This month: 189 - Freedom in Christ
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Archives for 146 – One Message to Share

Jesus.  He is the source of our salvation.  You would think the message of scripture is so plain that there would be no debate here.  Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)  There is no other name under heaven through which mankind can be saved (Acts 4:12).  By a”single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14) We need to be fully persuaded that Jesus, indeed, paid it all.

I do understand the confusion here.  I have preached my share of sermons on man’s part and God’s part in our salvation, as if the two are equal.  There is no equivalent to what Christ did.  I have read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as if they are equal to the epistles.  No more. As Jim Woodroof discovered, “The power to live out the teachings of the epistles is found in the gospels.”   Scripture says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:4)

Several years ago there was great debate over “the man or the plan.”  Jesus was the “man” and “hear, believe, repent, confess Jesus, and be baptized” was the plan.  People were persuaded to be baptized but many were not empowered to live for and depend on Christ after they were baptized.  In a lot of cases the result was mean-spirited, argumentative and divisive people.

For the last several years I have been privileged to work with women with addictions.  I have witnessed women that were broken and desperate accept Christ and receive healing.  This kind of healing only comes from the heart through a genuine relationship with Christ.  As Paul wrote, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.  For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.” (Romans 10:9-10)

Jesus promised, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.” (John 12:32)

If I had only one  message to share it would be simply:  Jesus.  He is the well-spring from which all blessings flow!

Jim Woodell, Director

www.john317ministry.org

 

 

 

 

Jesus. Love. God. All great one-word messages for the church. Hard to argue against those.

If I had one word for the church, though, it would be something else. Yes, we need Jesus. Yes, we ought to be defined by love. Yes, our allegiance has to be to God above all other powers. I don’t disagree.

As for me, I’d sum up our most basic need with one word. Mission. Most churches have no actual mission. They don’t know what they stand for, if anything. Too many churches have nebulous or outdated reasons for existing, and folks rightly don’t know what to do. What’s missing is a sense of mission.

Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash

Does your church know what its mission is? Are you living for the sake of God’s mission? Are you partnering in a meaningful way with God’s work in this world?

My all-time favorite movie is The Princess Bride. The movie’s hero is Westley, a farm-boy turned pirate turned rescuer for the beautiful Princess Buttercup. At one point Westley is murdered by the villain, Prince Humperdinck. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes takes place when Westley’s lifeless body is carried to the home of Miracle Max. In order to foil Humperdinck’s evil schemes, they need Miracle Max to work a miracle and bring Westley back to life.

Lacking the money to properly pay for the miracle, they appeal to Miracle Max’s sense of justice. “It’s a very noble cause,” they tell him. Max is rightly skeptical. He blows air into the lungs of Westley’s “mostly-dead” body and asks him, “Hello in there! Hey, what’s so important? What you got here that’s worth living for?” Westley’s answer, “True love,” sets off a firestorm of events that lead to the movie’s climax. True love is the defining reason for Westley’s eventual triumph. The unadulterated power of true love is the force that drives them.

What about you and your church? Is there one clear purpose that is driving you? What’s so important? What you got here that’s worth living for?

Churches of Christ used to have a clear sense of purpose: save pseudo-Christians from their incorrect doctrine. We were good at it. We knew without a doubt that everyone who didn’t do things the right way (as in, our way) was going to hell. And this desire to save our friends, family members and neighbors funded our clear mission to get people baptized and into our church.

I thank God that most of us have moved on from that sectarian, narrow-minded way of viewing the church. I’m glad so many of us have deconstructed the legalism of our past. We’re a healthier people now with a more robust view of God and a humbler stance toward other Christian traditions. But in throwing out our old mission, many of us have failed to grab onto a new, life-giving purpose for why we’re here. Is it therefore any wonder that so many of our churches are struggling?

I used to work for a great church with a longstanding, clear sense of mission. Since its inception, that church focused on reaching out to the nearby state university. Nearly everything the church did centered on college students, on the university itself or on some variation therein. The church had other ministries and plenty of members who had nothing to do with the university, but this one mission funded the church’s identity.

