This month: 181 - Online Church
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Matt Dabbs

Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

Homepage: http://mattdabbs.com

We had a first on Sunday…our worship leaders were leading worship from their living room as both of them were recovering from COVID!

The picture that goes with this article was my view on Sunday while the worship leaders sang from their home. We listened and sang along with their familiar voices even though we couldn’t see their faces.

Their home is within a few hundred feet of ours…they live in our neighborhood. So here are our neighbors leading worship from their living room, over the internet on zoom…coming right into our worship service live! We know how to livestream worship to the people at home but how about livestreaming the worship leaders to the church?!?

Welcome to 2021.

Crazy times.

As I reflected on this it hit me – we are learning to be flexible. If we can have COVID positive worship leaders leading while not even being present and with several other members of Backyard church who are vulnerable to the cold weather all on Zoom to make sure everyone can still be involved in the worship…what kind of challenges are we preparing for down the road?

I do wonder if God is teaching us to be flexible. I also wonder why. Why is He teaching us to be flexible? Because we were too rigid…because something down the road will require it…both?

I don’t know the answer to that but I do know how proud I am of the resiliency and creativity of our people!

Let us consider the blessings of all we are learning during the trying times and see how God is both shaping us and shaking us! And may we be all the more ready for the challenges that face the people of God in the next 50 years because challenges are coming.

When the pandemic hit in March many churches moved to an online format. Some already had this in place. Others had to make needed shifts to get the technology in place to livestream or pre-record service. The results has been an endless supply of online material as well as efforts to keep various congregations moving ahead in spite of not being able to meet in person.

Every time a major piece shifts in church life other pieces must shift as well. This leaves me wondering what happens when you spend time making sure everyone knows not meeting together is still “church”?

Will people return?

Will the inclusion of pre-recorded women’s voices translate into women being vocal in the assembly when people meet again?

Will church leaders look for other options?

Will the paradigm of high overhead, low reproducibility finally bite the dust and be replaced with something more Acts 2?

Time will tell but in the meantime we can talk, dream, plan, cast vision and execute on new (actually old) approaches. At the end of the day my hope is “less talk more do”.

Maybe it is finally time the church has left the building to go out to be where the people who need Jesus actually live!

Download the PDF of this content here. We are starting our 40 days of prayer this Sunday – January 3rd but you are welcome to start it anytime you like!

Prayer has been a core activity of the people of God since the beginning. Before we understand how to pray we need to know why we pray.

We pray because God is a personal God and He seeks relationship with us. Prayer is our end of a conversation with God. Prayer addresses God as someone we are in a real relationship with. We pray to God because God created us, loves us, and is listening for our prayers.

A Christian is someone who follows Jesus and part of following Jesus is having Jesus as our role model in all areas of life. One of the things we see in Jesus’ life is consistent prayer. This may seem odd because Jesus is God in the flesh and it seems odd for God to speak to himself in prayer, but Jesus modeled for us his deep need for connection with God the Father. If Jesus needs that then we certainly do as well! Jesus prayed constantly. There are many times in scripture Jesus escaped the crowd to find a solitary place where he could pray to his heavenly father (Luke 5:16). If Jesus, the Son of God, needed to pray so do we. To be “Jesus people” we must be people of prayer.

This prayer guide will usher us into a forty-day period of prayer together. In these forty days we will be praying over the same things and meditating on the same scriptures each day. Why are we doing this? Because we feel a profound since of dependence on God to guide us in all we do. We can’t rely on our own abilities or wisdom if we are going to move into a vibrant future together. Instead, we humbly submit ourselves to God, in prayer, on a daily basis to seek God’s guidance and blessing in all that we do.

Forty is an important number in the Bible. Moses spent forty years in the same wilderness God would later have him lead Israel through. Moses later spent forty days on Mt. Sinai receiving the Law from God. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness where he fasted and was tested by the devil. Forty isn’t a magical number but it is a meaningful number. Forty days, as in these biblical stories, remind us to rely on God in all things. The forty days are divided into ten of specific things to pray about. This puts us in line with Paul’s instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 that we are to “pray continually.” We hope that these forty days of praying together will be part of a movement that is constantly in prayer together.

