Monday, June 30, 2014

Called Out...Together (Part 1)

Scripture Reading: Matthew 6.14-15

Game shows have long been a part of the American culture. Shows such as The Price is Right, Wheel of Fortune, and Jeopardy have been around for a long time. Other shows may not be on any longer, but lasted just as long (The Match Game, Name that Tune, Hollywood Squares, etc). In fact, game shows are so popular there is a Game Show Network so you can watch many of the games from yesteryear.

What does this have to do with church membership? Well, frankly it shouldn't have much to do with it at all. But this week's topic is our need to unite. And, one type of game show has to do with relationships. There have been dozens over the years but a few of the more prominent ones have been Love Connection, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game. Of course, these shows talk of uniting people together in a relationship. Yet, now a game show about relationships has invaded the church. "It Takes A Church" is a new game show about matchmaking set within the context of a church. Is this what church membership has come to represent in churches? If so, we have made a mockery of what it means to be part of Christ's church.

Yes, relationships are important – especially to God. But the problem is that we (specifically, those who have put their faith in Christ) – are often  unwilling to do what Jesus commanded us to do, even as we do things that He likely wouldn't want us to do (the game show).

Our example today. Matthew 5:21-26. These verses are found in the midst of Jesus' message we call The Sermon on the Mount. Most have heard several messages from this section of Scripture (Matthew 5-7). Seek first the Kingdom, the Beatitudes, Salt and Light, the Lord's Prayer, the wise and foolish man, etc. And some, no doubt, have heard a message on Matthew 5.21-26. But, how many of us have done it? How many, in the midst of worship have walked out because we knew others had a gripe against us? Not walking out without an intent to return. Rather walking out with an intent to reconcile in order that upon our return our worship might be pure.

In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus extends the Old Testament teachings. Again, think about the preceding verses. Jesus has just spoken to His listeners about the Beatitudes...has encouraged them to be salt and light...and said He has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. People might have been nodding their heads to this point, but then He makes the outrageous statement that if people want to know the Kingdom of heaven, then they need to be more righteous than the Pharisees. To you and I, we think of the Pharisees as bad people. And they were oppressive, but in a way to try to get people from sinning against their image of God. Let me give you a comparison (though an imperfect one). For someone to hear that they must be more righteous than the pharisees would be something like you or I needing to be a better basketball player than LeBron James. Or a better golfer than Tiger Woods – in his prime. It simply wasn't possible, or so the people thought.

So, Jesus is teaching of a need to be more righteous than the Pharisees. And in Matthew 5.21-26, He says it is better for us to first reconcile with others before we present our offerings to God. Is this really what Jesus wants? If so, is it even feasible in our day? Yes. because Jesus is concerned with our heart. And yes, with humility and courage. Why? Because just as Jesus came to reconcile us to God, he expects us to reconcile with others. In Part 2, we will unpack these verses (vv. 21-26) to better understand what Jesus was teaching - and why!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Called Out...with Purpose (2 of 2)

Part 1 this week took a brief look at the need for a church member to use the gift(s) that God has given them to serve the church and His Kingdom. In this entry, we will see that service alone is not enough - how we serve matters as well. Paul says that we are to serve in love.

One of the worst chapter breaks in the Bible occurs at 1 Corinthians 13. It is the love chapter. And it is a great chapter. But it ties back to Chapter 12. Paul systematically describes the use of many gifts - tongues, prophecy, knowledge, and faith  without love as essentially worthless. He is not suggesting the gifts are worthless - they are from God - but our use of them is practically worthless if we don't also practice the gift of love we have also received from God.

Paul then launches into a further discussion on speaking in tongues* by comparing it to prophecy. Paul does not denounce speaking in tongues – saying he himself does it – but that speaking in tongues, if not done properly, creates confusion, rather than edifying those who hear. The whole point of this passage is that worship should be orderly. It does not say it has to follow a certain order, but that the chaos is not accepted.

*Many debate whether certain gifts are still present in today's world. The point of this post is not to engage in that debate. However, it should be noted that whether the gifts are common or not today, if God wants someone to speak in tongues (or have any other gift), they will be able to do so (consider Balaam's donkey).

