Category Archives: Missional Church

A Pathway for Bread

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..

              But…

            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.      

           

           

           

           

             

Living Like a Missionary?

One of the core values of our faith-family and a part of the description of a gospel-centered disciple of Jesus is this: we live to serve the world as missionaries.

            But what does that mean, exactly?  Well, some clarifying definitions are in order. Seeing the following as distinct and yet related in a synergistic way is crucial. Think of these as a three-legged stool of a church’s missionary identity and life

            First, the church has a mission. It is Jesus’ primary assignment to His people until He returns: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt.28:18-20) It is called Great because of who gave it and the vastness of it. It is a Commission because we are a people sent by our Risen King, empowered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8) bearing a message of reconciling life, joy, peace, and hope (2 Cor. 5:17-21) that enables people to become more like Jesus now and live with Him forever.

            The church’s mission is disciple-making: leading sinners in all places to Jesus and the transforming good news of His saving death and resurrection life, and then helping them grow like Jesus to where they also lead sinners in all places to Jesus and the transforming good news of His saving death and resurrection life, helping them to grow like Jesus to lead sinners….Disciples of Jesus is who we are (Identity), and there is a sense in which disciple-making is all we do (mission).  

            Second the church engages in missions. There are specific activities –locally and globally – in which the church invests time, people and resources to reach and make disciples of people who do not yet know Christ. This may be what most that grew up in church think of when they hear the word.  There are missionaries sent to other places (away from “home”) to share Jesus with people there.  We pray for them, knowing that the Lord’s power is necessary. They need to be supported so, we join with others to give to special missions offerings. There are real people needs around us, so we organize mission projects in the local community. There are people in other parts of the country or around the world who need to know Jesus, so we organize mission trips for members of our congregation to go for a short time to serve.

            So, a segment (not all or even a majority) of each local church is faithful to pray for, give offerings (above our tithe) to and learn about missionaries, unreached people groups and the like. We may participate in mission projects or go on mission trips organized by our local church. And there has been a remarkable shift away from denominational dependence back towards the local church in all of these activities. All of this is important and crucial aspect of a church’s living out the mission.

            But surprisingly, it is all incomplete – and strangely hollow without the third leg of the stool:  individual Christians who live every day as missionaries.  In recent years, this has been referred to as “missional living” or in the helpful phrase Jamie Dukes uses in his powerful book, Christians are to “Live Sent” (New Hope, 2011).  That is, we live every moment, wherever we are, as a message sent from the loving heart of our heavenly Father to the people in the part of the world in which He has placed us. 

            Your relational circle (the people in your neighborhood, community, school, job, etc) is the unreached people group to whom God has sent you to love like Jesus and spread His gospel. Their language is the one you must learn to speak.  Their needs, hurts, dreams, joys, tears and questions are the stuff of your prayers.  The places you go in your ordinary life (work, school, day care, coffee shop, soccer field, grocery, bank) are the primary sphere of your mission.  This does not take away from or reduce the responsibility for the global spread of the gospel. But this is where it starts.

            What does such living look like?  Dukes provides (p.148-157) a helpful series of questions to help us consider how missional we are, how like missionaries we are actually living. May I ask you to join me in prayerfully considering each question? 

            + When you speak of church, what prepositions do you use?

                        (“Don’t use to and from and in and at when you speak of church. or other words that refer to church as a place or an event. The New Testament doesn’t. Why should we?”) 

            + When you think of missions, do you think of a missions trip to a distant  city and a service project in your own community, OR do you think of daily life among your family, neighbors and co-workers?

            + What is your common declaration about lost people around you? “Can you believe how these people act?” OR “When can you come over for dinner?”

            + Is my tendency to disengage from culture and retreat into safer, more distant Christian environments, OR is it to engage culture even amidst discomfort and danger?

            + When you hear “make disciples” do you think of a classroom OR your relationships?

            + Do you spend a lot of time wondering whether you should quit your job to surrender to ministry, OR do you simply live to minister to anyone and everyone where you are currently? 

            + When you think of a friend who needs help, do you think “I need to get him to see the pastor” OR “I wonder what I can do to help?”

            + When you think of heaven, do you think “kingdom come” OR “kingdom is here”?

                        (“The purpose of living isn’t just ‘pie in the sky by and by.’ It’s to give  people a taste of the God who came near…a glimpse of what is to come.”)

            + Do you think godliness is measured with a mirror OR within community?