Praying alone is fine but if you are able, find someone to pray with. Pray about these things together and then share your thoughts with each other on the things you are praying about. As we pray together we will find that as we draw near to God we will also draw near to each other. So let’s begin with Day 1 .

Section 1 (Jan 1-4): Prayers for direction and guidance

Day 1: Pray for God to guide our vision and direction. (Isaiah 58:6-12)
Day 2: Pray for God to open our eyes to see the harvest. (Matt 9:27)
Day 3: Pray God would guide each step and decision the church makes. (Psalm 25:4-5)
Day 4: Prayer for clarity of purpose and focus. (Isaiah 30:21)

Section 2 (Jan 5-8): Prayers for humility and submission

Day 5: Pray God would humble us and remove our pride. (Prov 16:18)
Day 6: Pray for us to discipline our hearts to be totally dependent on God. (1 Peter 5:6-7)
Day 7: Pray for us to be mutually submissive toward each other. (Eph 5:21)
Day 8: Pray for us to follow God’s lead rather than human “wisdom.” (Prov 3:5-6)

Section 3 (Jan 9-12): Prayers for fellow Christians

Day 9: Pray for our marriages and children. (Eph 5:22-6:4)
Day 10: Pray for Christians around the world. (2 Thess 1:3)
Day 11: Pray for the elderly, the widows and widowers. (John 15:12-17)
Day 12: Pray for church leaders – elders, ministers, and missionaries. (Rom 15:30-33)

Section 4 (Jan 13-16): Prayers for non-believers (John 17:20-23)

Day 13: Pray for co-workers and class mates. (Mark 12:31)
Day 14: Pray for opportunities to connect with them. (Matt 9:35-38)
Day 15: Pray for those with open hearts and seekers. (Acts 16:14)
Day 16: Pray for boldness that we can reach them with the Gospel. (Acts 28:31)

Section 5 (Jan 17-20): Prayers for God to empower and equip us

Day 17: Pray for God to help us identity our gifts and use them for the kingdom. (Eph 4:11-16)
Day 18: Pray for God to empower our ministries. (Acts 4:24-31)
Day 19: Pray for God to raise up leaders for the future. (2 Tim 2:2)
Day 20: Prayer that God would equip and empower us. (1 Thess 1:5)

Section 6 (Jan 21-24): Prayers for God to convict and convince us

Day 21: Pray that we would be convicted about what is right and wrong. (John 16:13)
Day 22: Pray that God would convict us about righteousness, holy living, and our sin. (John 16:8)
Day 23: Pray that God would convict us about our mission and purpose. (Eph 2:10)
Day 24: Pray that God would convince us of His will. (1 Thess 1:4-10)

Section 7 (Jan 25-28): Prayers for spiritual healing

Day 25: Pray for release from our deepest shame. (Rom 5:5)
Day 26: Pray for strength to endure temptation. (1 Cor 10:13)
Day 27: Pray for spiritual transformation in our lives. (Rom 12:1-2)
Day 28: Pray for healing, peace, and wholeness for each person in the
church. (John 14:27)

Section 8 (Jan 29-Feb 1): Prayers for physical healing

Day 29: Pray for those who are sick by name. (James 5:14-16)
Day 30: Pray for the end of COVID. (Psalm 91:1-8)
Day 31: Pray for God to use us to be people who bring healing to the community. (Matt 5:13-16)
Day 32: Pray for those workers who care for our sick for God to strengthen and use them. (Psalm 18:32)

Section 9 (Feb 2-5): Prayers for our love to grow

Day 33: Pray our love for the lost will grow. (Matt 28:19-20)
Day 34: Pray our love for one another will grow. (Philippians 1:9-11)
Day 35: Pray our love for our enemies will grow. (Matt 5:43-48)
Day 36: Pray our love for who we find most difficult to love will grow. (Luke 6:27-36)

Section 10 (Feb 6-9): Prayers for boldness (Acts 4:23-31)

Day 37: Pray we will speak of Jesus with boldness. (2 Cor 3:12)
Day 38: Pray for us to live boldly for the gospel in the world. (Acts 14:3)
Day 39: Pray for God to release us of our hesitancy and timidity. (2 Tim 1:7)
Day 40: Pray for the bold message we live and speak to be clear to those who hear and see it. (Acts 9:28)

I hope you all have a very merry Christmas. I am thankful for you and appreciate all the conversations we get to have here at Wineskins. You are wonderful people and you create a beautiful community where we encourage and challenge each other to grow deeper in our faith!