Regardless, any gift is not given for the purpose of any one individual. Rather the Spirit gives gifts for the building of the church (1 Corinthians 14.12).

As a church member, we have been a spiritual gift by God in order to serve His church better. A person who does not know their gift should seek counsel, including praying to God to try to determine their gift (Many spiritual gift inventories are available and can be quite helpful, but all do have assumptions which can lead to potential problems).

A church member who does know their spiritual gift and is not using it is not just cheating their church, but is cheating God. Imagine all of the gifts we try to remember to display or wear because a certain person gave it to us. How much more should we make sure we are using the gifts God has given us?

Last week was about following Jesus (Matthew 4.19). This week, we see that we are given tools (gifts) to use as we are following Him. Although there may be a limited number of tools overall, the uses are as diverse as our individual experiences. But, in order to function as members, we must make the choice to do so. Ultimately, this is about choosing to observe what Christ has commanded us to do.

As we think about the Paul's metaphor of the body, we must also consider that Christ is the head of the church. And, as the head (might we say - the brain), He gives us the direction we need.

But we must not overlook that each of us has a purpose. And it is often the hidden parts that makes what the visible parts do possible. For instance, our skin is visible, but without our bones, it would fall flat. If we cut ourselves, it is not the skin that bleeds, it is the hidden blood vessels under the skin that bleeds. The point is that the visible may get the attention, but without the underlying support, that which is visible cannot function properly. Of course, this is quite true in the church as well. Consider all the behind the scenes work that must happen for a ministry project let alone a weekly service.

So, each of us is important. And as the church (the called out ones), we find that we are called out on purpose...for His purpose. Therefore, to truly live out our calling, we must choose to live our lives with purpose as well.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Called Out...With Purpose (1 of 2)

Last week's blogs provided a rather extended introductory look at this series on church membership. This week's entries will focus on our need to be purposeful - to function - as members.

Jesus words in Matthew 16.18 that He would build His church indicates labor is involved. And the workers are us. But God has showed us the way (Matthew 4.19), has told us what to do (Matthew 28.19-20), and promised to be with us as we do His work for the Kingdom (Matthew 28.20). Yet, the beginning of the church was truly after His resurrection. As such, Jesus said little about the church directly. So this week we look to Paul to get some practical insights for how to function.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul is trying to provide instruction and encouragement to a church which had great issues of trust. In the later chapters (12-14), he begins to deal with the idea of spiritual gifts. Each Christian has at least one spiritual gift that is to be used for the common good (12.7). While there are many different types of gifts, each is important to fulfill the mission Christ has given us (plural) as a church. Paul then continues by speaking of various parts of the body. Ultimately, His point is that no one part of a body is independent of all others parts. Therefore, no one part of the body can say it is the most important. This is not to say that there should not be leaders, but 1) any leader in the church is subject to the true leader - Jesus, and 2) biblical leadership is not about tyranny, it is about service.

As a church, each member is a part of the body of Christ - and therefore important. When members choose not to participate in the work of the church (the Kingdom), the rest of the body suffers. Certainly, just like with our physical bodies, when one part isn't functioning (or functioning well), the rest of the body compensates, but this isn't how God designed our bodies - or His church. Yet, just as sin brought illness and disability to our fleshly bodies, so sin corrupts the spiritual body of the church as well.

So, each member is called to use the gift(s) they have received. But is that enough? No. In Part 2 for this week, we will see that it is not just that we are to serve, but also how we serve that matters.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Beyond Membership - Part 3

Part 1 succinctly defined the notion of church. Part 2 provided three of Jesus' statements as to His involvement as well as His expectations for His church. Here, we must consider our response to those three statements. So, how do we respond?

Nearly two years ago, I did a series on the Kingdom of God based on the Kingdom parables in Matthew 13. That series was the launch point for a strategy based on the acrostic JOURNEY. (The blog was started later and has few, if any, direct references to Matthew 13. You can find the links here for JourneyKingdomJ-JesusO-ObserveU-Unite (1)U - Unite (2)R - RevereN - NurtureE - EvokeY - You).  The idea was that we are all on a JOURNEY individually, and collectively. Our destination is not church. Our destination is the Kingdom. The Church is God's tool to lead people to the Kingdom. I mentioned earlier that the word for church is used 3 times in the Gospels – all in Matthew. The word Kingdom is used over 120 times in the Gospels.

