This month: 184 - Grace and truth
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

John tells us that Jesus came “full of grace and truth.” (John 1:11).

That perfectly sums up what we find in the Gospels. Jesus was big on grace and big on truth. We see it in John 4 – he shoots straight with the woman at the well in calling out her “husband” situation and yet it doesn’t run her off. He shoots straight with the lame man in John 5 when he asks him if he wants to be well before Jesus heals the man. The same thing in John 8 with the woman caught in adultery – “neither do I condemn you…go and sin no more.”

Today I am seeing more and more people big on grace and light on truth. I am also seeing people big on truth and light on grace. Jesus picked both…Jesus embodied both. And so should we.

If we push too hard into one or the other we are going to have problems. Grace without truth will produce people cavalier about sin who will have no understanding of the true effects of sin and how detrimental it is to us as divine image bearers. Truth without grace produces people who see God in terms of legal requirements. Both extremes produce people who don’t understand the very nature of God as a God of truth and grace. Justice and righteousness require both.

People won’t listen to your truth if they don’t sense your grace. People won’t appreciate the grace unless it is also paired with truth (how do you appreciate grace if you don’t know the truth about sin?).

So let us people Jesus’ people and embody what he embodied…both grace and truth!

John tells us that Jesus came “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Wow! What an amazing combination of principles. Jesus came giving undeserved or unmerited gifts or favor. He also came as “way, truth and life” (John 14:6).

If we are going to be like Jesus we must embrace and embody both grace and truth. Grace without truth turns into flagrant rebellion and truth without grace turns into shame and self-deprecation. So many want to have only one or the other but you have to have both. And that creates tension…needed tension for us to wrestle with.

We must have both grace and truth. The month of April will have a variety of articles focusing on this theme. As always, thank you for reading!

By Allen Close

     After thirty four years in ministry, I can still get asked questions that catch me off guard.  Recently, I was getting ready for a workout at CrossFit Staunton in Virginia when a woman asked me if I would baptize her four-year-old.  I’m pretty sure my face betrayed my concern since all thirty four years of preaching has been in Churches of Christ — where we don’t baptize small children.  My mind was suddenly racing.  I felt the pressure of strong beliefs I grew up with, but also felt the quandary of not wanting to tell her to go find someone else.  After a lightning fast prayer, I asked if we could talk after the workout.  That delay was a blessing from God; during the workout, I considered how my discipleship cohort would deal with this. 

     I’m part of a discipleship cohort that uses the material and structure provided by Mission Alive.  For months now we have been meeting weekly to learn to listen to God together.  We listen to God through scripture, prayer, and mission.  During my workout I was able to use the rhythm we have learned to pray for God’s help and to listen for his answer.

     After a series of burpees, wall balls, and dead lifts, I was ready to engage her question again.  What I soon realized is she did not mean baptize the way I was envisioning it.  I was thinking we would go to the Church building and immerse him in the water.  What she really wanted was some kind of an anointing or blessing.  I thanked God that I had not brushed her off with a safe but negative answer.  I knew I could do this.

     A month later, I drove to her parent’s farm with a small vial of water and some verses I planned to use.  When I drove up, between the horse barn and the swimming pool, I saw about twenty people gathered.  Some of them were Catholic, some were from some other church, but most did not regularly attend anywhere.  I began by talking about how Jesus felt about children and his desire for them to come to him.  I also got to talk about his love for each one of us, baptism by immersion, and the fear we all feel as parents that we might mess up our children.  Finally, I was able to talk about the day when this boy would decide on his own that he wants Jesus to be his Lord and to be baptized into that lordship.  Later that evening we all went to a restaurant where I had even more opportunities to witness for God.

     As I look back on this day, I thank God that He had prepared me for this by putting me in a group that would help me learn to rely directly on God and his communication with me.  Opportunities like this are precious and I am thankful that I did not let it pass me by.  And later, when I shared this with my cohort, we all rejoiced together.  Hallelujah!

If you would like to learn more about Mission Alive’s Discipleship Cohorts or join a cohort
you can find that information here.

The Bible is full to calls for obedience. Jesus said in the Great commission that disciples are those who are baptized and taught to obey him (Matt 28:19).

The sermon on the mount ends with an admonition to be obedient to Jesus’ teaching,

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” – Matthew 7:24

Many other examples could be given but the point is the same. God expects us to obey Him.

Many simply say when God commands it, we obey it. Some things are that simple. But is everything that simple? Where do we draw the lines and how do we determine where to draw the lines between things God said for them and things God intends for us?

Someone once said that reading the Bible is like reading someone else’s mail. You first have to understand the people it was addressed and why it was written to them in particular. Then you can begin to work through the implications for today.

For instance, in 1 Timothy 2:9 women are instructed to not have braided hair or wear jewelry. Can we be obedient to God and ignore that instruction? If you look around our churches it would seem the answer is, yes…you can wear jewelry and not sin even though the Bible condemns it.