Merry Christmas!

In the previous article I outlined how in many ways the Church of Christ never moved out of Acts 2. We stay in Jerusalem amongst those who are most culturally similar to ourselves. We know that conversation. We know that debate.

In Acts 2, Peter and the apostles knew how to have a conversation amongst other Jewish people. They knew how to open the Old Testament and have discussions from people who shared similar assumptions.

In my opinion that is much like the Church of Christ for the last 200 years. But the early church didn’t focus solely there. At some point they had to go out and engage a world that required a different conversation.

This is why Paul was so important. God used Peter to get the cross-cultural Gospel inroads started but God used Paul to carry it through. God said this about Paul in Acts 9:15, “But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.”

Paul was from Tarsus, which was a town steeped in Greek culture and education. Paul knew Greek rhetoric. He also studied under a famous Jewish teacher – Gamalial. Paul knew both worlds. He was a Pharisee and was steeped in Greek rhetoric. This is who God used to take a very Jewish gospel and Jewish scriptures out to a world that needed that information contextualized to the lives of people living with a very different set of assumptions.

We see this happen after Acts 10…go into Acts 13-14 and look at who Paul and Barnabas are reaching out to – pagan idolaters. This isn’t Jerusalem anymore. This is no longer an in house conversation…it has gone global and it took people who had the chops to reach into cultures very different from their own. It also took the leading of the Holy Spirit to drive the mission.

I argued in the last article that we needed to move from Acts 2 (Jerusalem and “in house” conversations trying to convert people most similar to ourselves) to Acts 10 (reaching the Gentile God-fearers). I am still not convinced we have made it to Acts 10 in Churches of Christ…but whether we have or haven’t doesn’t really matter.

Here is what I am driving at – until we begin to see how to have a conversation with people very dissimilar to ourselves, the Gospel is not going to thrive.

Read Acts 17. Read how Paul went into their world. Paul engaged their thoughts and values. Paul knew them and loved them. He knew their culture and knew which inroads he could take in Athens to get the Gospel into their lives. He knew this because he spent time studying these things. And he had success…see how Acts 17 ends.

I am afraid we have gotten lazy and complacent. We adjusted to what we thought was an Acts 2 world – people coming to us (the U.S.) from all over the world like they came to Jerusalem…and like Acts 2 those who came were very much like us and started with the assumptions that the scriptures were the words of God.

But we don’t live in an Acts 2 world anymore. We live solidly in Acts 13, 14 and 17. And until we make that shift…until we learn to have new conversations and really love people who are different than us…the path forward doesn’t look good to me.

If it took them 20 years to get from Acts 2 to Acts 17 it has taken us 200 years of barely budging off Acts 2. I hope and pray we can make progress but I am not convinced it is going to happen until two things happen:

1 – We rely 100% on the Holy Spirit just as they did.

2 – We learn to love people not like ourselves.

These two things will drive us to the necessary cross-cultural work we must do to get to know people who live on our block and go to our schools and work alongside us in our own Areopaguses (marketplaces).

When we send missionaries to foreign fields they typically spend quite a bit of time learning the culture and language of the people they are going to reach. I had one friend who had to learn one language to learn the actual language of the place he was going! Where they are going is not entirely like the place they are leaving. To be effective they must learn how to communicate the truth of the Gospel to people who may not value the same things, think like Westerners, or even speak our language.

As the culture in the United States changes and becomes more and more culturally and religiously diverse…less homogeneous…it is crucial that we take on the perspective and approach of missionaries in our own backyards.

We may be called to learn new languages (I am increasingly seeing the need to learn Korean, for instance due to those who live within a mile of our home).

We will have to become students of culture. As we find out who lives nearby and as we go out to make disciples of the nations in our neighborhood we are going to need to change our approach. Our conversations, for example, no longer start with the assumption that people think the Bible is important or that God exists.