The reality is that too many people today are worried about being a member of a church instead of being a member in God's Kingdom.

To keep it simple, three levels of involvement may be found at most in most churches. These three levels are fellowship (relational), membership (commitment), and discipleship (determined).

Most everyone wants to feel accepted - to belong. This is the fellowship aspect. Some are willing to get involved and commit to a local gathering. Few are willing to go to die to self in order to truly be a disciple. Yet, this is what Jesus desired - "Follow me." Unfortunately, in our world today, the committed (members) are less and less committed. Also, church leaders (self-included) generally tend to make disciples out of those who are already members. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, it does not need to be this way. In fact, it wasn't for Jesus!

Yet, it must also be understood that these three levels are not mutually exclusive. Some might wish to diagram the words as:

Fellowship  VS  Membership  VS  Discipleship

Yet, a better model might be:
Fellowship  →  Membership  →  Discipleship

But, ideally, the model should be:
Fellowship  ↔  Membership  ↔  Discipleship

This series of posts is not to refute church membership. It is meant to stir the idea that being a member of a church is more than just a concept, it is natural because of who we are in Christ. And yet, as argued above, membership is just one aspect of discipleship - which is the ultimate goal of Christ for our lives. We can be members of a church without being a disciple, but we cannot be a disciple without being in fellowship with other believers which effectively makes us members of a church.

True members are in fellowship with one another, are committed to one another, and help to disciple one another. Unfortunately, for many in today's world where independence reigns supreme, people don't want this level of involvement, and therefore not only turn away from discipleship and membership, but often turn away from the fellowship as well. However, it has been said that the New Testament knows nothing of a Christian who is not a part of a local church.

Certainly, Jesus was concerned about unity (John 17.11, 20). Jesus modeled life so others could also model for others (see Paul, 1 Cor 11.1). These men and women learned what it meant to follow Him, so that eventually they could lead others. The early church wasn't about membership so much as was about community. People wanted to be in community with one another. Today, people are often defined by the organizations to which they support (whether good or bad), and some people just want their name affiliated with something. I am a member of the xxx. Yet, almost any organization has more stringent requirements (at least annual dues) than most churches expect from their "members".

Again the reality is that fellowship, membership, and discipleship are all interwoven (or should be). To live this out effectively we should serve as members of God's Kingdom whether we are "in church" or "in the world". The truth is that God created (formed) each and every one of us. Yet, it is not about us at all. It is all about Jesus. Our JOURNEY is ultimately about Jesus - or finding our place in the midst of His Kingdom. It is about Him calling us out - from ourselves, so that we might do His work. Jesus has a plan. In fact, it is not just the master plan, it is the Master's plan. His plan involves the church. The church is the tool to build His Kingdom (Mt 16.18). But we, as a church, must choose more than membership. We must choose Jesus.

We must choose to follow Him (Mt 4.19) so that we may later Go, make disciples (Mt 28.19). He has created us with certain talents, skills, gifts, passions, etc. but now He wants to refine them so that they may be fully used for His glory.

Has God chosen you? Has God said to you, "Follow Me." If so, respond by choosing Him. Then learn all you can, live what you learn, learn to love what you live, and lead others to do the same. He will be with you all the way (Mt 28.20).

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Beyond Membership - Part 2

In Part 1, a definition for church was provided. The definition is quite contrary to a place as it is often designated. Rather, the church is a gathering of people. This is not a new understanding. But, for many, it is a new application of their understanding. So, having defined church, what did Jesus say?

So, having defined church, what did Jesus say? Did Jesus say, "Go to church?" No. Did Jesus say, "Be the church?" No. He said, "Follow me." Of course, in following Jesus we will be who He wants us to be and be with others he wants us to be with, but the focus was on following Him. Here are three things that Jesus did say (among others):
  • Follow me and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4.1)
  • ...on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. (Mt 16.18)
  • Go, make disciples, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded... (Mt 28.19)

Educators will see the three domains of learning in this verse.