Then there are things people say are required that are never commanded but come from silence. Commands created where God gave no command that, in some circles, must be obeyed to be a faithful Christian. Needless to say, things have gotten complicated!

All of this to say…what is the place of obedience in the life of the Christian? How do we make the kinds of determinations we make? What does obedience have to do with salvation? Let’s tease these apart and see what we can learn and discuss in the month of March as we launch March’s theme – The Place of Obedience!

God is moving many of his people into transition. Much like Acts 8:1-8 something has arisen that has scattered our gatherings…it has pushed us out of our comfort zones and given us the space to reevaluate what we know as church. It isn’t persecution…it is pandemic.

Sometimes it is hard to have proper perspective on something you are enmeshed with. With many churches taking 9 months away from corporate gatherings, many Christians have gotten the space they needed on two fronts: first to get a clear picture of the limitations of the big gathering that weren’t apparent when you were in the middle of it and second the benefits of trying something new.

Limitations of Big Church
Big church gatherings has limitations in several areas that have only become more apparent over time away:

1 – Very few people do the work for all rather than the priesthood of all believers where everyone does their part. Church displays the 80/20 rule at its finest – 20% of the people do 80% of the work (the pareto principle). People are at their best when they can be involved. Many went home to worship and led worship in their home and won’t go back to the “old way” (you know, the way we did it in 2020!).

2 – A high degree of professionalism is involved in many churches where some roles are only for people with specific training. How many people in your church would be asked to preach on a Sunday, for instance? It is far easier to delegate that in a home environment where people may discover gifts they never knew they had because it was always done for them.

3 – Money is often spent inefficiently – We heat and cool buildings that are empty 90% of the time, among other things. We rely on social media for advertising and advertising dollars rather than word of mouth and the most effective form of advertising – personal invites of those you have relationships and rapport with already.

4 – Decisions are made inefficiently – Committees and multiple levels of decision making with unclear boundaries on authority often make big church decisions. Those decisions can take weeks or months to roll out and even then sometimes nothing actually happens as a result. Seemingly obvious decisions can get bogged down and decisions never made.

5 – Anonymity is easy to pull off in “big church” but that was never God’s intent. We were made to know and be known by others. In a church of 400+ it is easy to go largely unnoticed and fly under the radar.

People are discovering the benefits of trying something new because they were forced to try something new and have something to contrast with the traditional model of church from first hand experience.

The Benefits of New Approaches

1 – Everyone gets involved so everyone is invested and grows in maturity.

2 – Anyone can do the work. When you simplify things and make it less formal even the children can do the work in a way they didn’t have opportunity to do in “big church”. We have experienced this in Backyard Church and it is beautiful!

3 – Money is spent more efficiently – need to help someone with their light bill? Take up a collection for it from those who are attending. Then everyone gets to celebrate and involve themselves in the actual assistance rather than giving week to week into a big pot that you never see where it actually goes or get to celebrate much of anything.

4 – Decisions can be made at a much faster pace – less red tape and less bureaucracy. What used to get bogged down in layers of decision making and weeks of review can be made in real time.

5 – Everyone is known and knows others on a deeper level in a house church. You cannot be anonymous in a backyard or living room. We can develop a real sense of community. The small group ministry you are already used to and all the blessings that come with that kind of ministry becomes the church as a whole.

We may finally have found a time when churches have launched out into the neighborhoods and communities that needed them…where the Christians lived. No more commute to church, driving past thousands of people who need Jesus along the way. Welcome to the new reality of community-based churches where everyone can be involved and grow to maturity!

In this time of change may our eyes be open to the opportunities and the possibilities that God is breaking down barriers and starting something new among us and we get to live through it to see the change! How blessed are we!

None of this is to say “Big church” is inherently bad or evil. I believe it will exist a long time into the future because it has positive advantages that smaller gatherings will not be able to take on or accomplish. More on that another time. I just want you to know this isn’t about bashing the old way of doing things.

If you are having the conversation about how to start a church in your home or neighborhood I would love to connect with you – matthewdabbs@hotmail.com.

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:7-8

Start in Jerusalem. Start with where you are. Reach this city…then God will send you elsewhere…even to the ends of the earth!

The mission of churches in the U.S. has largely gotten this backwards. Look at the missions budget and see where the money goes. See where the missionaries go. We start with the ends of the earth rather than right at home. I am speaking in broad generalities here…there are exceptions, of course.

What complicates things even further is even with things out of order…we never work backwards to our city.

It would make sense that we started in a church placed so we put our effort elsewhere…but as the West becomes more unchurched it would also make sense that we would take all we learned from the foreign mission field and apply those lessons here.

What does being faithful on mission look like for the local church? What happens if you start at the ends of the earth with foreign mission work but make little impact at home? What if you send missionaries all over the world but don’t know your neighbors…don’t know your community…move your church to a nicer part of town because the demographics changed. Was there an effort to reach the new demographic…the new neighbors? To get to know them?

I hope this doesn’t sound too heavy handed, arm twisty or guilt trippy…but I think we need to take a close look at the mission of the local church and get back to the order of Acts 1:8 – start at home and go from there. Be faithful to your neighborhood and community and see where God takes you from there.

