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In the 1980s the Black Student Association at Fresno State displayed this slogan, “We have a SIN problem, not a SKIN problem.” It’s a true statement that sounds overly simplistic. Skin problems are still here because sin is still here. Some briefly thought we might be living in a post-racial world. We now realize that sin hasn’t gone away—and with it tensions about race have resurfaced with a vengeance. We live in what could best be described as “a post post-racial world” where distrust & division are rearing their heads in places we thought we’d made great progress.

In Romans, Paul argues that sin is responsible for a divided world. (See my earlier posts.) Sin weaves its way among us: idolatry, greed, arrogance, sanctimoniousness, sexual immorality, bigotry and racism. These divide nations and people. They even wreak havoc in the minds of Christians and in churches. Sin is powerful.

God’s power is stronger still, and the church should be a force for unity. Paul’s words in Rom 15:4-13 summarize the great Romans epistle and its passionate treatise to bring all creation together under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

If all creation is to live under Jesus, shouldn’t the church be working toward that goal even now? Yet how are we to bring people together in a world afflicted by a sin problem? Where do we begin?

We see in Rom 15 that Paul has the answer. If sin is today’s problem, then God’s righteousness is tomorrow’s answer. This was Paul’s conclusion back in Rom 11:26, And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” This is a challenging text to say the least. I can give you a nutshell version of what Paul is saying: God is so just and God’s plans are so right that God’s promises of salvation for all will eventually come true—in spite of the apparent rejection of these plans by hard-hearted people. How is this possible? How can God accept those who appear to reject his plans?

That’s why Rom 15:4-13 is so helpful. It lays out the explanation which is essentially a summary of Romans: For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised, on behalf of the truth of God, in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy (Rom 15:8-9a). CliffsNotes’ version: All people now receive God’s mercy.

This is the central thesis upon which Paul builds his most important instruction. This is the foundation for what he tells us to do—and for how he explains his ministry to those who scoff at his love for Gentiles. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (15:7). This has been Paul’s concluding exhortation since chapter 12: Present your bodies as a living sacrifice. Let love be genuine. Bless those who persecute you. And in chapter 14, Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. In other words, live your lives to God’s glory by welcoming others.

What’s the point? Paul is telling us to stop worrying about how or if God will sort things out. Why? Because God has already taken care of it. Instead of deciding who’s in and who’s out, your job is simple: Welcome people!

But some will retort, “What about 1 Cor 5 when Paul told them to kick out an immoral brother? Paul doesn’t want us to welcome sinners!” This is the go-to passage for this issue, and I understand why. But singling this out without paying attention to the bigger canonical message creates room for unhealthy interpretations. What’s a good way to read this?

When you pay attention to Paul’s bigger message, you see a trend. In 1 Cor 5, Paul is concerned—as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus—about the witness of Christ’s body and about the salvation of all creation. This man’s actions are divisive, and not only within the church. His behavior is disgraceful in the world, too, and it’s destroying the church’s witness.

So he tells them to kick the brother out so they can restore the unity of the church and the integrity of their mission. But notice an often overlooked part of this passage: Send him on his way so that his spirit will be saved on the day of the Lord (1 Cor 5:5b). The man’s salvation is not the question here. This is all about the church’s mission. Paul tells them to disassociate from him as to add no extra obstacle to the already difficult task of preaching Christ crucified.

I know this doesn’t answer every question. It doesn’t simplify hard issues like same-sex attraction or Christian-Muslim relations. But here’s what it boils down to:

God’s righteousness will triumph! In the meantime, we should welcome people! Welcome each other. Welcome your weaker brother. Welcome your neighbor. Welcome those who are different. For God through Jesus welcomed you.

Christ sacrificed everything so that we as sinful people could enter God’s house. Now, we should follow Christ’s example and welcome others. Why? Because God is just, and God’s plans are right. God will do whatever is necessary to fulfill the promises. The image of God is in each of us. If you strip away the sin that divides us—the lies, the falsehoods, the immorality, the prejudices—then we are all humble servants born into the family of God ready to receive the promises of God and to do our jobs for the sake of God’s good purposes.

Yes, we have a skin problem. We can’t help but judge based on what we see. But it’s ultimately a SIN problem. And God has given us the key to overcoming the divides of sin. You must welcome others! Since God has overcome sin through Jesus, we too ought to show welcome.

In 2017, I pray that the church will be more unified than ever as we welcome others under the Lordship of Jesus.

If the Book of Romans is Paul’s most important letter, then we ought to hone in on passages such as Rom 15:4-13. These ten verses summarize the entire message of book: The good news is that ALL are God’s chosen people—both Jews and Gentiles. Glory be to God!

Paul’s universalist-sounding message brings up a key question. If we are all fellow recipients of God’s promises, then how well are we to get along while we wait for those promises? Shouldn’t ALL of God’s people be united in the knowledge that we ALL fall short of God’s glory in our actions yet through God’s grace we ALL receive the free gift of eternal life through Jesus? Shouldn’t unity be our calling card?