                        (“In Jn. 13:34-35 Jesus told his followers they were to love one another as He had loved them, and that people watching them would know they are  learning and living His ways by their love for one another…it is a safe conclusion that without love for one another in transparent, united, mission-centered community, we cannot live sent as letters of God’s love and hope)                                       

                                    AND TOUGHEST OF ALL….

 

            + Do you have a lost friend who would actually introduce you as his or her  friend?        

            We have a mission, our church does missions, but the missing energy of Jesus’ Great Commission’s command to “make disciples of all” rests with individual disciples becoming missionaries in their everyday, ordinary lives.

What Happens If We Value Humanity?

            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.

            But….

            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.

On Course or Run Aground?

The horror continues to unfold in the wreck of the Casta Concordia cruise ship on the rocks of Giglio Island just off the coast of Italy.  The dream vacation of the 3-4,000 passengers cruising the Greek Islands turned into a nightmare when the ship crashed into the rocks, tearing a 120-foot hole in the side of the ship.

            Within minutes, water filled the ship and the ship flipped on its side.  In scenes reminiscent of the Titanic, tables, dishes and equipment went flying.  People leaped off the ship and attempted to swim through the icy waters to shore. There were screams in the dark amidst a mad scramble to get to the lifeboats, all of which were crowded beyond capacity.  One horrifying scene shows a human chain stretching across the upturned hull of the ship, lowering one person at a time to safety. 

            As of this morning, there are several confirmed fatalities and about 30 people still unaccounted for.

            What happened?  Almost immediately, fingers were pointed at the captain. The ship was out of the normally marked channels. Word came that the captain had sent an inquiry about his dinner order—thirty minutes after impact and with the ship already listing! Then, it became evident that the captain had abandoned ship while people were still in danger and had to be ordered back to give direction to the crew.

            But it seems that the real problem came long before the Casta Concordia ran aground.  As a favor to his head waiter, the captain changed course so the waiter could signal his family, who live on Giglio Island.  They would blow the ship’s horn and the waiter could stand on deck and wave as they passed. He moved the ship four miles off course, and came within 162 yards of the coast—when company policy mandates a ship come no closer than 547 yards.

            Because of a private and unannounced indulgence, the Casta Concordia ran aground and people lost their lives.

            But mostly the Casta Concordia wrecked because the captain forgot the point of the voyage and his primary responsibilities.  He confused the priorities of passengers and crew. He blurred the lines between charted journey and frivolous side trip. He forgot the primary goal was to get the passengers safely to the other side.

            Increasingly, we find evangelical churches and ministries in crisis and running aground.  Most churches in my tribe of Southern Baptists are plateaued or declining.  They struggle to gain any traction with a culture that has changed and with generations that are suspicious of all things “church”. People are abandoning the ship of the church like it is sinking fast, opting for other gatherings of Christ-followers built for deep community in homes or around involvement in social justice issues. Others are just plain opting out.

            Why is the church struggling? Because many have forgotten the point of the journey and its primary responsibility.  Jesus made it clear that his church was designed to glorify God (Matt. 22:37-38, Eph. 3:20-21) by spreading to all people the gospel (good news) of a life-and-family-and- community-and–injustice-and-eternity- transforming relationship with God available through repentance and faith in Jesus. (Luke 15:11-32, Luke 24:47, Rom. 1:16) This is to happen one life at a time, as the church gives its energy and resources to loving people where they are, sharing life as a radically new community, and developing a certain sort of person called a disciple of Jesus. (Matt. 22:39, Acts 2:41-47, 28:19-20)

            When a church forgets this point and loses focus on it, it can begin to drift off course.  We can confuse the privilege of serving the membership with the priority of serving those still outside the faith.  No church whose focus is primarily on the pleasure of its own crew will broadly impact others making the journey from death to life.  We can indulge our own relationships and preferences, all while drifting away from the path that will engage spiritually far-from-God people and help them move closer to a relationship with God.  It’s the spiritual equivalent of a cruise-ship wave to friends. 

            When a church loses its gospel and disciple-making North Star, it will be tempted to take trivial side trips.  The church can be heavily involved with community service, have wonderfully engaging children’s or student ministries, maintain good stewardship of its buildings and facilities, train families for financial freedom, produce powerful musical presentations, be organizationally efficient, encourage good friendships, sponsor fellowships and trips for senior adults, provide a wide range of classes and groups for Biblical training, be powerfully engaged with social justice issues or take a stand for moral values, be technologically savvy, and more.  All of those things can be proper and powerful for a church IF they are intentionally shaped in the service of spreading the gospel and making disciples who increasingly resemble Jesus. Otherwise, they are merely the trivial strivings of a religious club.