A discipleship model I am working on applies to this verse quite well. The model is based upon 4 steps Learn, Live, Love, Lead. The idea is that we must first learn something. Once it is learned, we begin to live it out (applying work or wisdom). Next, over time, we begin to love it (remember this is a discipleship model, and is not applicable to all of life's situations. But as disciples, we will learn to love the things of the Lord). Finally, we lead others through these steps as well.

For Matthew 4.19, Follow me (Learn) and I will make you (Live 
 Love) fishers of men (Love  Lead).

The other verse (Mt 28.19-20) also fits the learning domains and my discipleship model - although it is backward.

Go, make disciples, teaching others to observe all that I commanded you (Mt 28.19-20).

Christians may dispute the meaning of these three quotes, but the fact that Jesus said them nor their implications for the Church as a whole, should not be refuted by Christians. The first and third statement require us to do something. The second is Jesus statement alone. Let me say a quick word about that statement and then move on.

Jesus is the only one who can build His church? Why? Because it is truly His to build. Notice He did not say build THE church. That would mean that there could be no other gatherings (called out ones). But there are. There are plenty of false churches, false teachings, false gatherings. But Jesus' church is His. And He will build it. But He can also tear it down. The gates of Hades may not stand against it, but if a local church is not doing what it needs to do, Jesus can shut it down. It is His right. And the response of a congregation to Matthew 4:19 and Matthew 28:19-20 may determine its future.

Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Mt 4.19)

We are to follow so that He can turn us into what He wants us to be. This is foreign to many church members who believe the church is about their preferences and desires. Christ is the head - period.
  • Follow me - Cognitive (Head) - we must make a decision
  • I will make you - Affective (Heart) - transforming us, literally from the inside out
  • Fishers of men - Psycho-motor (Hands) - what we will (must) do

Go...make disciples...teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you... (Mt. 28.19-20)

Each of these last two passages require a response from us - the church. In Part 3, we must consider our response.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Beyond Membership - Part 1

I often hear comments from people stating they are a member of this or that church. I often ask how things are going, and then find myself in shock when the reply is something like, "Well, I haven't been there in 3 (or 10, or even 20) years. But I was born there, and I have been a lifelong member." It can be really difficult to respond to that on the spot, but (hopefully) I am learning to respond tactfully and lovingly.

The reality is that all of us justify some type of sin in our life. And while not going to church is not a sin, claiming to be a member of something without any involvement is duping ourselves into believing something that is not true. Most people are members of some organization. Try not participating in, or paying dues to that organization and see how long you remain a member. But somehow we feel church is different. Well, largely it is because we have a false impression of what church is, and therefore what church membership is. It is not about going to church, or giving money to church, etc. It is even more.

Over the next several weeks, I will be touching on certain aspects of church membership. This series has been in my mind for quite some time. However, last year Thom Rainer published a book entitled, I Am A Church Member, which will serve as a guide and has given me some added direction for how to best (tactfully) present this topic.

This first entry is to consider three questions: What is church? What did Jesus say? How will we respond?

What is church?

It surprises most people to learn the word church was only used three times in the gospels (once in Mt 16, and twice in Mt 18). Certainly, the word is used more commonly by Paul in many of his letters as well as in Hebrews, James, John's letters, and Revelation. The word itself is “ekklessia” which means “called out ones”. While the work originally meant people called out in a gathering (such as a public assembly), the double entendre certainly applies to Christians being called to live in, but not of, the world.

A detailed look at church history is far too much for this entry (or even this blog), but shortly after the Protestant Reformation in 1517, a confessional statement known as the Augsburg Confession was created (in 1530). Article 7 defined the church as “the congregation of the saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments are rightly administered.” This type of sentiment has been echoed for centuries. In summary, and in part, the current Baptist Faith and Message (2000) says this of the church in Article 6. A church consists of believers who:

  • come together because of their faith
  • to share in fellowship of the gospel
  • observing both baptism and the Lord's Supper in a respectful manner.