Yet as the past year has demonstrated in the US and elsewhere around the world, the people of God are anything but unified. People whose primary allegiance ought to be the family of faith instead have defined themselves by beliefs on gun rights, health care, questions of race, and political candidates. We’ve lost sight of Paul’s passionate plea in Romans! Why do we fail to hear Paul’s message about the unifying force of God’s grace?

Thanks to Luther and Freud, we’ve changed Romans into a psychoanalytical diagnosis of Paul’s “inner turmoil.” The division between human beings is Paul’s primary concern in Romans, but we’ve lost sight of this. Most folks today assume that Paul, like Martin Luther some 500 years ago, is racked by guilt. They assume Paul feels unworthy. The culprit, according to Luther and according to all those who read Paul through Luther’s lens, is legalism. If not for God’s rules, people would be happy and free.

Luther, needing to break free from the constraints of medieval Catholicism, discovered grace in Romans. It was a needed breakthrough for him. Luther was paralyzed by a sense of unworthiness. Romans freed him from this. While we can all give thanks that Luther discovered God’s grace, we ought to stop assuming that Luther is like Paul. We need to hear Romans without imposing upon it the burden of medieval Catholicism or even of twentieth-century legalism in Churches of Christ. Paul’s journey wasn’t Luther’s. And it certainly wasn’t the same as ours either.

So what is Paul battling in Romans? For one thing, Paul assuredly isn’t bashing God’s instruction as handed down through the Law! Listen to Rom 7:22-23, “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Paul is channeling the psalmists who write, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps 19:7). There is nothing evil about the Law of God. How can there be? In the same sense that there is nothing evil about humans made in the image of God, there is no evil in the good and perfect words that come from God’s mouth.

What then is evil? What is it that Paul and all of humanity struggle with? It’s not God’s Law. Rather, it’s the law of sin and death that wages war on our bodies and on our relationships. In other words, it’s Sin with a capital S. The culprit that destroys us is Sin. Sin ruins people. Sin eats away at relationships. Sin makes us arrogant. Sin causes us to segregate and separate. Sin brings on the problems of prejudice, bigotry, insults, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, violence, greed and idolatry. Sin is the power that wrecks humanity.

When you remove the fiction of “Paul’s inner turmoil” and instead read Romans in this light, then everything changes! This is Paul’s dilemma: How can we overcome Sin that keeps on dividing us? How do we get past Sin that causes me to judge people by their skin color, their education level, their social status, their Facebook posts, or by who they voted for?

Paul is torn by the fact that Gentiles are receiving Christ, yet Jews—who should know best—are rejecting Jesus and rejecting these new believers. The problem, says Paul, isn’t religion or the Law or circumcision or ethnicity or even the Roman Empire. The problem is Sin. God’s instruction hasn’t corrupted the Jews. Sin is wreaking havoc.

When you know the real problem, you can finally look for the real answer. So what’s the answer to the power of Sin? Stay tuned for my final post in this series.

Does religion divide people? Is it race, socioeconomic status or politics that separates us? Is our world and are the churches that inhabit that world hopelessly divided by things that we are helpless to control?

As a Jew trained by the prominent Jewish teacher Gamaliel, Paul had learned that what divided people was religion. Jews had the Law and were therefore superior. Gentiles did not have the Law and were therefore inferior. According to Jewish thinking, God’s gift of the Law separated them from others, making them superior.

A Jewish man might therefore pray, “Blessed am I, Lord, that I was not born like these pagans but rather among your chosen people who have the Law.” Or as Jesus portrays the common prayer of a Jewish leader, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I worship properly and I give a tenth of my income. Thank you, God.”

But as he reveals in Romans, Paul finally comes to a different realization. We don’t fully know what changed Paul. Did he figure this out when the bright light blinded him on the Damascus road? Did he spend seven years in the Arabian desert coming to this conclusion? Or was his heart softened by the sorrowful realization of how much he had fought against the followers of the Way?

Here’s what Paul discovered: Sin divides us. Not our birth certificates. Not our ethnicity. Not even the Law. It’s sin that divides people from one another and from God—the sins of arrogance, laziness, anger, idolatry, etc. They all build barriers that keep us apart.

This is what Paul is getting at in Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Blood doesn’t divide us. Flesh doesn’t separate us. Sin wrecks relationships and tears the world to pieces.

Think back with me to the story of creation. Why do we have the stories of Genesis 1-2? These aren’t scientific records of how God orchestrated the details of the universe. Instead, they explain to us what’s in the heart of God and what the role of humanity in God’s glorious creation is supposed to be.

One of the most important lessons from creation is that humans are made in the image of God. We are made in God’s image! In other words, the image of God is deeply implanted into each and every person. Stop and consider that for a moment. You are made in God’s image! Say it to yourself, “I am made in God’s image.” But now look around and say about those near you, “They are made in God’s image.” Each and every person has the image of God within them. How can something made in God’s image be bad or evil.

One of the things you learn when you’re married to a child development expert (as I am) is that you shouldn’t call kids bad or good. It’s common to hear even from Santa Claus, “Have you been a good girl?” Or a frustrated parent will say, “Why are you being such a bad boy?” The truth is that kids aren’t bad. They do bad things and make bad choices, but they aren’t bad.