When I started working there, the mission had been drifting for some time. Some families wanted more emphasis on youth ministry. Other, long-time members were embarrassed that the church building was too small and old. A few wished for better outreach in the community as a whole. And perhaps most importantly, the campus ministry itself had changed. The university was far more secular, and kids who came from sister churches throughout the state were warned about this campus-ministry church because it was somewhat “progressive.” All these combined to produce a church that no longer understood its mission or was at odds internally over what that mission was. It’s little wonder that the church began to struggle.

When a church’s mission dies, a church doesn’t have to die with it, but it’s a clear warning sign. How does a church reignite its sense of mission? How does a singular purpose arise from the ashes of an old, dying mission? The reemergence of a life-giving mission will take years.

Here’s how it won’t happen. It can’t “be decided upon” at a leadership retreat. A committee of get-‘er-done church members can’t just hash this thing out. Writing out a mission statement isn’t what is required here. Saying that your church loves God, loves people and loves the world is awfully sweet, but that says nothing.

Photo by Marc Wieland on Unsplash

There’s no magic wand to discovering your church’s mission. Instead, you have to develop the skills of listening to God, to each other and to the world around you. As you listen, pray that the Lord of the harvest will bring forth workers into his harvest. Remember, it is God’s harvest. The church is God’s. The mission is God’s. Your job isn’t to create the mission, the church or the harvest. Your job is to discern what God is up to and to join God in that work.

This will take time, years in fact. I recognize that some churches don’t have years. I also realize how much pain you will experience as you go through the wilderness toward a clear understanding of God’s work in and through your church.

But you must start the work today by realizing the one thing you need above all else. You need to understand God’s mission and start the movement toward partnering with it. You can love God, love each other and love the world till you’re blue in the face, but it will be meaningless until you can imagine exactly what that looks like. Do you exist for your neighborhood? Is an orphanage in Haiti your main focus? Or is it your job to rescue Christians broken by other churches? Why are you where you are, doing what you’re doing with the resources God has given you?

Does your church know what its mission is? Are you living for the sake of God’s mission? Are you partnering in a meaningful way with God’s work in this world? I pray that when the Lord works his miracle of new life in your church and asks what you’ve got that’s worth living for, I pray that you’ll have an answer.

 

My oldest son is in his Junior year of High School, and every day his mom and I are reminded of our responsibility to get him ready to be a productive member of society. We have tried to teach him all of the things that people need to know, like how to change the oil in his car or cook a meal. He and I are reading Hal Runkel’s book, Choose Your Own Adulthood, and having discussion about it over coffee. We are trying to emphasize what it means to take responsibility for his actions and his choices. While I understand I will always be his dad and always be there for conversations and to help him through the difficult times in his life, there is this looming sense that I have a very short time to teach him what I want for him to know.

I grew up in churches from California to Alabama and one of the wonderful things about the Churches of Christ is that they are very familiar. I guess that is true of any denomination or tribe of believers. We all have things that are normal for us. We all take communion every week, believe in the necessity of baptism, understand that the elders are the real pastors and the guy who preaches every week is just the preacher. We meet in the auditorium, we all know the five acts of worship as well as the five steps to salvation, and we would have cringed that I equated the Church of Christ with a denomination. This month, Wineskins is centered around the theme: if you had one message to share with Churches of Christ what would you share? I have come to the conclusion that the message that I would have for my children is the same message that I would have for my church family.

Growing up in the Church of Christ my parents made sure that I was actively involved in the work of the church. I spent Saturdays handing out Bible Call brochures and attended my first men’s breakfast when I was 9 years old. I participated in Bible Bowls and memorized all of the baptism verses in the book of Acts. I was very well versed in the Jule Miller filmstrips; I still instinctively reach out to advance the filmstrip every time I hear a ding. I used to hum Just As I Am in my sleep. I went to a bible college and prepared to spend my life fulfilling the great commission saving the lost heathens that were going to die and go to hell. And, when they wouldn’t submit to baptism or said that they were safe because they had said the Sinner’s Prayer, I just wrote them off to their own reward.