            Why does this matter? Because there’s really only one thing the church of Jesus can do: we spread the fame of Jesus by making gospel-centered disciples who trust Christ alone to save from sin, shape their life and secure their eternal destiny. If we do anything other than that, we move off-course and into the shallows where rocks lurk to tear holes in the hull of the ship of Zion.

            So, when the church runs aground because of selfish course adjustments, it violates the command of our King and gives a false reading of His great heart.   

            But even more, when the church runs aground, it places precious far-from-God people in eternal peril. It tosses people who desperately need Jesus out to make their own way in the chill of the world.

            Pray the church of Jesus—beginning with ours– stays on course, so that we can finish the journey with a ship full of people, all delighting in King Jesus who will be standing with open arms to welcome us Home.

           

The horror continues to unfold in the wreck of the Casta Concordia cruise ship on the rocks of Giglio Island just off the coast of Italy.  The dream vacation of the 3-4,000 passengers cruising the Greek Islands turned into a nightmare when the ship crashed into the rocks, tearing a 120-foot hole in the side of the ship.

            Within minutes, water filled the ship and the ship flipped on its side.  In scenes reminiscent of the Titanic, tables, dishes and equipment went flying.  People leaped off the ship and attempted to swim through the icy waters to shore. There were screams in the dark amidst a mad scramble to get to the lifeboats, all of which were crowded beyond capacity.  One horrifying scene shows a human chain stretching across the upturned hull of the ship, lowering one person at a time to safety. 

            As of this morning, there are several confirmed fatalities and about 30 people still unaccounted for.

            What happened?  Almost immediately, fingers were pointed at the captain. The ship was out of the normally marked channels. Word came that the captain had sent an inquiry about his dinner order—thirty minutes after impact and with the ship already listing! Then, it became evident that the captain had abandoned ship while people were still in danger and had to be ordered back to give direction to the crew.

            But it seems that the real problem came long before the Casta Concordia ran aground.  As a favor to his head waiter, the captain changed course so the waiter could signal his family, who live on Giglio Island.  They would blow the ship’s horn and the waiter could stand on deck and wave as they passed. He moved the ship four miles off course, and came within 162 yards of the coast—when company policy mandates a ship come no closer than 547 yards.

            Because of a private and unannounced indulgence, the Casta Concordia ran aground and people lost their lives.

            But mostly the Casta Concordia wrecked because the captain forgot the point of the voyage and his primary responsibilities.  He confused the priorities of passengers and crew. He blurred the lines between charted journey and frivolous side trip. He forgot the primary goal was to get the passengers safely to the other side.

            Increasingly, we find evangelical churches and ministries in crisis and running aground.  Most churches in my tribe of Southern Baptists are plateaued or declining.  They struggle to gain any traction with a culture that has changed and with generations that are suspicious of all things “church”. People are abandoning the ship of the church like it is sinking fast, opting for other gatherings of Christ-followers built for deep community in homes or around involvement in social justice issues. Others are just plain opting out.

            Why is the church struggling? Because many have forgotten the point of the journey and its primary responsibility.  Jesus made it clear that his church was designed to glorify God (Matt. 22:37-38, Eph. 3:20-21) by spreading to all people the gospel (good news) of a life-and-family-and- community-and–injustice-and-eternity- transforming relationship with God available through repentance and faith in Jesus. (Luke 15:11-32, Luke 24:47, Rom. 1:16) This is to happen one life at a time, as the church gives its energy and resources to loving people where they are, sharing life as a radically new community, and developing a certain sort of person called a disciple of Jesus. (Matt. 22:39, Acts 2:41-47, 28:19-20)

            When a church forgets this point and loses focus on it, it can begin to drift off course.  We can confuse the privilege of serving the membership with the priority of serving those still outside the faith.  No church whose focus is primarily on the pleasure of its own crew will broadly impact others making the journey from death to life.  We can indulge our own relationships and preferences, all while drifting away from the path that will engage spiritually far-from-God people and help them move closer to a relationship with God.  It’s the spiritual equivalent of a cruise-ship wave to friends. 