The same is true of people. Can you really say that a human being made in the image of God is bad? Does God make bad things? This is what the creation story teaches us: When done with creation, God said, “It is good. It is very good.” Would you want to argue that God makes bad things?

Now it’s true that there are some people who do some awful things. And this is what guides Paul’s conclusion. The awful things they do that divide people are the result of sin.

But even people who genuinely do good things tend to become smug and self-righteous. This is another kind of sin that creeps in and divides people. The truth is that we are all made in the image of God. But by the same token we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Our actions don’t match the image that is inside us. And this divides us from each other and from God.

Jane Elliott was a third-grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa. In 1968 she had the crazy idea of letting her kids participate in an experiment. “Blue-eyed kids,” she announced, “are stupid and will be second-class members of this class. Brown-eyed kids are the best.” So for the next two days she watched with astonishment as previously bright leaders who had blue eyes suddenly became timid and insecure, making unusual mistakes on their assignments. Meanwhile, brown-eyed kids found an amazing degree of confidence. Some previously quiet kids came out of their shells and began to assert themselves, feeling more confident in their roles and in their skills.

Then Mrs. Elliott switched the experiment. Blue-eyed kids were now bright while brown-eyed kids had their rights taken away. It was an astounding test that met with widespread derision—especially there in Riceville—as she began to draw acclaim and curiosity around the country. She even appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Elliott asked the kids to write about what they learned. One student, Debbie Hughes, said things that typify the other responses. “The people in Mrs. Elliott’s room who had brown eyes got to discriminate against the people who had blue eyes. I felt like hitting them if I wanted to. I got to have five extra minutes of recess.” When the experiment switched, she wrote, “I felt like quitting school . . . I felt mad. That’s what it feels like when you’re discriminated against.”

This clearly illustrates Paul’s great discovery in Romans. The things that divide us are artificially produced by the power of sin. They are either of our own creation or of a power beyond our control. That’s what Paul says in Romans: “You were slaves to sin.” Sin takes people hostage and through this savagery destroys what is good in all of us.

Think about it for a second. If we all stood in the presence of God, stripped of our sin and aware of being made in God’s image, wouldn’t we get along swimmingly? This is why Jesus came—to undo the damaging divide of sin. Jesus refused to separate people the way his compatriots did. Knowing this, Paul writes in Rom 15:7, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” The glory of God as revealed in creation is visible when we tear down the divisions and welcome one another as fellow human beings made in God’s image.

So here’s my challenge for you based upon Paul’s massive discovery. What have you allowed to divide you from your neighbors? What obstacle have you empowered to stand as a divider between you and others who—like you—are made in God’s image? And what are you going to do about it? Sin is the divider-in-chief. Let’s stop feeding it.

As we leave behind the acrimonious year of 2016, can I make a plea for unity among God’s people in 2017? Paul made a similar appeal in the first century. His letter to the Romans provides us with clear markers for how to get there. In particular, Romans 15:4-13 is a text that summarizes the complex message of Romans. It reveals Paul’s steadfast hope for unifying God’s people.

This passage in Rom 15 has the capacity to literally transform the ways we understand faith, evangelism and the sovereignty of God. To grasp this beautiful and important passage of scripture in its proper light, it’s helpful to comprehend Paul’s two major discoveries shared in Romans. And in the midst of them, I have to debunk the most common misconception in Romans about Paul.

In three succeeding articles, I’d like to outline Paul’s building blocks for creating unity among God’s people. I wish I could affirm that it worked in Paul’s day. During his Christian ministry, he faced the problem of Jewish believers not wanting to accept Gentile believers. They didn’t heed Paul’s words. In the years that followed, however, we see that Gentile Christians were increasingly unwilling to accept Jewish believers. (A warning for us is that in no time the shoe can easily be on the other foot!) They appear to have not listened to Paul either.

The odds of finding unity may be no better today than they were in Paul’s time. But still, we ought to try. And I can think of no better place to begin than with Paul’s two Aha! moments that undergird his efforts for unity two millennia ago. Will you read on with me? In this New Year, I wish you the blessing of rediscovering the Father’s hope.

The Mennonite professor stood in front of his Christian Ethics class at a local seminary. It was the first day of class. “Take out a sheet of paper and answer the following question: What should we have done after 9/11? Quickly write down what you think we should have done.”

Students scribbled furiously for a couple minutes before the teacher interrupted and declared, “I don’t want to know what you wrote. But I do want to know one thing. Who is your we? When you started to answer, tell me which we came to mind when I asked what ‘should we have done’ after 9/11.”

The point was simple yet profound. The students’ we was “we Americans.” For most people in the class at this seminary, their first impulse was to answer for the United States of America. They wrote down what their country should have done after 9/11.

Some had no doubt assumed this would be a discussion about the merits of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars or the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and all the changes that came with it. But the professor needed to deal with a more profound issue. Even these seminary students were thinking as Americans first and Christians second. Their we was the American nation-state.