What I have come to understand is that people don’t want to be saved because they don’t really consider themselves lost. For the most part, we are good people, or at least better than the guy who lives next door or the woman who works in the office with me. I have a pretty nice life, I live in a decent home, and have a healthy family. Plus, my schedule is pretty full right now and I don’t have time to go and sit on a pew and look at the back of someone’s head. So, while you talk about salvation and being lost, that doesn’t really apply to me. And, that’s not just the people who are outside your church buildings, but that is true for some of the folks who are inside your buildings as well.

Other people don’t want to be saved because they don’t think they can be saved. If you knew what I had done, or where I had been then you would know that even God couldn’t save me. I have lost count of the times I heard someone say, “If I walked into your building the roof would collapse.” That is just another way of saying that I have gone too far, become too tainted for God to save me.

And, still others don’t want to be saved because they have met us and they were treated with contempt. Instead of finding people who accepted the tax collectors, prostitutes, and zealots that Jesus often surrounded Himself with, they find a self-righteous group of people. Instead of welcoming everyone to have a seat at Christ’s table, we have made our own pharisaical lists of who are welcome and who are not. We have communicated that the church is available to sensible sinners like us.

If I had one message to share it would be this; People don’t want to be saved, they want to be loved. I believe that we lost our way somewhere. We forgot that our call as a church is to love people and introduce them to Jesus. We have traded this idea of loving people for the task of saving people. I get it, because it’s hard to quantify how much we love the lost in the world. Since we cannot measure how much we love folks, we traded the call to love people for the call to go and make disciples and baptize them because we can count baptisms. The result is that we forgot about the call to love.

When a teacher of the law approached Jesus and asked Him, “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” Jesus tells us what is the most important thing we can be doing in our communities. Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus was calling us to meet our greatest need in life. First, He says that we are to love God because it’s the only way that we will find true peace. The second commandment is exactly like the first to love one another because it is the only way that we will bring true peace to the world.

People don’t want to be saved, they want to be loved and that’s what we were supposed to be doing from the beginning. We are called to love people and introduce them to Jesus who will take care of their salvation. If they give their lives to Christ, we love them. If they refuse His offer, we love them. If they don’t understand, we love them. If they return our love with anger and hatred, we love them. We will never get to the point that we can cross love off the list as something that we accomplished back in 2012. Every day we are given the chance to enter into our community and find someone to love, and when people feel truly loved, then God will do what only God can do.

What is the first word? What is the last word? What is the the only word that matters in the end? I have been wrestling with this question for a long time. It is a deep one?

The question is not only about a word that passes through our lips. The question covers deeds. The question asks, “what is the knee jerk response of all my actions and reactions” towards those around me.

I ask this question specifically as a Christian. Several years ago I took my shepherds through David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons’s book, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity. The book is a landmark study of people from the ages of 19 to 29, people now in their late 20s and mid 30s.  What I wanted to do with my elders is come to grips with the reality that “we” have an “image problem” in our culture.

It is possible that some may not care about our image in the community. As someone pointed out to me, “Bobby who cares what the lost think about us?” This was asked in all seriousness. I am surprised by this question to be honest.

Most of us check Yelp to see what “image” a restaurant has before we patronize it. We read through the comments and if there is a string of: “food sux!,” “It is a dump,” “McDonald’s is a five star restaurant by comparison,” “They are rude and act like they could careless that you are there,” then chances are we will not eat there. Such businesses will soon cease to exist.

We should care about our image. Not because “the lost” are necessarily correct but because an image the repels leads to a dead business and a dead local congregation.

We should care because God cares. Remember when Yahweh was about to destroy the Israelites? Moses said to God, “what will the Egyptians think” (Exodus 32.12)? Who cares, right? God cared. Paul tells the disciples on the island of Crete that they need to live in such away that the teaching of God is “attractive” to the unbelievers (Titus 2.10). Peter tells his band of aliens that bad reputations are inevitable. Rumors will always abound. However he says that, as aliens, we need to conduct ourselves as if on a silver screen so that when we are castigated that our good deeds speak in our defense (1 Peter 3.15-17).