            When a church loses its gospel and disciple-making North Star, it will be tempted to take trivial side trips.  The church can be heavily involved with community service, have wonderfully engaging children’s or student ministries, maintain good stewardship of its buildings and facilities, train families for financial freedom, produce powerful musical presentations, be organizationally efficient, encourage good friendships, sponsor fellowships and trips for senior adults, provide a wide range of classes and groups for Biblical training, be powerfully engaged with social justice issues or take a stand for moral values, be technologically savvy, and more.  All of those things can be proper and powerful for a church IF they are intentionally shaped in the service of spreading the gospel and making disciples who increasingly resemble Jesus. Otherwise, they are merely the trivial strivings of a religious club.

            Why does this matter? Because there’s really only one thing the church of Jesus can do: we spread the fame of Jesus by making gospel-centered disciples who trust Christ alone to save from sin, shape their life and secure their eternal destiny. If we do anything other than that, we move off-course and into the shallows where rocks lurk to tear holes in the hull of the ship of Zion.

            So, when the church runs aground because of selfish course adjustments, it violates the command of our King and gives a false reading of His great heart.   

            But even more, when the church runs aground, it places precious far-from-God people in eternal peril. It tosses people who desperately need Jesus out to make their own way in the chill of the world.

            Pray the church of Jesus—beginning with ours– stays on course, so that we can finish the journey with a ship full of people, all delighting in King Jesus who will be standing with open arms to welcome us Home.

           

The horror continues to unfold in the wreck of the Casta Concordia cruise ship on the rocks of Giglio Island just off the coast of Italy.  The dream vacation of the 3-4,000 passengers cruising the Greek Islands turned into a nightmare when the ship crashed into the rocks, tearing a 120-foot hole in the side of the ship.

            Within minutes, water filled the ship and the ship flipped on its side.  In scenes reminiscent of the Titanic, tables, dishes and equipment went flying.  People leaped off the ship and attempted to swim through the icy waters to shore. There were screams in the dark amidst a mad scramble to get to the lifeboats, all of which were crowded beyond capacity.  One horrifying scene shows a human chain stretching across the upturned hull of the ship, lowering one person at a time to safety. 

            As of this morning, there are several confirmed fatalities and about 30 people still unaccounted for.

            What happened?  Almost immediately, fingers were pointed at the captain. The ship was out of the normally marked channels. Word came that the captain had sent an inquiry about his dinner order—thirty minutes after impact and with the ship already listing! Then, it became evident that the captain had abandoned ship while people were still in danger and had to be ordered back to give direction to the crew.

            But it seems that the real problem came long before the Casta Concordia ran aground.  As a favor to his head waiter, the captain changed course so the waiter could signal his family, who live on Giglio Island.  They would blow the ship’s horn and the waiter could stand on deck and wave as they passed. He moved the ship four miles off course, and came within 162 yards of the coast—when company policy mandates a ship come no closer than 547 yards.

            Because of a private and unannounced indulgence, the Casta Concordia ran aground and people lost their lives.

            But mostly the Casta Concordia wrecked because the captain forgot the point of the voyage and his primary responsibilities.  He confused the priorities of passengers and crew. He blurred the lines between charted journey and frivolous side trip. He forgot the primary goal was to get the passengers safely to the other side.

            Increasingly, we find evangelical churches and ministries in crisis and running aground.  Most churches in my tribe of Southern Baptists are plateaued or declining.  They struggle to gain any traction with a culture that has changed and with generations that are suspicious of all things “church”. People are abandoning the ship of the church like it is sinking fast, opting for other gatherings of Christ-followers built for deep community in homes or around involvement in social justice issues. Others are just plain opting out.

            Why is the church struggling? Because many have forgotten the point of the journey and its primary responsibility.  Jesus made it clear that his church was designed to glorify God (Matt. 22:37-38, Eph. 3:20-21) by spreading to all people the gospel (good news) of a life-and-family-and- community-and–injustice-and-eternity- transforming relationship with God available through repentance and faith in Jesus. (Luke 15:11-32, Luke 24:47, Rom. 1:16) This is to happen one life at a time, as the church gives its energy and resources to loving people where they are, sharing life as a radically new community, and developing a certain sort of person called a disciple of Jesus. (Matt. 22:39, Acts 2:41-47, 28:19-20)

            When a church forgets this point and loses focus on it, it can begin to drift off course.  We can confuse the privilege of serving the membership with the priority of serving those still outside the faith.  No church whose focus is primarily on the pleasure of its own crew will broadly impact others making the journey from death to life.  We can indulge our own relationships and preferences, all while drifting away from the path that will engage spiritually far-from-God people and help them move closer to a relationship with God.  It’s the spiritual equivalent of a cruise-ship wave to friends. 