Yet, in our day, we have turned church into a place instead of a people. There is a history to this (largely based on the German word kirche), but again, that is too much for this entry.

So, church is not a place, it is a people gathered for a purpose. If that is the case, what is the purpose? In Part 2, three of Jesus' statements about His church will be briefly examined.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sorry, I'm Just Me

I have been a sports fan all of my life. My favorite sport as a kid (and now) was baseball, but my friends and I played whatever team sport was in season (besides hockey - no ice in KC). We would emulate the stars of the day as we played the game. Yaz's batting stance, Dwight Clark's catch, Magic's passing, etc. It was fun as a kid to pretend to be as good as those stars were. Of course, if we could master their skills, maybe, just maybe, we would play in the pros. But no matter how much I played like someone else, unless my own skills were good enough I would never play professionally. And now in my mid-40's the haven't becomes a won't. But that is ok, because I am still learning to be me. More specifically, I am learning to become the me God wants me to be.

Why do I bring this up? If you have been on Facebook at all in the last 6 months, there seems to be a daily "What __________ are you (or are you most like)? What Disney character? What movie star? What cartoon character? What character in (name your tv series here)? What type of flower? What flavor of ice cream? What planet? What kind of dog? Even what disciple are you? Etc. (Ok, some of those may not exist yet, but they will soon enough.) Forgive me for saying it, but I am none of the above. I am sorry, but I am just me.

Really, these are harmless quizzes. But they also represent a reality that most people are unhappy with who they are and might choose another option if they could. (I am not suggesting all people that take these quizzes have this thought, but I bet a majority do). Consider the nature of selfies and photo-bombs...we want to be important enough to be in a picture, even if the picture is not about us. And how often do people try to get a picture with an established star (sports, movie, music, etc)? Why? To say they met someone. Ok, I am guilty, but for what gain? To prove that I am important enough to rub elbows with a certain person or group. Again, for some this is a hobby, but for others it is about feeling better about themselves. But, like the idea of quizzes, finding our identity in such a manner is not is ill-conceived, and it is potentially damaging to our true psyche (in extreme circumstances).

Of course, none of us should be content with who we are. As a follower of Jesus, I know that I am in a fallen state. Sin has impacted me and I am not who I should be, nor can I be - apart from the grace of God. And yet, even with God's grace, I am inadequate to fulfill His plans for me because of recurring sin. My development (and yours) is a process. And a looonnnngggg process at that. And yet the quiz to know who I am is right before me. I can take it at any time. It is in the Bible. What Andy Braams am I? Am I the Andy Braams who loves others as he loves himself? Uh, no. Am I the Andy Braams who never has any other gods before the one true and living God? Uh, no. You get the idea.

But most won't take such a quiz. Why? We won't like the results (and they aren't made into cute online quizzes). Yet, each person must understand that even the quizzes taken to reveal their character/animal/plant/etc, means more limitations would be placed on them than might otherwise be considered. You want to be a dog - ok, your legs will be much shorter, you will not be feeding yourself, and it will be much more difficult to use a normal toilet. How about a flower? Hmmm....short life span, no movement, and watch out for lawnmowers. And lest we forget, our favorite tv/movie characters had flaws which often made us laugh at them (sometimes because we can't laugh at ourselves even though we relate too closely to the character). Again, you get the idea.

But, some of you may be thinking, "Oh, Andy, you are taking this too far." Ok, sure. But if we would focus more on what God wants us to be than on what Facebook says we might be like, I would venture to say our life would be better - and it would reflect what we truly want for our lives, rather than the fantasy that we know is not possible. ("Look what flower I am!" Really?)

So, should you quit taking these quizzes? No, what do I care if you take them or not? But as you do take them, consider the deeper reason you want to take the quiz. Do you really need (want) to know what Star Wars character you are (hint, it is very unlikely anyone reading this was a part of the actual cast - so you really aren't a character!)? How will knowing change your life?

But knowing and following God's plan for your life will have REAL implications. A real difference can truly be made not only in your life, but in the lives of others as well - as you relate to them. Ultimately, each of us must remember that we are not yet the person God wants us to be. And it doesn't take a Facebook quiz to figure that out.