So this brings me back to my question, “what is the first word?” Over the last week or so, I have been wrestling with Amos on the heels of six months of reading, rereading, and teaching 1 John. First John and Amos, together, are like a double one two knock out punch. What ever the first word is, it dictates what the first deed, first action, is.

I think Unchristian is more needed today than when it came out a few years ago. When asked what was the primary word, image, thought that comes to mind an entire generation has unbelievably harsh words to say. Many in the research in fact even grew up in Christian home and some went to Christian schools. What they think of Christians is disturbing. There were six primary thoughts.

1) Hypocritical

2) The only thing Christians talk about is “getting saved” and could careless about anything else in the world.

3) Christians are homophobic, indeed they “hate homosexuals”

4) Christians mistake their brand of politics for Christianity

5) Judgemental. Christians are mean spirited people.

The issue is not changing the Bible on any subject. I assume most agree that Jesus of Nazareth knew the Bible condemned sexual immorality. I assume most agree that Jesus of Nazareth was the most holy person to ever walk the face of the earth.

But I promise you that no sinner, no person ever used those six words/images to describe Jesus. Instead Jesus obtained the opposite “image problem.”

Sinners loved to be with him.

Prostitutes loved hanging around him.

Tax collecting traitors for the Roman Empire hosted huge parties for him.

When women were caught in the very act of adultery by the morality police, Jesus dared to side with the accused.

Sinners loved to be with Jesus but seriously dislike Christians.

This generation is leaving Christianity in droves. I am not sure some of us older Christians truly want to ask the questions of why.

What is the first word? What is the last word? What is the only word? It may be simplistic but the answer to this changes our image problem. If outsiders saw that we had a “nasty reputation” of being on the side of the down, the out, the sinners, the adulterers, the “homos,” the divorcees, the single moms, the aliens … the people Jesus ate with then we might find that something amazing taking place.

What is the first word? What is the last word? What is the only word?

Is it not love!

In every situation the first word, the first response, the first reaction, the first deed is love. As the rock star and theologian Scott Stapp sang,

what would love do
If it were here in this room standing between me and you
what would love do?

Believe it or not my friends, our first job as disciples of Christ is not to tell people to “repent and be baptized.” Our first job as disciples of Christ is to love as God so loved, to love as Christ so loved, to love as the Holy Spirit of love is the only reason we are even alive. As Paul wrote about Spirit inspired love.

Love suffers with others.

Love is kind.

Love does not envy.

Love is not arrogant.

Love does not seek its own way.

Love does not easily give way to anger.

Love does not celebrate in others misfortune.

Love rejoices in truth where ever it may be found.

Love bears with the faults of others.

Love endures the faults of others.

Love hopes.

Love leaves a blessing. Love leaves the door open. Love treats with dignity no matter who is in front of us. Love leaves the aroma of Christ. Love is the supreme doctrine of God, for God is love.

Our image problems will change when we, as Christians, answer the question: “What is the first word? What is the last word? What is the word that really matters? Any time, Any day? What is the first word?”

May the Lord bless you and keep you and make his face shine upon you as we struggle to have the reputation of Jesus the Messiah.

Adolf Von Schell was a World War I German officer who wrote a book about his experiences leading his troops in 1933 called Battle Leadership. The book is an extremely helpful read on the psychology of leadership in tense situations.

The first chapter in Von Schell’s book in entitled “Battlefield Psychology” and in that chapter he shares two successive stories that I believe are helpful in describing some of what we see in Jesus’ leadership style in the Passion narratives.

In the first story, Von Schell and his troops have stationed themselves in a little house to guard a road. Not long after they arrived at the house, French artillery started falling all around them. Everyone was incredibly nervous. Von Schell grabs a chair, puts it in the doorway and sits down. As he tries to relax he ultimately falls asleep in the doorway. His men reason, if their leader was that comfortable, everything must be okay. The tension died down and the men began playing cards and having some fun.

