a church, whether or not they actually participate in any meaningful way. Fear of rejection or labeling may cause Christians to be hesitant to discuss matters of faith in most settings. Little by little, an unspoken assumption grows that most people must have heard the gospel and that most are in a relationship with Him.
When that happens, the gospel simply becomes a faded memory in a community. The paths where it entered are still there, mostly represented by the church buildings that dot the community. But the truth stays safely tucked inside the buildings with the already convinced while the majority of people around us drive by, scurrying somewhere to satisfy the longings of their souls– and never give a thought to what goes on inside.
When the gospel becomes a cultural artifact in a community, it signals that the church is on life support. This is true in hundreds of communities across the South.
So, what can we do? Two things, one internal and one external, come to mind.
First, those who know Jesus must recapture a sense of the indispensability of Jesus and His gospel for our own lives. He remains the “bread of life”, who alone will satisfy the longings of the human soul. Yes, eating His body and blood is the way to trust Him for forgiveness of sin and eternal life. But we desperately need Him in every moment of life right now –in every relationship, every decision, every temptation, every opportunity, every ordinary second of driving, spending, working, learning, resting, playing. Until we who are Jesus’ own people recover a sense of our own desperate dependence on His all-satisfying life, it is highly unlikely that we will share that life with anyone else.
Then we can intentionally re-establish pathways for the bread of life to enter our communities. We can carve out fresh roads where people outside the church can begin encounter Jesus and the fullness of His gospel. These roads will be places where people already are, but don’t expect Jesus’ people to be. The gospel will need to show up in ways that are surprising, whimsical and probably feel a little dangerous to church people.
These new Bread Streets will be shaped by the serving heart of the church to the needs of its community. It will look like love for the loveless, or remembering the forgotten and left-out, or simply stepping into the mess that nobody else wants to deal with. And all along the way, there will be opportunities to speak the reason why. We have a Savior-King who is generous, welcoming, saving, loving—and who has enough to satisfy the soul of any person.
Christians in the Bible Belt, with all our churches and our smiling Jesus niceness, live among thousands of men, women, students and children who are starving for Jesus. The stale crumbs of our religion will not feed them. Only the Bread of Life will.
Jesus is the Bread. We simply deliver it.
And when we forge new pathways for this Bread into hearts of precious people of our community, we will again see those pathways shape our city — for their good and His glory.
In a previous post, I wondered about the decline of respect for simple humanity and the impact it is having on so many aspects of our culture and of Christian ministry.
So, what is the alternative?
Christians have, in many ways, struggled to express a balanced anthropology, or view of humanity. Now to be sure, a commitment to the concept of depravity is right and true. The image of God in which we are created is distorted in us. All human beings are rebel sinners, by nature and by choice. Our lack of moral innocence shows up shockingly early in our lives. There is “none righteous, no, not one”. We are marked by wickedness and selfishness, restless desires and foolish choices. There is utterly no hope for any of us to be fully human apart from the redeeming rescue of Jesus Christ.
While the image of God is severely distorted, it has not been utterly destroyed. Isn’t this what the pro-life position vigorously affirms? Every human being is “fearfully and wonderfully made”, purposefully shaped by the hand of the Creator, worthy of being treated with awe and dignity.
And that doesn’t stop in the womb. The beauty and wonder of human life extends throughout all of life. There are constant hints and reminders of the image of God in human beings.
For instance, did you happen to catch the closing ceremonies of the London Olympics? The costumes and sets were fanciful and strikingly original, displaying remarkable creativity that blended or blurred the lines between categories. Colors, lighting, odd shapes and more made that event a delightful feast for the senses.
The creativity of human beings is a reflection of their Creator. Read the first chapter of Ezekiel to get an idea of the odd creatures, unexpected shapes, colors and more that come from God.
Or in the same vein, consider the beauty people can produce through landscaping their yards or refinishing kitchen cabinets or detailing a car or getting a new wardrobe. Or note how often folks will point out the beauty of a sunset or a field of daisies or a cute baby or even a remodeled strip mall.
Why? We are drawn to beauty, like an iron filing is drawn to a magnet. We appreciate it, enjoy it and want to be a part of producing it. The beauty we pursue mimics the beauty God has already revealed in the world.
What caused people to drive hundreds of miles to join the candlelight vigil for the victims of the theatre shootings in Aurora, CO—when they didn’t know any of them personally? Or to rush into flood, fire and disaster zones to clean up, provide meals or just be a shoulder to cry on?
That basic impulse towards compassion is an echo of the heart of the ‘God of all compassion”, who has a bias for people who are hurting.
Why do people have an inner urge to elevate something to a place of ultimate meaning, to worship and engage something with abandon – even if it is falsely placed on a sports team, an entertainer, a hobby, a retirement fund, or a style?
God has placed “eternity in the heart” of human beings. We have a deep longing to connect and give ourselves to something beyond ourselves, and that inclination is a reminder of God’s intent for our souls.
We express honest grief when a 7-month-old baby dies of SIDS, or a beloved grandfather ends his journey well beyond his “three-score and ten”, or when we hear another account of the anonymous (to us) hundreds dying in the civil war in Syria.
Grief breaks our hearts because we value life so deeply. On their most honest days, even animal rights activists and puppy-and-or-kitten-lovers admit that these human lives are of more value than any animal.
