Like so many things in the Kingdom of God, we have a paradox here. Yes, our walk of faith is a process; there is tremendous value in the steps along the way: the relationships with each other and with the Lord, the lessons learned in trials and victories, they joy of worship and of being part of the move of God in a region or in an individual: these are priceless treasures, and clear indications of the value of the journey, apart from the goal at the end. In no way do I intend to devalue that truth in what I am about to say.
But ultimately, we really are working towards a goal. There will come an end to the process – regardless of how valuable that process has been – and our effectiveness at accomplishing the goal will be measured. The goal can be quoted a number of different ways:
Make disciples. (Matthew 28:19)
Produce fruit of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:23)
Preach the gospel (Mark 16:15)
Be witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)
Bring forgiveness to the world (John 20:21-23)
Ultimately, they can all be summarized by a passage in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer. It is our job to make this happen:
Some whom I trust would argue that this is not our task to do, but this is our prayer to pray; to them I would answer: do you not expect your prayers to be answered? If you are praying for the expansion of the Kingdom of God on earth, then we should see that the Kingdom expanded on your watch, in your area of influence.
Others would argue that this responsibility is ours not just to pray about, but to work towards as well, but the same standards apply if they’re right: we should see that the Kingdom expanded on your watch, in your area of influence.
My point is this: There will come a day when we will stand before our Heavenly King, and He will judge us. This is not about heaven or hell: we who believe in
I have the privilege (and I consider it a privilege, an honor) of talking with thousands of people from thousands of churches. One of the things that I hear as I talk with them is the value for the weekly events of the church. I hear the value of “business as usual.”
It seems that there are an awful lot of local congregations that have the “church as a process” value down well: they gather Sunday mornings, talk over coffee afterwards. Midweek, they have the same event that they did last year. Their Easter and Christmas are a little different this year than last, but functionally, they do the same thing week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade.
Please don’t get me wrong. This is not the waste of time and energy that some of the more radical voices among us might imply. These congregations are doing a good job of “shepherding the flock of God” which is not, as the evangelists among us might imply, ignoring the command of God. They are very effective at the “process” part of the paradox.
But many churches, perhaps tens of thousands of them, are succeeding at the process but are not succeeding at the goal. They’re enjoying the fellowship at this week’s coffee hour and this month’s potluck supper, but the kingdom of God is not expanding in their area of responsibility.
Sure, a few more people are attending the church this year, but their community is not more representative of the Kingdom of God this year than it was last year; there are not increasing numbers of people pressing back darkness or similar numbers pressing darkness back more effectively; the dead are not raised, the sick are not healed, and nobody is grieving about it because the fellowship is good, the mortgage on the building is paid, and we’re enjoying the journey.
I’m thankful that we the church have finally begun to learn about the process of the Christian life. Now I’m praying that we’d reach the prize effectively as well.
Let’s go change the world; let's really change it!
Have you ever sincerely asked someone, “How are you doing?” and had them answer “fine” when you knew they weren’t fine? Have you ever had someone ask you how you were, but you knew they weren’t sincere? Irritating isn’t it?
I suppose we should pause for a moment and define those as lies: Answering “Fine” when I am not fine is clearly an untruth. Acting, by my inquiry, as though I care how you are when in fact, I do not, is equally a lie.
I understand that some of this truthless communication is part of a larger body of socially acceptable lies, part of a formal communications ritual that our culture has evolved – rather like the mating rituals of wild geese – though perhaps for less noble purposes than the continuation of the species. There are some times when they – the salesman, the political lobbyist, the person you’re talking with that you don’t have any real relationship with – there are times when they are asking “howyadoin” and they don’t want an answer: they are making a formal noise, a greeting to which the formal answer is “fineanyou” or the like. A genuine answer in that environment would throw them off, derail the traditions.
I’m not talking about these communications: they’re meaningless apart from that formal, meaningless function, and they need to be treated that way.
I’m talking about the times where the same words are used in genuine communication, a genuine inquiry after one’s wellbeing, and they are misinterpreted as the content-free ritual described above. They do use the same vocabulary, or nearly the same, and it’s easy to misunderstand. I am of the opinion, however, that much of the misunderstanding is more strategic than genuine: we make the assumption that the question is formal, empty, because that is the more convenient interpretation.
The most disturbing aspect is that the church, the people with “The Truth,” seems to be an equal participant in this untruth-telling. “Brethren, this ought not be this way.”
I’ve seen grown men, men who grew up with the English language, miss this one in the church fellowship hall: a friend who knows something of the challenges he’s been facing asks how he’s doing in the face of those trials, and the answer is embarrassingly often, “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?” Or worse: “Bless God, Brother! Isn’t God good?” Well, yes, He is good, but that’s not actually the question. The question is “How are you doing with those trials?” not “Is God still good?”
I’m more concerned about the reasons behind such truthlessness. Somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that there are real reasons not to be genuine with each other. I can think of a few reasons:
1) Lousy theology: We’re convinced that if we appear more “together”, that this will somehow make God look better. Or the reverse: if a Christian is known to have problems, then somehow it will make God look less God-like. This often incorporates the brilliant assumption that when we trust in
2) PUFF: Pure Unadulterated Fear Factor: We don’t know how people will react to us, or we think we do know based on how someone has reacted to us in the past. Perhaps we remember someone who hurt us, and whether truthfully or not, we associate that hurt with our own vulnerability, and we swear that we’ll never put ourselves through that particular ordeal again. There are a thousand variations on this one.
3) Ignorance: We don’t open ourselves to others simply because we’ve been taught known that we should or even that we could. Our leaders don’t model vulnerability in any way that we can see (that’s a subject for another session!), and nobody has taught us how to be vulnerable in an appropriate way, with the right people, in the right settings. We’ve never seen someone else do it well, so we have no role model.
4) Lack of opportunity: There are in my observation, millions of believers that are actually willing to develop genuine, caring relationships, but they don’t have people around them that are similarly open to genuine relationships. There may be others in the next pew, but there is no mechanism in their culture to broach the subject of “Can I tell you my secrets? Will I be safe when I do?” We need an environment where honest relationships are appropriate.
The Bible models intimate in-home gatherings of the Church (Acts 2:42), and it was such a gathering (a large one) in a house that first received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:2). One of those groups was characterized by prayer and the other by supper, eating with gladness: these don’t sound like formal, content-based gatherings. They sure sound to me like they’re based on genuine relationships instead.
The Bible doesn’t just model ministry built on relationships, it also teaches it. “So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:8, NKJV) The teaching is clear: when I am “ministering”, I’m doing two things: I’m imparting the gospel, and I’m also giving you my own life. There is a correlation: my imparting of the good news will be more complete if I am also imparting my life. Content is incomplete without relationship.
We could also point out that
If we are wanting to see a change in the way we do church, we’re going to need to do church differently. I propose that we change ourselves first: let’s find settings where we can be genuine; let’s create them ourselves if we need to. If we can find or build these relational gatherings within the structure of our churches, let’s do that, but if we need to, let’s be willing to put people ahead of religion: let’s gather informally “from house to house” as they did in the early church.
And, when it’s appropriate, let’s learn how to answer the “how are you doing?” question honestly.