In a very similar story, he describes an incident where he and his men got caught between Russian fire and some of their own artillery. They had taken cover in a shed in the night but didn’t realize how exposed they were until the dawn. When the sun came up, they realized they were about to be in a crossfire and everyone get nervous. Artillery shells started pounding near their position. One shell even landed right in the middle of the troops but didn’t explode. Von Schell once again grabs a chair and asks one of his men for a haircut. Here is how he tells it,

“I must say, that in my whole life, no haircut has ever been so unpleasant. Every time a shell whistled over our heads, I jerked my head down and the barber would tear out a few hairs instead of cutting them. But the effect was splendid; the soldiers evidently felt that if the company commander could sit quietly and let his hair be cut that the situation was not so bad, and that they were probably safer than they thought. Conversations began; a few jokes were played; several men began to play cards; someone began to sing; no one paid any more attention to the shells, even though two men were wounded a few minutes later by a shell which struck in the vicinity.” (Battle Leadership, 17).

As I see Jesus throughout his ministry and particularly in the Passion narrative (the Last Supper, in the garden, at his arrest, trial and even his crucifixion) Jesus has this demeanor because Jesus knows those who follow his lead need him to be this way but more than that – Jesus is this way. He is leading his disciples through the toughest thing they will ever encounter and Jesus does so with calm collectedness. He does so as a non-anxious presence in what would normally be anxiety producing circumstances. You heard it back in Mark 8 when Jesus tells his disciples that they are going to Jerusalem and what will happen there. You hear this calmness and matter-of-factness in his voice at the Supper when he explains what is about to happen and how they are going to abandon, deny and even betray him.  Jesus even exerts hints of his authority to those who arrest him when they ask him if he is Jesus and he says, “I am” (18:5-6) to which those who came for him fell back and says the same thing to the High Priest at his trial (Mark 14:62). Peter on the other hand, in his denials, says the opposite “I am not” (John 18:17, 25). You can hear it in his speech to those who came to arrest him in Mark 14.

Jesus is in full control of the situation. He is leading in his submitting. He is leading in his allowing himself to be arrested, beaten, crucified and killed. The way he goes through these things helps his disciples walk through it, from a distance, with him and make it out on the other side ready to take on the world. When the shells were flying, their leader sat down for a hair cut. Their leader, no our leader, “took a nap” to show us that we have nothing to fear.

What is it that makes you anxious? Does it help to know that none of it surprises him and none of it makes him nervous? The now exalted Christ is fighting for you. Who or what have you to fear?

If you are a leader, are there things you are doing that transfers your anxiety onto those you lead? What might you do to defuse anxiety rather than create or foster it? I suggest following Jesus’ example and be a non-anxious presence. That requires faith but isn’t that what anyone in Christian leadership should have anyway?

My first thought was “Christ and him crucified” but Paul does it better than I ever would.

I would preach knowing and loving God. On a recent flight I was reading Richard Rohr’s book The Divine Dance and in it he makes the distinction in believing in God and knowing God. It didn’t hit me well when I first read it but the more what he was saying sunk in, the more I agreed with him.

If you imagine Adam meeting Eve, what would the difference be between Adam believing Eve was real (believing in an entity/being the person of Eve) and what the scriptures actually tell us, that Adam “knew” her? Believing in Eve would be to believe she is really real. She exists. She isn’t a mirage or a figment of delusional, loneliness-inspired thinking or longing. Knowing Eve is both relational and experiential.

In my upbringing I knew an awful lot about God. I believed in God but I didn’t learn how to connect with God on a deeper level until adulthood and even that didn’t come easy. I had few to no models on how to do this until even the last few years.

We have to guide people to understand not just how to believe in God but how to know God. There is a huge difference between the two. Remember, even the demons believe in God but they don’t really know God as we are to know God because they will not experience God in the same relational ways we will and do as they are objects of wrath whereas we are objects (the recipients) of God’s love.