There’s nothing wrong with thinking as Americans. If you’re a fellow American, then we share a common identity as Americans. We live in a great country. Citizenship provides us with real advantages that we can enjoy.

As Christians, however, our first we isn’t supposed to be our national identity. The we of the Christian faith has nothing to do with birth certificates, passports, skin color, ethnicity, gender, age, wealth or even geography. For followers of Jesus, our we is all those who belong Jesus. Our primary identity is the Kingdom of Heaven. We are children of God, fellow heirs with all who claim allegiance to Jesus.

Paul wrote, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:20). Or elsewhere, “For [Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us . . . that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15). And again, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of on Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).

If you want to belong to Jesus, you must also accept that you belong to his people. Your primary identity is in Christ and in the fellowship of faith. Will your country save you before God? Will your ethnicity remove your sins? Will your passport form you into the image of Jesus? Only your identity as a follower of Jesus can do these things, and Christians ought to think as Christians first. Everything else should lie in submission to the we of faith.

I am deeply troubled at what I see in the American church today. It’s sad and disheartening to see what so many people think. Their posts and their comments reveal a primary loyalty to something other than the community of faith.

In one sense, I’m grateful that the truth is coming out. We’re seeing things as they really are. We’re discovering that the we for many of our fellow Christians in the US is not the biblical we but rather an ethnocentric we. Instead of sharing primary allegiance with believers across the world from among people of every nation, language, race and ethnicity, they only feel solidarity with those who salute their flag.

These Christians would have been right at home in Rwanda where ethnicity trumped God’s Kingdom. It has been widely noted that Rwanda was the most Christianized nation-state on the African continent at the time of the genocide. Bowing to incitement and fear-mongering, Christian Hutus massacred Christian Tutsis in barbaric ways. Loyalty to a race was more important than loyalty to Jesus. (I wonder who taught them this version of Christianity?)

It’s bad enough that too many American Christians have fellow Americans as their we rather than fellow believers. Still worse is the fact that some Christians sort themselves out in even narrower terms. Their we is Americans who share the leanings of their political party—either Republican or Democratic. And some go even further by saying that their we is only those who support Trump or Hillary or their particular wing of their party. That’s the we they think of above all else.

Have Christians really fallen this far from Paul’s vision of the people of God? Sadly yes, they have. Of course, we ought to admit that first-century Christians struggled with this as well. Early Jewish Christians struggled to accept believers who weren’t Jewish. And within a century the tables had turned to the point that Gentile Christians had difficulty accepting Jewish Christians who didn’t give up all Jewish practices. But that reality doesn’t lessen the target at which we are to aim.

As Christians we are habitually tempted to focus on the wrong we or to simply make our version of we far too small. In this day of political rancor and hatred, however, can some of us agree to redefine our we in terms keeping with Paul’s vision for the people of God? Let’s be clear that it’s not just Paul’s vision; this is the biblical vision: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet 2:10). Thanks be to God for those who have the vision and the courage to define their we in keeping with our spiritual reality in Christ Jesus. Are we in this together?

To illustrate how far down the wrong path many Christians have gone, consider the following not-so-far-fetched, hypothetical situation: Christian protesters stand in opposition to one another. All carry picket signs that read, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” One group is against abortion. The other is protesting the death penalty. But get this. Each group is opposed to the other’s issues. The pro-lifers believe in capital punishment, while the anti-death-penalty folks are pro-choice. They begin to mock and scream at one another with such vehemence that some folks begin to beat each other to death with their “Do Not Kill” signs.

Can you picture this scenario? It’s not so crazy, is it? Does it make sense to be so opposed to death that we are willing to kill for it? Is the rage some Christians display towards other Christians justified? Is this hostile situation at all compatible with what God envisioned for the people of God or with what Jesus hoped for from his followers?

After Adam and Eve were cast out from the Garden, we find the story of Cain and Abel. The text does not adequately explain why Abel’s gift was more pleasing to God than Cain’s. There are good possibilities: Abel brought his best while Cain gave something average; Abel’s heart was in the right place while Cain’s was not; and so forth. In reality, we don’t know. The narrator only tells us that Cain’s gift was not regarded by God. There’s no clear rationale.

The reason, however, is irrelevant. This tale is not primarily about how to offer a pleasing gift. This story, rather, is about what happens when anger and jealously grow within us as they did in Cain. His rage was so great that God actually confronted Cain, to no effect. In Gen 4:8, Cain killed Abel. Anger tends to produce violent intentions, and these spiteful desires can cause us to lose sight of the sanctity of life.

In Jesus’ only recorded commentary on the 6th commandment, he warned against anger. “You’ve heard that it was said, ‘Whoever murders is liable to judgment,’ but I tell you that you’re liable to judgment if you just get angry at your brother or sister” (Matt 5:21-22).

Like murder, anger is destructive. Anger, whether verbally revealed or secretly hidden, violently rips at another person. This doesn’t just harm the individual. It’s an attack on the entire community: both on the trust & security that people feel as individuals, and on the very way of life they share together. It’s not the way God intended for us and is certainly at odds with Jesus’ teaching about the shared life of his followers.