Beyond that, there is the speechless wonder in Special Olympics athletes, in family caregivers for people with dementia, in parents who are patient with learning disabled children, in marriages that last decades, in steady work, in the elementary kids who cheered a boy named Matt Woodrum (whose left side has been twisted by cerebral palsy) to finish the 400-meter dash at his end-of-year field day (watch here—I dare you not to cry), in a preschooler’s crayon art on refrigerators, in researchers who work tirelessly for a breakthrough in a disease, in laughter over a meal with good friends, in the haunting tones of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello, in nurses in the oncology unit….
We could go on, but you get the point. There is common grace and awe-full loveliness in and through ordinary people. We still get the afterglow of the wonder of the moment when “the Lord God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7)
C. S. Lewis put it this way:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.” (from The Weight of Glory)
Now, what difference does this all of this make for Christian life and ministry, through individual Christ-followers and their gathered churches? It can adjust our attitude towards people—especially those who do not have a relationship with God. All of the things of ordinary human life mentioned thus far could be said of pagans as well as the most committed Christians. It seems important to be honest about the full reality of humanity: people are depraved but delightful, flawed and also lovely, sinners who are often sublime, corrupted and fascinating. It is a staggering oxymoron, but holding the two in tension is essential to see people truly.
Too often, we come across as if we are angry at sinners for being sinners (as if we are not). And too often, we act as if we do not really like people much at all.
But consider: if the humanity we see now is a flawed, corrupted, depraved, distorted version of the image of God, what is possible in a life that has been redeemed by the blood of the sacrifice of Jesus (1 Peter 1:18-19), purified for God’s own possession (Titus 2:14), reconciled to their Creator-King (Rom.5:10-11), and reborn as a “new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24)? Human potential is not what we can imagine, but what God alone has purposed for us in Christ by His gospel.
So, wonder at ordinary people. Love them as they are. Enjoy hanging out with them. Clearly share the gospel of Jesus so they can become new, the person who their Creator always meant them to be for now and eternity. And rejoice.
Eighty-something years old and tiny, she lives in a small frame house across the street from City Hall in Florissant, a community in north St. Louis County. Miss Jackie moved there 30 years ago. Not long after that, her husband died. They had no children, and no family near.
And so began a lonely life. Maybe because of her fiery Irish temperament, or maybe because of fear, or maybe because it seemed safer for a woman to be aggressive than to be taken advantage of, or maybe because it felt like she was battling the world on her own, Jackie consistently lashed out at people. She cursed readily, yelled mostly and developed a reputation as someone to avoid if at all possible. Miss Jackie pulled the curtain around her and sank into an unhealthy solitude.
Over time, her little house deteriorated badly. The yard grew unruly, the paint faded, window frames rotted and storm damage to the roof remained covered with a blue tarp. The lovely city of Florissant (founded almost 200 years ago by French settlers) has very stringent codes for how property is to be maintained. The problems would have to be fixed. But Miss Jackie is poor, on a fixed income and could not possibly take care of all that needed to be done. It was very possible that in time,her property would be condemned and she would be homeless.
Miss Jackie needed somebody to help.
Enter I Heart North County, a community service organization formed by three churches including Passage Community Church and Pastor Joe Costephens. In cooperation with the city of Florissant and using government grants, I Heart North County organizes people who will volunteer to do the labor on houses like Miss Jackie’s Those volunteers are Christians, like the Mission St. Louis team from Highland Baptist.
We partnered with I Heart North County for Miss Jackie’s good and because the love of Jesus compels us to serve “the least of these” and to spread His love in concrete ways to the real-life needs of people. Because He has loved us so completely, we met needs and shared Christ and His gospel with Miss Jackie. Scrubbing brushes, scrapers, a power washer and a few gallons of paint helped us express Jesus’ love to her – and gave an opening to share the gospel.
Another group had come before and cleaned her yard. Miss Jackie hung their picture on her wall. Ours will join it soon. She simply could not believe that people would travel from Kentucky to help her—for free. The students lined up to hug her—and Miss Jackie fought tears.
Miss Jackie is a woman overwhelmed by a concrete example of God’s grace to her in Jesus. And if one conversation we shared is any clue, she is near to stepping across to faith in Jesus. Miss Jackie is not the meanest lady in Florissant anymore. She is being transformed by the application of the gospel –in word and deed—to her heart. She is being changed by Jesus.
You know, Miss Jackie doesn’t just live in St. Louis. She lives in Shelbyville, and Louisville and Frankfort, too. Precious souls like her matter to God, and are too important to leave alone in their pain and lostness. They won’t come to us.
Jesus’ people must break out of our church buildings and discover ways to love the people in our community with all the fullness of Jesus’ gospel. Through us, He changes the world, one life at a time.
Is there a Miss Jackie in your world?
How can you serve her (or him) this week?
This is part of the closing message from Pastor James MacDonald at the 2012 Harvest U—the ministry conference of Harvest Bible Chapel in suburban Chicago.
It has a lot of straight-talking truth about the heart of a pastor’s work that most church members would do well to hear—and turn to prayer.
Can’t link the video, but watch at http://jamesmacdonald.com/blog/?p=12474.