Clues to a Spiritually Dead Church

Let me say upfront that I am not in the business of criticizing other parts of the body of Christ. However, I am not naming names…just the criteria

Clues to a spiritually dead church…

  • Have lost their sense of mission to those who have not heard about Jesus Christ and do not pant after the Great Commission;
  • Exists primarily to provide fellowship for the “members of the club”;
  • Expect their pastors to focus primarily on ministering to the members’ personal spiritual needs;
  • Design ministry to meet the needs of their members;
  • Have no idea about the needs of the “stranger outside the gates”;
  • Are focused more on the past than the future;
  • Often experience major forms of conflict;
  • And watch the bottom line of the financial statement more than the number of confessions of faith.

Does that describe your church?

My Current Thoughts on Racial Justice and Reconciliation

Over the past week, we have seen some disturbing and unforgettable images. First, we saw the unnecessary death of George Floyd, a black man, literally killed by a police officer who used illegal means to control him by forcing him to remain on the ground with his knee on his neck for 9 minutes while other officers watched without stopping it. Floyd’s crime? Passing a $20 counterfeit bill. If I had been in his shoes there is little doubt that I would still be alive.

As the country was brought to the attention of this evil, many people began demanding justice, as they should. See, this isn’t the first time in recent history that a black man died at the hands of white policemen. And while the circumstances or legitimization of each preceding case may be in question, it’s undeniable that there has been a history of targeted enforcement on people of color. 

Let me be clear: racism throws away the biblical principle of imago dei, the image of God in ALL of us. Racism is a sin against all God’s people and God himself.

So over the past week, people have demanded that something has to change. And they took to the streets so their voices could be heard. Non-violent protesting has a long history in the Christian faith and in this country. Many martyrs of our faith in have been persecuted and then murdered, without raising a hand of defense. Ghandi, and then MLK Jr., took up non-violent protest to call out injustices in both India and the U.S. It became known as civil disobedience. In this country, in the 60s, it became a powerful tool to change the hearts and minds of Americans about the evils of racism and segregation in this country. 

Some are arguing during this time that things have never been better for POC in this country in regards to many metrics. And yet, we still see the effects of racism in many areas of our country. Like my friend, Dr. Stout, likes to say, “In the old days, you could tell who the white supremacists were by the white hoods on their heads. Now, they just hide in the larger public.” I think there’s no doubt that “Things are better!” But better. Isn’t. Good. Enough.

We have to remember where this sense of right and wrong is coming from. The outrage and cries of injustice arise out of our God-given, moral compass that’s found in being made in the image of God. Look, I know sin has marred all of creation and our culture has drifted far away from many Christian values. But the cry and awareness for racial justice isn’t one of those areas. That should encourage us.   

So what’s the solution? That’s a complex answer. That’s why I am often hesitant to speak on these subjects. I’m processing all of the information. I’m receiving and the information keeps changing and the images keep getting worse. We see thousands of peaceful protestors…& it just takes a few to ruin the message.

What we’ve been seeing most recently on the news is rioting and looting. The message of justice and racial reconciliation is getting drowned out by those who seek the opportunity to foment further division through violence. That’s not civil disobedience and it often causes a reflexive reaction that provokes white people into discounting the original reasons for protest and the questioning of the motives of those who seek change.

Let’s not conflate the peaceful protestors with the rioters. These are different groups with different agendas–one righteous and the other perverse. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. While righteous anger is of the Lord, uncontrolled fury is a tool of Satan. Rioting and looting have no place in the cause for justice. BUT, while we are quick to condemn looting and rioting, we also have to check our own attitude towards looting and rioting. How angry does that make US? Are we more angry about the original injustice of murder or of the destruction of property? Which makes us more uncomfortable?

Here’s the truth: 1) Our longing for justice and racial reconciliation is from God’s image in us. We cry out for a world that looks different and where Love reigns because we are not of this world.

2) The uncomfortable truth: it will never be perfect. As long as we live on earth there will be racism and other sins that confound us, especially those in our own lives. Maybe that’s why there is so much anger. We realize that we have been working on this as a nation for hundreds of years and we still aren’t there. So our reaction is heightened and when we aren’t guided by God’s spirit we say and do things that multiply the hurt, and injustice is paid with further injustice. The violence of the few drowns out the message of the many and ultimately mocks the principles of justice. It will never be perfect in this life. That’s why our souls long for a new earth and heaven.

3) There is hope. The Christian message of redemption isn’t simply about our salvation and getting to heaven. We believe that through the blood of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit we are in the middle of a reclamation project. Through the blood of Jesus, God has reconciled to us through grace and by faith. The Holy Spirit is in the process, if we let Him, of changing us each day more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ act on the cross of redemption was the beginning of this reclamation project. Maybe a better word than reclamation is renovation. God has reclaimed us and this whole world. He’s renovating it heart by heart, to look more like his perfect son, Jesus. This renovation project has been going on for two thousand years! Demonstrably, there has been immense progress with much more to go. And one day it will end, and all things will be brought to its proper place.

But during this time it means that all of us are called to participate in this renovation project. It’s our job, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to change the way the world works. It will be painful and full of heartache as dealing with sin always is. But it’s also full of joy as we celebrate victories, small and large. We will be frustrated by those who think we are wrong and we will be hurt by those who seem to agree with us but then use means of change that we can’t agree with. But we must never stop trying. 