You might counter that we live in a Cain v. Abel world, not Eden, and that this demands real responses to harsh realities. Ours is a fallen world, you might respond, not the ideal world where we can all live in peace, love and joy. Even Jesus got angry in the temple, you say, and told his followers to grab a sword and to hate their parents.

For starters, those comments from Jesus are taken out of context with no appreciation for Jesus’ overall message. And his anger in the temple is consistent with his anger against those who oppressed the poor, broken, and downtrodden in the name of religion. There is room for anger for the right reasons and in the proper circumstances.

But the thought that we must stoop to the dysfunctional and hate-filled level of our broken world is far from consistent with Jesus’ teaching—or the Bible’s overall message, for that matter. Jesus was given the chance in Matthew 19 to endorse the broken reality of the world, but he refused to take the bait. They asked him, “Is it okay for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” The underlying assumption behind this question isn’t just about divorce and remarriage. It’s about whether or not we believe that the brokenness of this fallen world is as good as it gets.

And how did Jesus answer? He pointed back to Genesis 2, to the world before the fall, before sin entered the picture. “Have you not read . . . ?

Have we not read? Have we not paid attention to the key message of Jesus’ teaching? The key message is that God wants us to strive for a paradisaical way of living and behaving here on this earth. And if there’s one place that this should be most possible, that’s within the community of faith. If the people of God can’t begin to resemble the ideal state of things, then who can? Yes, God provides grace for those who don’t measure up. Yes, none of us will ever be perfect. Yes, there is none who is righteous, no not one. But that doesn’t mean God is content with us being lazy, angry, slum-dwelling morons who never attempt to amount to anything.

God wants us to live—as much as possible—as the first humans lived in Eden: in harmony with one another and with God. It sounds suspiciously like the two greatest commands and like Paul’s summation of the law in Romans 13:8-10.

If the people of God can’t live with love, mercy and compassion for one another, then who can? This has to begin with us. And it has to apply to how we treat one another, even in the most contentious issues of our day. If we can do it, then maybe—just maybe—the prayer of Jesus in John 17 will be less of a pipe dream and more of a reality. And the rhetorical violence of our world will no longer be a mark of the people of God.

ChurchDividedCan’t wait until my “loving Christian brothers and sisters” weigh in on this issue and trash our president. They’ll no doubt refer to those pardoned as “scum of the earth who deserve to rot in jail.”

This zinger caught my worship minister’s eye in a recent Facebook conversation. She was initially shocked by the words. Her shock turned to sorrow, however, when she realized they came from one of our church’s precious college students.

It came in response to a potentially controversial post. Any post can seem controversial, given current polarization over politics, gay rights, Caitlyn Jenner, Supreme Court rulings, and so forth. This particular Facebook post had to do with President Obama’s clemency of 46 non-violent drug offenders. The young adult who posted it was already anticipating a backwash of angry comments. He said, “Please keep comments civil. I will moderate if need be.”

Fortunately for him, remarks were civil. Until, that is, our college student unleashed his stinging comment. Why his cynical oracle of impending conflict? Why did our college student expect the worst from his fellow Christians?

I believe it’s because too many church members in recent years have fostered a ministry of division. I’m going to briefly explain why this has happened. But before you conclude that this is just another hopeless commentary on the polarization in our society and in our church, I want to quickly qualify that I am offering this article as a message of hope. I believe young people—like the one above who expressed cynicism—can teach us to live out the ministry of reconciliation.

Churches of Christ are not unique in the story of American Protestantism. We don’t get a big mention in most books. We sometimes think of our story as an extraordinarily impressive one, but most outside observers don’t agree. Almost every Christian sect or denomination has a similar period in its history.

Our movement flourished through a potent form of sectarian group-think. We were the only ones going to heaven. If you cared about people’s souls, then you did something to get outsiders into our churches. Didn’t matter if people already had a faith or were active in a different church. If you didn’t do things our way, you were lost.

Surprisingly, this worked better than you would think. We were very good at guilt trips. We scared many people into becoming Christians the Church-of-Christ way.

Whether you grew up in it or were converted into it, this pattern of “outreach” wrote itself deeply onto our psyche. Many of us are still overcoming it. Scare tactics aren’t the MO for many of us anymore, but they still surface as occasional, nagging feelings: “You aren’t good enough.” “God doesn’t really love you.” Although most of us no longer believe that our church brand contains the only saved ones, the mentality of “us vs. them” won’t let us go.

But it’s not just our people. This is a plague that visits members of most other Christian churches as well. They have comparable, judgmental pasts (and presents). Evangelicals believe that only the “born again” are going to heaven. Liberals believe that fundamentalists don’t know the heart of God. Conservatives think liberals have lost their moorings and their salvation. Charismatics doubt the legitimacy of non-charismatic faith. On and on it goes. Christian doctrine and Christian leaders have sadly taught us to divide, judge and condemn.

It’s a legacy we shouldn’t be proud of. Yet this is our inheritance in American Protestantism. We have learned how to shame and belittle those who aren’t like us. This is hardly the way of Jesus. But it’s the way of Jesus’ followers here in the U.S.

