All We Need Is Love?

Pittsburgh_16482013 copySeveral years ago I read somewhere that the church spends 83% of her money on herself. My guess is that it hasn’t gotten much better in recent years. I have to say, that’s more than a bit embarrassing. Does that figure bother anyone besides me? All I can say to that is it’s a good thing we serve a God of mercy.

As people of faith, we live by covenant. That word is derived from a Latin one that means “to come together” or “to agree.” In our covenant history with God, we come together and agree to certain things that we have always promptly messed up.

Take the Adamic Covenant for example. God created this awesome place for the pinnacle of His creation to live. Whatever you think about the stories of creation in the first three chapters of Genesis, there is an underlying theme that stands out. Creation (Eden in particular) was an intentional, purposeful gift of love. It wasn’t an accident, nor was it necessary. God needed neither it nor us. He was sufficient within Himself.

He gave it all to Adam and Eve and told them to do two things—tend the garden, and don’t eat from that tree over there. They blow it, of course; and it was our first clue that a covenant of works wouldn’t fly for human beings (at least not without leading to our destruction).

So what does this God of creation do? Does He get mad and destroy everything? No. He performs the first blood sacrifice, covers Adam and Eve’s nakedness with animal skin, and fixes the broken covenant with love (and mercy). There was some cursing going on, to be sure, but love abounded more.

That’s why years later when Nehemiah heard about the deplorable conditions that existed back in the Promised Land, he prayed to the Lord and called Him “the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love…” It’s also one of the reasons why John in his gospel made the simple, three-word statement, “God is Love.” God’s love for us is always creative, selfless, and life giving.

If we’re made in the image of that same God, why isn’t our love more creative, selfless, and life giving to others? Why do we withhold so much? Are we just that selfish, or are we simply ignorant? The God who created us doesn’t seem to hold anything back. Do we trust God so little that we think we’ll lose all our blessings if we give some of them away?

Bo Knows Church

Smith_ChapelFrom my limited experience, it seems to me that everyone (at least everyone who calls themselves Christian) knows what the church is. Before you jump down my throat, please allow me to qualify that. Even in the most institutionalized of congregations, the little children are taught songs lyrics like,

“I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together. All who follow Jesus, all a round the world, yes we’re the church together.”

That same song says this:

“The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.”

We know it. At least we know it in our heads. My point is this: we have an understanding, if only a superficial one, that the building we inhabit for worship is not “the church.” Our everyday usage of the term belies that fact, but we know it.

We know it, but we don’t live it.

Scripturally, the Greek word translated “church” means “gathering” or “assembly.” It’s never a place, and certainly not a building. The ecclesia (that Greek word I was talking about) was used to describe a public gathering of people. Today, when we use the term correctly, we are generally talking about a gathering of God’s people (you know—where two or more are gathered). At least, I wish that’s what we talking about. As you are well aware, we now mean the building more often than not. People ask you where you go to church, not who is your church.

I’m sure it’s much too optimistic to hope for a change in terminology—to stop using “church” and start using “gathering.” If we could, it might be a giant step toward addressing our shallow understanding of the concept. The label is important because we have used it to institutionalize who we are. In so doing, we have put ourselves in a box. We make ourselves prisoners of our own definition of church.

Our box contains things like what we wear, what music we prefer, what time we meet (or on what day), who we invite (or refuse to invite), who we make welcome, and which Scripture selections we choose (as well as which ones we don’t take seriously). I’m afraid many of us have become prisoners and our box has become our cell.

We place “the church” before “the Christ.” It’s a short step from there to placing ourselves first and others last. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to figure out the problem with that.




The Wrong Question

LCPI remember my Dad telling me about a guy he knew that was always in jail. Apparently this guy would commit enough of a crime to land behind bars. After he had served his time, he would be out long enough to do something else wrong and go back to jail. He would get caught on purpose. Why? He felt safe there. There were no responsibilities. He was provided a roof over his head and three squares a day. He eschewed his freedom for the secure confines of the county jail.