In politics we talk about “flyover country” – places in the middle of America some people never visit – they only see from the air. We have that in the religious landscape and mission of the church.

We fly over the lost to reach the lost.

It isn’t either/or. It is both/and…and we need to start where we are…pay attention to who God has put us in proximity with and go from there. I am not saying cut your foreign mission budget and start over. I am saying…let’s make sure we don’t miss who is right next door!

This is a sensitive topic. It is one that often goes unmentioned because no one is supposed to talk about it.

The eldership decides to fire the preacher and instead of firing the preacher, offers the preacher severance in exchange for a peaceful resignation. The preacher didn’t want to quit the job…but it is resign or lose your severance.

The preacher is tasked with the dishonest role of breaking the news to the congregation that they have decided to move on to “greener pastures” but don’t have anything lined up!

Whenever I see a minister say they are no longer ministering I PM or email them to make sure they are okay. Many of those times I hear, in private, that they were actually fired but had to resign in order to protect their family financially. It can take 6-9 months to find another ministry job and most ministers don’t have that kind of cash lying around.

Can we call this what it is? Dishonest. Cruel. It’s a total wimp out. Those in the position of authority who actually made the decision align everything to give themselves the easiest path out…to undergo the least amount of scrutiny.

The fact we even know this happens is that someone had to “lie” to tell me because to tell was to jeopardize their severance.

This happens far more often than you know. It is a big elephant in the room in elder-minister relations.

What troubles me just as much is that in the majority of the cases I have known about there was never any effort made to remediate. The first time the minister hears there is a problem is them being forced to resign. Many were even told weeks before they were doing a good job…had a favorable job review!

This is just crazy. It is sinful. It has to stop. This is done by the most “mature” among us but it is absolutely spiritual abuse.

To find out what to do when your minister is fired you can find out here…

It is time to discuss new expressions of church. Pandemic has made it clear that there have been some needed adjustments to make and corners to turn.

Here are a few of the things that have become clearer to me:

The corporate/industrial model of churches ruled by executives is dying. It was a slow death but the pace is accelerating. We must have those in the “lead” relinquish the parts of their role that are unbiblical…to release their hold over the church body and release people to use their gifts and serve the kingdom and church body. Elders need to stop deaconing. Deacons need to “deac”…members need to be encouraged to minister. Ministers need to empowered rather than neutered.

Large gatherings with massive amounts of overhead are also (for many) becoming less appealing and potentially less effective than grass roots models. That isn’t to say large gatherings and large congregations won’t carry it. That also isn’t to say the grassroots path is an easier road. It is to say that we can no longer put all our eggs in the big church basket.

The issues we discuss have to change – from in-house bickering and turf defending to launching out on kingdom mission…investing and inviting a future generation into ownership of ministry and mission. Our conversations have become more and more out of touch with reality and it is starting to bite.

It is time we move toward a more robust trust in the work of the Holy Spirit. I believe many more acknowledge the Spirit’s work but few live like it is true, in my experience. This shift must be made for us to have a vibrant future.

There are many other things that can be listed. None of them anger or upset me. I am hopeful. But I am convinced that if God doesn’t have our attention now, I don’t know what it will take for Him to get us listening.

In times like this we need clear vision and we need fearless leaders willing to execute the vision. We need a community of people determined to see the changes and make them. We need new churches to spring up with new DNA – take the best and leave the worst of our heritage and move into a future we have been positioned for doctrinally and financially for decades.

What is holding us back?

Fear.

Let us not bury our talent and merely try to hold on. Let us unswervingly and daringly advance God’s kingdom in whatever corner of creation we find ourselves! Are you with me?

Flexibility – not everything is going to happen on schedule. Get used to making adjustments. This is going to get us limbered up for the future when we are going to have to get more innovative in areas that we could have never done had the pandemic not taken place. Consider this a warmup!

Technology – Many churches moved their message from a few hundred people in the local congregation to thousands of people online. This forced the infrastructure to be put into place that can enlarge churches’ global footprint for many years to come. Let’s use this wisely.

Facility – The facility finally got put in its place…large rooms that sat empty 90% of the time now sit empty 99% of the time. The idol of the big building has been exposed.

Simple – Simple approaches are becoming more viable in a way that would have never happened without a pandemic. People are meeting in homes, in backyards, and in parks

The church has moved out – In the absence of corporate building-centered worship, the church moved out to where non-believers are at. It is in these places and spaces that new people can be reached and the visibility of the church is increased. The church left the building and now the church has opportunity to connect with new people.

Less reliance on the local ministers – People started looking out for each other in instances they may have previously relied on staff or elders to do.

Exposure to more teachers – As people stayed home they “attended” churches they would have never had contact with otherwise through YouTube and Facebook livestreaming. This will ultimately prove healthy as people engage new ideas and worship styles. They may glean ideas to bring back to mother ship.

What would you add to the list? What have you learned?

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.