Even though some of us are learning a more generous orthodoxy in questions about who is and who isn’t saved, we can’t shake the fighting mentality. Some have transferred this way of thinking straight over to politics. Which is odd for a movement like ours that was deeply suspicious of human institutions. Yet some now believe that those human institutions—the presidency, Congress, the courts—are our potential salvation or downfall.

Some who learned to be gracious about faith are unable to be gracious about politics. Did they transfer their primary allegiance to the nation-state rather than to Jesus and his church? I find it deeply disturbing when otherwise grace-filled Christians have no trouble trashing fellow Christians over matters of politics. In conservative churches like mine, it’s mostly those favoring a particular flavor of the Republican Party who sometimes rip into anyone espousing love or appreciation for the other party or for policies that strike them as “liberal,” “socialist” or other related transgressions.

This is why the afore-mentioned college student despairingly awaited a torrent of criticism for someone else’s post that showed support for presidential pardons. He had seen people’s comments get torn apart for exhibiting the wrong political leaning. He had been personally excoriated by fellow Christians for what they perceived as wrong stances on immigration, gender issues and so forth. He’d seen it before. Figured he’d see it again.

But here’s where hope is. When my worship minister saw this, she reached out privately with love. She said, “I know you have reason to be skeptical. But you’re bigger than that. Think about how your words portray the community of faith.” There was silence for several hours. Then finally he replied, “Sigh. I know you’re right. Thanks for caring enough to say something.” And he took down the comment.

There is hope for the future because young people are open to learning a new way. There is hope that the peace-loving people among us can turn the tide by loving and investing in a new generation. Young people may not be perfect, but they are thankfully tired of our judgmental ways. And with just a little coaxing, I think they are the ones who can guide the church back onto the non-judgmental path of Jesus that leads to reconciliation rather than division.

bartimaeusAn upside down world? Or an upside down church? Where we sit determines not just our perspective but also decides whether or not we need to be turned upside down in order to effectively live out the good news of the Kingdom.

If you spend any time reading Mark’s Gospel, you can’t help but feel your world being turned upside down. Is Jesus upside down? Or are his followers in need of being turned upside down in order to follow him?

Maybe the following meditation on Mark 10 will open our eyes. A blind man sits by the way in Jericho. His name is Bartimaeus. Huge crowds of pilgrims are here at this last stop before Zion. They’re on their way to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.

Bartimaeus hears someone say that Jesus of Nazareth is among the travelers. He begins to shout out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Many people tell him to keep quiet, but he becomes even more belligerent, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus’ disciples, meanwhile, are worried. They’re worried about where they get to sit. They’re not sitting by the road in the powerless position of a beggar. They want to sit in positions of power and greatness.

James and John secretly ask Jesus for a favor. When he asks, “What do want me to do for you,” they say they’d like to sit on his left and on his right. When the rest of the disciples hear about it, they’re incensed. They’ve already been fighting about who is the greatest, and now James and John have tried to make an end-run around them and secure places of prominence.

They’re focused on seats of power. They’re sitting in the wrong place. They want prayer in schools. They want to be able to wave flags in the auditorium and say “in Jesus’ name” before the Friday night football games. They’re anxious about the “degradation” of the family and how heterosexual marriage is losing its place of honor. They’re worried about where they get to sit.

Meanwhile, blind Bartimaeus sits by the way.

Do we pay attention to people who sit by the way? Or do we mostly care about our own seats?

We want the best seats. We want to camp out in places of prominence and glory. We believe that, because our church was once the place to be in our society, we should always be the happening and influential place to sit. We want to be able to proudly tell our friends, “Look at the church I attend. See how successful it is!” We tend to think as James and John, fixated on our desire to sit in glory.

Jesus tells a story about a sower (Mark 4), a reckless farmer who wastefully throws seed not just on the good soil, but also on rocky and thorny ground—and even by the way. Jesus knows the importance of sowing seed in unexpected places and of paying attention to those whose hearts are most open to him.

While arguing about seats of power, the disciples are unable to see the blind man seated by the way. Ironically, Bartimaeus sees Jesus more clearly than they. He knows who Jesus is. He knows Jesus can give him what he most needs. He is unstoppable in his quest to get to Jesus, who notices him and gives him his sight. In the process, the disciples are shown to be upside down, unable to understand who Jesus is or what it means to follow him.

Perhaps it takes getting flipped upside down to finally look at Jesus the right way. Perhaps we can never see our role as disciples until we sit beside the road. Perhaps it takes getting our tails kicked off our seats of power and onto the ground as beggars before we finally understand that Jesus isn’t here to make us free, famous and wealthy.

Perhaps we have to leave everything in order to gain our sight. It’s what the rich young man can’t do. He goes away sad because he has so many possessions. The disciples have left everything to follow Jesus, but they can’t leave behind their false hopes and dreams.

Can we in the North American church leave behind our taste for power and prestige? Bartimaeus has been sitting by the way with his cloak spread in front of him. This was the way beggars collected alms: spread out their cloak for people to toss coins onto. When Jesus calls to him, Bartimaeus leaves his cloak, his only tangible possession, and runs after Jesus with single-minded devotion. “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way.