I thought of him last September when I began the sermon series entitled Local Church Prisoners. Had we, as a church and as individual Christians, become like that guy? Were we content to stay where we felt it was safe and secure?

The first in that series was one of those sermons in search of a Scripture. I finally settled on Ephesians 4:1-6. I did that primarily because of the first verse where Paul calls himself a “prisoner for the Lord…” (Which, by the way, is a far cry from what we had become.) At that point I had continued to go back to the Facebook page, Local Church Escapees. I was haunted by their existence. They caused me to re-evaluate our goals as a local church.

I came to the conclusion that we were asking the wrong question. We were continually asking ourselves, “How can we get them in here?” Making us attractive to new people always seemed to be the main thrust. Even worse than asking the wrong question, we didn’t seem to be very good at answering that question (right or wrong).

The fact is, we’re never told (Biblically) to do that—to lure people to a building. We’re told to seek them out…be “fishers of men”…”go and make disciples of all nations.” We stayed where we felt safe. We did a lot of nice things…good things. But we seldom strayed beyond the confines of our little chapel. We weren’t prisoners for the Lord; we were becoming prisoners of another sort.

I wondered out loud if we had become caricatures of ourselves. We emphasized certain aspects of who we were as the church. However, we did so to the exclusion of many other important attributes. The result was a caricature. We were still recognizable, but not always functioning as we could.

In short, we had become local church prisoners. Like the guy my Dad told me about, we wanted to be safe and secure. We wanted to be protected from the responsibilities of our own freedom in Christ. We were eschewing that freedom in exchange for protection. And we began defending our own image to make ourselves feel better. We looked like the church, but we didn’t act like her.

So what is the church, really? What should we be? What should we look like? How should we act? I finally realized I might have imprisoned myself to avoid being the answer.

Local Church Escapees

IMG_0778Through an unlikely series of circumstances (which I find most series of circumstances in life to be), I ran across a Facebook page entitled “Local Church Escapees.” Having been a local church pastor for thirty-five years, I was fascinated by the title. While I had been aware that, for some at least, an escape is the only way out of various local churches, I had never given it that much thought (especially in those terms).

What ultimately drew me to the page was an article listing the reasons people leave churches. It was addressed to the church (of which I am obviously a part); so being the arduous pastor that I am, I dove right in. It was a well-written article with some points that were well taken. The point that grabbed me (and still haunts me), however, was the author’s statement that while we (the church) could argue with the individual reasons people leave, arguing is not the required response. The required response is to listen (and presumably learn). [By the way, if any of you knows the article and author of such an article, please let me know. I’ve totally lost that info and would like to attain it again.]

On that point (the one about listening), I wholeheartedly agreed with the author. We DO need to listen and hopefully learn. He was correct about us arguing and pointing out the flaws in the various reasons people leave the church. At the time, I found myself doing just that, and I had a pretty solid argument against each of his points. At the same time, however, I quickly realized the futility of the arguments. I just needed to listen (and learn).

I began to peruse the “Local Church Escapee” page and found myself in agreement with most (if not all) of the gripes these folks had against the church. Frankly, they echoed many of my own gripes and concerns. The big difference was, and is, they took some action. As some would say, they voted with their feet. They left (or as they put it, escaped). I was so moved by this discovery, I began a five or six month long series of sermons I entitled “Local Church Prisoners.”

It seemed to me that if people needed to escape, they must have been prisoners in the first place. I began to wonder about that. How many of us in the church are prisoners—prisoners of our own little rules, our own little traditions, and our own petty and personal beliefs. Do we erect bars that keep others out (and ourselves in)? I’m convinced we do.

And so, over the next few weeks, months, years, or however long it takes, I want to explore this topic with you. If we are indeed local church prisoners, how do we tear out the bars? Can we tear down the prison walls? Please help me in my quest to more consistently experience the church we should be and not the prison we may have become.