We acknowledge the relational/experiential nature of our understanding of and connection with God when we call Him Father and acknowledge ourselves as His children and each other’s brothers and sisters. Unfortunately even that belief is usually seen as a theological position rather than a relationship to be lived out and into.

This must become more than a theological position requiring mental ascent. We would we require someone to believe in God to consider them a Christian but would we require them to know God to consider them a Christian? If loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength was the greatest command and not just love him with our minds, then we are missing something here. The missing piece is what we must reclaim and missing it has cost us far too much in the last 100 years.

What is more, the way we educate needs to change. We aren’t training just minds. We are training whole people. The only way I knew to be a son to my dad was through experience and instruction. We get the second without ever touching on the first. Maybe we think experience is too mystical, subjective and wishy-washy to be of any real value.

Until we wrap our minds, our ministries and our discipleship around helping people come to know God rather than just believe in God we will continue to create a culture in the church that is far too nominal and not nearly relational/experiential as Jesus himself taught.

Shortly after the discovery of fire and just before the end of the last ice age, I was a student at Harding. In one of our ministry classes, we were supposed to write a book review on a certain preaching textbook. I remember in my paper, critiquing the fact that the author used the term “pastor” when referring to the “minister.” Ugh, I had so much yet to learn.

October is “Pastor Appreciation month.”

Just visit any Christian bookstore or turn on your local Christian radio station, everyone, everyone else that is, is talking about it. If you are one of the folks who never gets to sit with your spouse during Sunday morning’s worship service, never gets a three-day weekend, has “elders’” meetings before Sunday School, often neglects your children from working 60-70 hours a week while being on call 24 hours a day, and you have about 200 volunteers deciding too much of your future, this month’s special recognition of “pastors” holds some significance.

Our “non-denominational denomination” needs to realize that “Pastor” isn’t a denominational term. It isn’t copyrighted, no one owns the word “Pastor.”

After over 20 years in ministry, I can tell you, it gets old when the mayor introduces you during a prayer breakfast, or when you read a book to an elementary classroom and you are introduced, or when you perform a funeral and you are introduced, it gets old saying, “Technically, I’m not the pastor…” Not only does it get old, it’s kind of silly and pointless.

Why do so many of our congregations struggle to identify our pulpit-filling, teaching, counseling, leader, and “face of our congregation” as a “pastor?” It seems to be more about power and control than it does Biblical interpretation. We seem to like to keep our “preachers” under the authority of the elders more than we want to empower our preachers to unleash all of their God-given gifts. We’d rather emasculate our preachers than risk having them, potentially, become too powerful to control.

Why is that we have to have at least two men to have an “eldership,” but we can have a congregation with a “preacher” without any elders if there are none “qualified” to serve as elders? How have we overlooked the fact that Paul gives instructions to the “evangelist” for the evangelist to select the elders in 1st Timothy? Because we are inconsistent. We split hairs, and in doing so, we split heads and break hearts.

There’s nothing in the Scriptures forbidding us from identifying the “minister” as the pastor or “a” pastor. Do the passages in the Bible regarding this topic require a plurality of elders, pastors, or shepherds? I actually prefer the term Shepherd to elder, and words do have meaning in our minds. I’m not interested in arguing over the “number” of those who serves, as much as I am for standing up for the folks whom God says are a “gift” to the body in Ephesians 4:11 ff..

May we all come to a better understanding of the role of those who preach, teach, guide, protect, counsel and pastor our flocks, and may we express our appreciation for those who serve our congregations as they follow God’s calling. May we do so with honor and integrity, and may we do so with sincere hearts. May we empower our servant-leaders to dream big dreams for God’s Kingdom, and to lead us to love God and our neighbors wholeheartedly.

craigcottongim@gmail.com

If you had one message to share, what would it be? If you could assemble any group of people, your choosing, and preach just one message…what would it be? Would you assemble all those who don’t know Jesus and preach the Gospel? Would you gather your closest few friends or family members and tell them something difficult? Would you gather up your congregation, your denomination, or all Christians in general and have a word for them?

If you had one message to share…