Is there hope for people who sit in powerless positions? I hope so. There is for Bartimaeus. Perhaps by losing our power we will once again discover the power of faith in Jesus.

Bartimaeus leaves everything to follow Jesus. Can we leave it all? Can we stop fighting over who gets to sit on the left on who on the right? If we deny ourselves, we just might gain the ability to take up our cross and follow Jesus. And in so doing, we might find renewed hope for the upside-down church in North America.

“Frozen Zoo Offers Last Chance for Some Species.” This was the headline from a February 12 Fresno Bee story. According to the article, San Diego Zoo researchers have spent 40 years amassing genetic material from 1,000 different species. These are all preserved in nitrogen-cooled, stainless steel vats—thus the Frozen Zoo moniker.

One of the most critical cases is that of the northern white rhino. Only five animals remain in the world, and none can reproduce. Some scientists are busy trying to find ways to save the white rhino.

But according to the article, not all scientists are thrilled with the money and resources spent on preserving dwindling species. According to Paul Ehrlich, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, there are far higher priorities than saving white rhinos. “The Frozen Zoo is basically rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” He says that this distracts attention from more important issues such as loss of habitat and population growth. He argued that many species will go extinct by the time we artificially save one “lost cause.”

Oddly, this sounds like the same conversation we seem to have in our churches these days. Are we artificially preserving “dying species”? And in doing so, are we missing out on chances to make crucial changes? Are we truly addressing the more major problems that cause people to reject organized religion? Tough questions.

Social scientists talk about these issues by using two terms: technical change and adaptive change. Technical change is the kind of fix we make all the time using current skills and know-how. When my cable provider has an outage, it makes technical changes to the network in order to get it up and running again. When a restaurant decides to update its menu, it makes technical changes to its food ordering, preparation and signage.

Adaptive change, by contrast, requires skills and know-how that we don’t currently possess. Twenty years ago, the process of bringing telephones to residents of Third-World villages seemed impossible. To run phone wire and provide infrastructure using existing skills and know-how just couldn’t get the job done. But along came the adaptive change of mobile communication. Thanks to wireless phones, people in some of the world’s remotest places send texts, transfer money and talk to faraway friends and family—all using a technology that didn’t exist a couple decades ago. That’s an example of adaptive change.

Churches typically live in the world of technical changes: liven up the worship, hire a new preacher, build a new children’s wing, freshen up the weekly newsletter, add female scripture readers, install an espresso machine, and so forth. These changes may be helpful for a given church. They may even be necessary. But they all rely on current skills and know-how. They are in essence “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” They are all about US and OUR skills and know-how. They can’t address the cultural changes that surround us.

In the same way that many animal species face major problems from loss of habitat and climate change, our churches confront a world that is increasingly unchurched and even hostile toward organized religion. Folks on the outside view Christians as intolerant, prejudiced, and inhospitable. While a few mega-congregations seem to still thrive, most struggle to maintain numbers.

This is a challenge that requires adaptive change. Yet we tend to spend all our energy and capital on technical change. We’re fighting adaptive challenges with technical solutions. It’s no wonder we’re frustrated!

It’s not hard to be sentimental. When I stop and consider aspects of our faith that were still thriving when I was young, I feel grief over an age that is gone. From great four-part harmony to teen training programs to Sunday night services, these and many other components of congregational life were a critical part of my environment growing up. Many of these things were beautiful. They nurtured my faith. They helped make me who I am.

But that world is gone. The era that allowed those things to thrive is no longer our context. Our way of thinking and acting isn’t sufficient to stem the tide that is working against us.

What should we do? In faith, we have no choice but to turn and ask God to provide new skills, new know-how and—perhaps most importantly—new people. Together, these may lead us into new ways of thinking and acting that will realign us with the missional heart of God and bring our message of hope to a generation of people in need of God’s good news.

Here’s the key question: Is your church building a frozen zoo? Are you holding on to dying ways of doing things? Are you clinging to the belief that one day the world will magically change and that those things of a bygone age will once again find fertile reception? Are you rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

Or here’s the alternative: Do you and your church recognize that we live in a changing world? Are you learning to trust God to provide for you? Are you realizing that you face challenges that you’ve never before seen and that require resources you don’t presently have? If so, then you are in a place where faith and divine provision can come together in new and exciting ways. The human-centric story (a focus on technical changes) so prevalent in many of our churches may be dying away. Thank goodness! As we fall on our knees in humility before God, a divinely inspired narrative (a movement toward adaptive change) can rise up that opens the way to gospel for the world around us.

Emil Brunner famously said this in the 1930s: “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.” In other words the very essence of the church is to be mission. Just as a fire that is no longer burning is no longer a fire, so too a church that is no longer living out the mission of God is no longer a church.

Unless you’ve been asleep for years and just now woken up, then you should know that Churches of Christ in many places are in grave danger of going extinct. Our churches are already fractured. Some have died or are dying. Others are in denial or shock about what is happening. It’s quite likely that within the next 30 years, we won’t be talking about how to reignite mission in Churches of Christ because there will be nothing left outside a few places in the Bible Belt.