This will take prayer. This will take study. But most importantly this is going to take LOVE and an openness to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Consider the person who falls in love with a person who isn’t of their same cultural and religious background. That person will bend over backwards to learn whatever it takes to get to know that person on a deeper level. They will come to understand and appreciate their culture…learn their language, etc. in order to connect.

This is our Achilles heal in Christianity – we have thrived in a culture the world wanted to get to know. The world was coming to us…and we liked that…we got used to that…It was easy to sit back and expect them to learn our culture and then for us to try to assimilate people to our faith.

It won’t be that easy moving forward. We can’t be lazy. We must be loving. When we love and when we work in concert with the work of the Holy Spirit who is very good at blazing the trail to connect cultures (See Acts 10-15) we will see renewal and revival. But our approach is going to look very different than the one we have known our whole lives.

There are other key things I could list that will be crucial for revival – fasting prayer, and making disciples…all of these things will run more smoothly if we actually know those we are trying to reach!

As we talk about Christ, culture and church it is important to take note that the world has changed. Many of us learned how to win theological arguments against churched people. The assumption that the people you meet have a baseline knowledge of Jesus and some past church experience just isn’t the case anymore. That means the conversations we were good at for the last 150 years just don’t work like they used to because the people out there who need Jesus aren’t like the people we are used to.

The distance between the churched and unchurched culture is growing. That makes love challenging. It is tempting to love people who are most like ourselves…but the real challenge and test of our agape love is whether or not we are able to continue to relentlessly love a world that is moving away from us.

When I say love a world, I don’t mean the ways of the world, but the people of the world. The unchurched are the fastest growing religious group in the United States. If we don’t get to know them we won’t reach them. If we don’t love them we won’t reach them. If we only love people who are most like us then we won’t reach them.

Love shifts the direction of the conversation and who takes initiative. As Christianity loses influence and as the cultural gap widens it becomes more and more important for us to take the lead in going to rather than waiting for. We go to them rather than waiting on them to come to us. We take initiative because we love them too much to wait on them to make the first move.

This change has some implications for church life and outreach that cannot be missed. Missing these things will prove to be a fatal mistake.

People aren’t going to come to your church to try it out just because your facility is nearby and it is convenient. Most people aren’t looking for a church. There is no more if you build it they will come except in a few pockets. You have to go to them.

People aren’t going to come to your church because they are part of your denomination. Brand loyalty continues to drop.

People aren’t going to come in droves because you are progressive in your denomination. There are not droves of people hanging on every word of your bulletin just waiting on you to say you are going to make a shift on some doctrinal position so they can flood your auditorium.

People aren’t going to come just because you offer the latest program or because your social media is knocking it out of the park.

Many things have changed in terms of what it is going to take to get people to Jesus and the approaches we use. But here is the good news – the most effective aspects of outreach have never and will never change.

People will be reached through relationships where they feel loved and a sense of belonging. This has always been the case and will never change.

People will be reached through Christians being different than the world not like the world. So much of what can be found in churches can be found in self-help seminars or secular groups. We have to be different because our kingdom and King are different. It is tempting to be afraid to look different but that is actually the draw for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Those who are fed up with the world come to church to find something different and sometimes find exactly the same thing they found in the world. That’s a shame!

So let’s not water down our saltiness or dim our light. Let’s stand out and up and be counted. Let us love as Jesus loved. Let us go to rather wait on. Let’s learn to have new conversations by getting to know the shifting culture and that means getting to know the people around you. This is not about making people projects but about showing the same kind of interest in people that Jesus did!

If we are willing to stop and assess our culture by getting to know people then we can finally turn the tide to grow again…lives will be changed, the Gospel proclaimed and God glorified…but none of that happens until we get in tune and in touch with real people in a culture that is unlike anything we have seen before that is immune to the approaches we are best at. Some of this can be learned from reading books and blogs and YouTube videos…but the best learning comes from time with people where you really listen and learn and love.

One of the most amazing things about the writing of the Bible is that God did not turn the writers into robots to get the writing done. Each writer has their own vocabulary, grammar, etc that is slightly different than the other writers. God didn’t dictate every word.