            When a church loses its gospel and disciple-making North Star, it will be tempted to take trivial side trips.  The church can be heavily involved with community service, have wonderfully engaging children’s or student ministries, maintain good stewardship of its buildings and facilities, train families for financial freedom, produce powerful musical presentations, be organizationally efficient, encourage good friendships, sponsor fellowships and trips for senior adults, provide a wide range of classes and groups for Biblical training, be powerfully engaged with social justice issues or take a stand for moral values, be technologically savvy, and more.  All of those things can be proper and powerful for a church IF they are intentionally shaped in the service of spreading the gospel and making disciples who increasingly resemble Jesus. Otherwise, they are merely the trivial strivings of a religious club.

            Why does this matter? Because there’s really only one thing the church of Jesus can do: we spread the fame of Jesus by making gospel-centered disciples who trust Christ alone to save from sin, shape their life and secure their eternal destiny. If we do anything other than that, we move off-course and into the shallows where rocks lurk to tear holes in the hull of the ship of Zion.

            So, when the church runs aground because of selfish course adjustments, it violates the command of our King and gives a false reading of His great heart.   

            But even more, when the church runs aground, it places precious far-from-God people in eternal peril. It tosses people who desperately need Jesus out to make their own way in the chill of the world.

            Pray the church of Jesus—beginning with ours– stays on course, so that we can finish the journey with a ship full of people, all delighting in King Jesus who will be standing with open arms to welcome us Home.

           

Reflections on Passion 2012

My son Drew gave me a wonderful gift for Christmas—a trip with he and a friend to the Passion 2012 conference in Atlanta.  (We may have been the smallest group there, but we got in at the last minute to the sold-out event.)

            Passion, a ministry founded by Louie Giglio about 15 years ago, exists to mobilize a generation of young adults (age 18-25) around the glory of God, the gospel of Jesus and the global purposes of God.  The ministry is rooted in Isaiah 26:8: “Yes, Lord, walking in the way of Your truth, we wait eagerly for You, for Your name and renown are the desire of our souls.”  While the power of Passion emerges from the national conference and the worship music of Chris Tomlin and others, it is clearly more. This is a movement built on the Word and energized by the Spirit for a unique impact in this generation.

            Passion 2012 was held Jan. 2-5 in the Georgia Dome, the stadium where the Atlanta Falcons play football.  The schedule included times of worship and preaching, community groups for a more personal interaction, and a major emphasis on global social justice. It’s almost impossible to describe the experiences of these days in detail, so, let me just share the snapshots that come to mind:

            + 42,000+ young adults is a lot of young adults in one place!  But that also meant a lot of diversity (from all 50 states and 42 foreign countries and who knows how many college campuses) and a lot of wonderful energy.  They filled half the Georgia Dome, three tiers high.  There were also over 2000 older people, who wanted to invest in this generation, and were there to simply serve the students.  The next time I find myself without a group, I’m going as a volunteer.

            + genuine patience, consideration and even joy demonstrated while standing in line…in the cold…over and over again.  Moving from one session to another, from the stadium sessions to meal times resulted in bottlenecks of thousands trying to get up single escalators or stairs.  Not one word of complaint or even a snap of irritation was evidenced.

                   My favorite moment?  Noticing one guy in an office overlooking the crowds, students by the dozens began to wave. No response. More waving. No response. More wavers.  He walks away. Groans. Then returns to the window.  Even more waving. Finally the man lifted a hand to the crowd. Cheers!

            + spiritual intensity of the worship. The Spirit’s presence was palpable in every gathering.  Sometimes, it was in music, singing and shouts that roared louder than any game I have attended. The sound surrounded you like a blanket. All around were students going all out in declaring God’s glory, with voices and hands both raised. There were moments of “David before the ark” dancing for sheer joy and surrender.  Other times, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop—not an “I’m uncomfortable” cough was heard.  There was a clear focus on and expectation of meeting with God in that place.

            + the songs of Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Matt Redman, Kristian Stanfill and David Crowder are anointed of God for the worship of this generation.   The global version of ‘How Great is Our God” with worship leaders from Ukraine, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, China and  a children’s choir from Uganda was an astonishing glimpse of the Kingdom and of the promise of heaven that left most of us in tears. But the new songs introduced grabbed the hearts and minds of the students quickly, so that they sang with a personal investment in songs like “I raise my white flag; I surrender all to You, all for You…I’m not ashamed of the One who saved my soul”. Tomlin and the others are writing songs that are the hymns of this generation: rich in doctrine (God-glorifying and Christ-centered), meaningful lyrical content (not trite or sappy), captivating melody and emotional connection. 