What’s the solution? I don’t have ALL the answers to that question. There are a few political things that should happen but I won’t comment on those here. The one thing in our immediate control, as people of faith, and the one thing God has commanded us to do, is to love our neighbor. Seek racial justice and reconciliation in your neighborhood, in your workplace, in your school, on your team. My white friends, we simply have no idea what it’s like to walk in the shoes of those who are different from us. We just can’t. But because Jesus is our Lord, we must love all people in word and in deed. When we hear about acts of violence or discrimination or racial epithets, we can let them know we stand with them. When we witness those things, we must call out and seek to stop people from doing those things. 

Would you take time to pray today and this week, for our brothers and sisters in the African-American community? Pray that God would help them FEEL safe and that God would actually protect them from the effects of racism. Pray for the Holy Spirit to restrain sin against people, simply because of their color. Pray for justice to be done in both the George Floyd case, and other cases of violence in this country. Pray for our police officers, most of whom are trying to do their job to the best of their ability, that they would be protected during this time and would conduct themselves in ways that are honorable and protective of our wider communities. Pray that Jesus Christ would be honored and praised, for He is our Lord and Savior, conqueror of sin and death, and from whom we receive this divine inheritance as his adopted children, regardless of color.

What does it mean when someone says that they’ve been called into vocational ministry?

It means that during the ordinary places and times of life God has called us over a period of time when we grew locally attentive to an inward desire that ebbed and flowed but didn’t fade. We then set this desire prayerfully before God moment by moment, day by day. We took steps during that time to test by Scripture in community whether we had the gifts to match the desire. Along the way, those who locally knew us best and those whom we’d attempted to serve told us that they were strengthened in Jesus because of our use of these gifts. Consequently, after a time, we took awkward and faith-filled steps, not knowing where these steps might lead. But by then were assured by this unfading desire and these community affirmations that God might actually be leading us. Circumstantial opportunities then arrived and we surrendered our lives to this out of obedience and gratitude to God.

Godly Grief vs. Regret

The Devil and God both talk about sin, but in different ways with dramatic impact. While the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, never is the Holy Spirit identified as a accuser. God’s way of confronting His people in their sin Paul calls “godly grief” (2 Corinthians 7:9-11).

First, godly grief produces not just tears or new resolutions. It actually produces repentance–which means a real turning point. The change is new and incomplete, but real.

Second, the grief from God leads the person back to a fresh acquaintance with the provision of salvation–the merit and mercy of Jesus.

Third, grief from God purposes to send regret away: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (7:10).

In contrast, there is a kind of sorrow for sin that has nothing to do with God. Over the years I have found that those caught in the sin of lying, for example, require the most active energy and time–particularly if lying has been a way of life.

Why is this so? On the one hand, a long life of this sin gives a person a strong skill set with manipulation. Such a person is adept at tears, quoting the right verses, giving meaningful looks of the eyes, and saying what the person in front of them wants to hear. It is easy to conclude that someone has godly grief when actually he is feeling sorrow because he got caught and is simply trying to do what he needs to in order to get everyone off his case and to get back to normal.

A grief that is self-generated and made mischief with the Devil “produces death,” Paul says (vs. 10). That is, it sheds tears but does not turn; it makes resolutions and quotes verses. But it neither rests upon Jesus alone nor surrenders to God.

Regret still tells the story in the first person present, as if we are still in the moment. It happened years agao, but we who listen get the idea from you that it happened recently.

Regret can also keep secrets. We put the lid on it and tell no one to preserve our image. It gradually eats away at us. But godly grief will eventually turn our sinful secrets into testimonies of grace.

You Have Not Because You Ask Not

The seven closing words of James 4:2 (“you have not because you ask not”) contain the secret of the powerlessness of the average Christian, of the average minister, and of the average church. We ask, “Why is it that I make such poor progress in my Christian life?  Why do I influence others for Christ so weakly?” God answers in the words of the text: “Neglect of prayer. You have not because you ask not.”

Many ministries ask, “Why is it that I see so little fruit from my ministry? Why are there so few conversions?” And again God replies, “You have not because you ask not.”

Guess what I’m asking for this morning?

Can You Trust God, Right Where You Are?

In Jeremiah 29, two different kinds of preachers are giving sermons to the Israelites in exile. The one is Jeremiah who speaks from God. He tells the exiles that they will have to reimagaine life where they are. They aren’t going anywhere for 70 years. This means that all but the babies born at the time will have passed away and finished their lives in exile, away from the Promised Land. The babies will have lived most of their lives by the time a chance to go back “home” arrives. The message is hard to take.

Another group of preachers is saying the opposite. “Don’t put down roots!” they are saying. “God wouldn’t keep you in exile like this!” “He is going to get you out of here!” “This place is temporary; get ready to move!”

Which church would you prefer to attend while in exile? I think I’d prefer not to listen to Jeremiah. In fact, a verse from this passage is quoted to cast a vision for the future. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jeremiahs 29:11).”

What I failed to realize as I take up this wonderful promise is that almost everyone who originally heard it knew that they would never experience its fulfillment in Jerusalem, where they wanted to be. They had to grapple instead with the truth that the future and the hope for them with God would take place right where they were in exile–where they would live and die. Their great grandchildren would experience the fullness of the future and the hope back in Jerusalem. The next generation would get to move but not them.

What does it mean for us if the future and the hope that God has for our welfare means that we will have to trust Him right where we are?