We have some major obstacles that prevent us from seeing the mission of God, much less living it out today in our own contexts. One of our biggest problems is the good old days. The great generation that built our churches and Christian institutions in the 1950s, 60s & 70s are still in control of many churches today. While we owe them all a debt of gratitude just for the fact that we exist, that generation’s instinctual way of “doing church” runs counter to the changes necessary for reimagining and reigniting our mission for the world. Their style of “mission” worked back in the 50s and 60s. They’re not to be blamed for wanting what they know to have been good. But the world has changed. Their ways no longer work as they once did.

To be candid, I think that generation knows something isn’t right. Most of them admit that change is needed. For the most part they are tired and want someone else to take the baton. I feel confident that they are mostly willing to bless our efforts if we can offer a compelling enough vision of the future to win their trust. I’ve been blessed to discover that kind of trust at the College Church in Fresno, but even there I have to play a careful balancing act at times.

But what exactly is the vision that we need? And what is it that holds us back? Metaphorically speaking, we have become prisoners of the institutions that once sustained us. I’m primarily speaking of the expensive and maintenance-hungry church properties and infrastructure that once supported us, and in some cases still do. They create for us an inward-focused anxiety that beckons to the pride of those who built them and cause perplexed bewilderment among those who are young or new. We end up with hand-wringing and nervous members, wondering how to support our growing need for professional worship services and youth ministries. We fret over roof repairs and technology upgrades. We furrow our brows because our marquee is outdated and our website is cumbersome. Preachers spend countless hours on blogs, podcasts and staff pow-wows to maintain and grow what we have. We have coffee bars, slick bulletins and greeters, all to welcome people into our churches—even though they arrive only in trickles, if at all.

But this exhausting effort lacks one major thing. It lacks a sense of the missional call of God to GO and to DEPEND on unknown sources to complete the mission to which we have been called. We are trying to do it all on our own with resources we can quantify. The fire is ceasing to burn, and we wonder why.

Luke 10:1-12 is a foundational text for many who are trying to reimagine and reignite the church’s mission in North America. There are so many things to notice about this text. You could read it a dozen times and focus on different aspects each time. Many communities that utilize a practice called dwelling in the word, a form of Lectio Divina, often use this passage over and over again.

Notice with me several key elements of Luke 10. And let’s compare them to our approach today. First, Jesus sent his disciples out empty-handed. They had no supplies. You might say they will ill-equipped or even unprepared for their mission. It sounds entirely irresponsible to my mind. But it’s how Jesus sent out his disciples: empty-handed. How do we typically approach our communities and our neighbors? Do we display a spirit of humility and collaboration? Or do we act as paternalistic benefactors who believe that we have the answers to their questions? Jesus didn’t send out his followers with tracts, with food for the homeless, or even with plans of salvation. He sent them empty-handed.

Second, you’ll notice that Jesus told them to find a place of peace and dwell there. They weren’t to flit from one place to the next. Rather they were to trust that the first place they were well received was a place to dwell. Our view of evangelism causes us to totally miss Jesus’ instructions. We think it’s our job to create a place of peace that people want to come to. This is the institutional version of church that we’ve inherited: we make a peaceful place and folks will want to come. While it’s true that every now and again someone wanders in and finds that to be true, overall our growth isn’t keeping up with the death rate in our churches. You could argue that our places just aren’t peaceful enough. But I think the better explanation is that we aren’t following the instructions of Jesus. He told his followers to “go on your way” and find places of peace as you go. He was sending them among people who weren’t yet his followers. To make it clear, there are people of peace in our world today who do not yet follow Jesus Christ. We are to go, find them, accept their hospitality and camp out in their lives. Some people think this means you go and hang out among the homeless and underprivileged. If you have a heart for that and the courage to go do it, I applaud you. But it could simply mean that you find a family of foreigners, or Buddhists, or Muslims, or the gay couple on the corner. We are to find people of peace and intertwine ourselves in their lives. How might this transform our institutional concerns? If we obey Jesus in this, I don’t think we’ll sell or desert our church buildings. But it will totally change the function for which we deem them necessary.

Third, Jesus instructed them to bring the Kingdom of God near. They weren’t to disguise the fact that they were emissaries of God’s Kingdom. As a matter of fact, they were to do things that demonstrated God’s love: specifically, “cure the sick,” Jesus said. Do ministry, but do it out in the lives of people in the world. Our church engines are geared for ministry, but primarily on our terms and in our property. The good news of this text is that, even among those who eventually reject the compassionate ministry of God’s Kingdom, our work among them—when actually done among them—brings them closer to the Kingdom. And isn’t that what our mission is all about? To bring the Kingdom nearer to the people around us?

How can mission be reignited once again in our churches? If we start with the simple and empty-handed approach of Luke 10, we just might learn some important lessons. We might learn about our over-reliance on the “stuff” of our church life. We might also learn about the world in which we live. And finally and perhaps most importantly, we might learn about the Lord who sends us out and who provides for us in amazingly abundant ways.

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