                But don’t miss this: they sang with equal gusto the old hymns that have been around for decades or centuries like Amazing Grace, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms and Because He Lives, and leaned into reworked versions of songs like I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.

            + The Word of God was given a central place to everything.  Every single student had a copy of the Bible and most had journals that they opened and took notes when God’s Word was taught with depth and excellence by Louis Giglio, Beth More, Francis Chan and John Piper.  But even more…the opening session was scheduled to start at 7pm.  Scripture readers began reading Scripture aloud at 6:40pm. The first note of music was sung at 7:30pm!  That’s fifty minutes under the Word—plus a message. In a later session, one of the message times was given over to reading the entire book of Ephesians aloud, without commentary, allowing for quiet space between chapters to listen for what the Spirit was saying. Remarkable.

            + global social justice: human trafficking – One of the key components of the Passion movement has been to leverage the lives and resources of students into the deepest human needs on our planet. In previous years, through the Do Something Now campaign, under its banner “Together, we are a force for good”, students have among other things, given money to drill wells for villages without clean water, provide micro-finance loans for people in impoverished countries, fund translations of the Scriptures for peoples without the Bible in their language, and every year, provided hundreds of thousands of towels and socks for the homeless in the Atlanta area. 

                This year, in addition to more towels and socks, the focus was on one issue:    human trafficking. There are 27 million people in slavery worldwide today, more than any time in human history. Much has to do with the sex trade, but there are still those forced to work in deplorable conditions of production for heartless  taskmasters.  People on every continent and in every country are enslaved – including the United States.  Globally, two children are sold into slavery every single minute.

                        The students were made aware of this through a gripping film that told the stories of three specific slaves, interviews with Christian groups laboring on the front lines of human trafficking, the filming of an anti-slavery music video to be released in Europe and Asia, and an action center where they could learn more. They were challenged to give $1million to combat human trafficking. They stood in lines with thousands of people for hours for the privilege of giving their money away. 

                        After each student gave they were given a pass to a reserved area in an    outdoor plaza where, when we arrived, there was little more than a bare scaffolding raised amid some flimsy flags. Turns out there were 27,000 flags, each representing 1000 people enslaved worldwide. And the scaffolding was an art project that the students themselves made by wiring prayers and Bible verses on items that are largely made by slave labor: jeans, soccer balls, Christmas decorations, etc.

                        When the art project was complete, it was an uplifted hand of…worship…or pleading for help…or identification…or volunteering to do   something.  It was lit at midnight, surrounded by 42,000 candle-holding students, standing as a silent witness to the horror and their commitment to do something about it in the name of Christ.

                                   CNN Report on Do Something Now

                        Oh, the students gave $2.6 million.

            + impact on the arena workers – There were the volunteers, and then there were also the workers at the Georgia Dome: security people, gatekeepers, back-pack searchers, the workers at the Starbucks and Papa Johns kiosks (which were very popular in the morning and in the evening, respectively).  The first day or so, they mostly looked overwhelmed at the sheer numbers with which they were dealing.  But then, something changed.  The guys with the bullhorns began being more playful.  The bag searchers relaxed and joked. 

                        On the last day, one of the arena workers, a single mom, stopped a             volunteer and asked her, “What is going on here?”. The predictable answer came back, “It’s Passion, a Christian conference for 18-25 year-olds, and….” Interrupting, the worker said, ”No, I mean, what is this that grabs and pounds inside my chest every time I come to work this week?  What is going on here?” And the volunteer smiled and said, “Oh, that.  That’s the power of God.  Do you know Him?” And within minutes, a single mother working just another event  at the Georgia Dome heard the gospel, trusted Christ and passed from death to life.

                        When relating that story, Louie said, “When the power of God shows up,   there are no limits to what can happen.”     

            + Kingdom potential–  That’s what kept coming to my mind as I would scan the crowd or look at the two students next to me.  What could happen through these lives for the advance of God’s Kingdom borders, the pushing back of the power of darkness, the reaching of unreached peoples, the inrushing of heaven-scented justice, the spread of God’s glory and the renown of Jesus? 

                        It is staggering and wonderful to consider. I hope the Lord lets me be a       part of it—and that my generation will join them.  We could then be “generations united for the renown of Jesus’ name.”

             

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