God uses the writers given their particular time, language and culture to communicate the good news about Jesus or the message of God to the world in which they lived in the language of the day.

All three of those – time, language, and culture change over time while the core truth of the Gospel remains the same. The Gospel message is timeless truth AND, not BUT, it is always communicated couched in a culture. There is no way way around this. It may not seem like this is the case because we are so immersed in our particular culture that we may not be aware of how others hear and understand the same information – an honor/shame culture in the East vs a guilt/innocence culture in the West both emphasize different aspects of the Good news.

It is vitally important for the future of God’s people to be students of culture. Many of us are students of Christ and students of church…but few are students of culture.

If we don’t understand the people around us we won’t understand how to reach them.

If we don’t understand Christ we won’t have anything with which to reach them.

If we don’t understand church we won’t have a body of believers to assimilate people into.

We also need to understand, not just the culture of the world, but the culture of our churches. Ideally the culture of our churches would be summed up in one word and that is the “Word”. Jesus. The culture of our churches should be a Jesus culture and when it is a Jesus culture our church culture will understand the world’s culture in order to reach them with the good news about the kingdom.

This month we will dissect and intersect Christ, Church and Culture. I am looking forward to the conversation and I hope you will dive in and let us know what you think!

Some of the most heart wrenching words in the entire Bible go like this,

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

– Matt 26:39-42

It is hard to figure out how this works. Jesus and the Father are One. And yet they seem to be coming up to the cross from two different perspectives. I don’t entirely know what to make of this but I do know this – if Jesus had to surrender to God’s will, how much more do I need to surrender to God’s will?

Too often I am more like the disciples, asleep in the hour of trouble, than I am wrestling over whose will is being done in my life. May we follow the example of Jesus and become a people committed to God’s will being done.

If we would make this commitment some big things would happen.

I believe we might actually find unity in Christ. Too much of our division is firmly rooted in who gets their way – us or God.

I believe we would get back to mission – that we could overcome our hesitancy to reach the lost because we want God’s will to be done so much more than we would want to uphold our own comfort.

We would have communities of faith that are also communities of love. God getting God’s way means me loving you even when I don’t want to or feel like it. Too often I fail to love because I am asleep at the wheel…napping through important moments.

Time to wake up, listen to Jesus’ prayer and consider what would happen if we followed His example.

Prayer is about a relationship. Like any other conversation in your life you build and grow your relationship through conversation. Unlike any other conversation in your life you don’t get the direct feedback like you do from a human being sitting in front of you. Because of that, prayer can be a bit awkward at first. It might feel like you are talking to the wall. You may wonder if your prayers make it past the ceiling, as if God is up there and we are down here. When you start to pray, understand you are talking to Someone…a real being…a personal entity…the Creator of the Universe. You don’t use thee’s and thou’s in everyday conversation and you don’t have to use that with God either.

Prayer isn’t magical. Magic often involves using specific words and phrases said in a particular way to invoke or evoke a particular powerful action or response. Some people view prayer as if it was magical. It is as if they think God can only hear them if they use particular words and those words are not typically everyday words. The truth is there isn’t anything magical about prayer and you don’t force God’s actions by getting the verbiage right. There is no way to guarantee the action of another free and independent person.

Prayer isn’t magical but it can be effectual. Just because prayer isn’t magical, guaranteeing your desired result that doesn’t mean that prayer is ineffectual…that prayer has no effect. This is where things get a bit tricky but stay with me. Prayer is effectual. James 5:15-16 says this,

15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

So prayer matters and prayer can actually effect outcomes. It is a bit hard to know how this works as God knows the beginning from the end and yet we do get instances in the Bible where specific prayers change the course of God’s decision making (see Genesis 18 or Exodus 32). All that to say that although we cannot guarantee a result from our prayers that our prayers can influence the direction God takes.

Last, if you don’t think you are any good at praying you are not alone. Check out Moses’ conversation with God in Exodus 3. He made a mess of it. Check out Abraham and Sarah’s conversation with God in Gen 18. The thing you will find with all of these people who had awkward conversations with God is this, keep on trying. Keep on talking. Keep on praying. It does, like in most relationships, become easier with time and experience!