Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Let's Get the Party Started

I love Luke 15!  It's a wonderful chapter of grace, mercy, and unconditional love.  It starts by telling us that all sorts of  "undesirable" and "unsavory" characters were getting close enough to hear the stories that Jesus told.  His demeanor and attitude was so welcoming that the religious elites complained about His willingness to "welcome . . . and eat with sinners."  Knowing what they were thinking and saying, Jesus responded by telling them some stories.  He told of a shephered who left 99 sheep in an open field while he searched for and found a lone, lost sheep.  He told them of a woman who had 10 silver coins.  But when she lost one, she "tossed the house" until she found it.  Finally, he told them the story of the prodigal son, the loving Father, and the narcissistic older brother.  You know the type.  "It's all about me!!!" 

Far too often, when we read, study, or preach this chapter, we tend to glance over the first two stories and zero in on the Prodigal.  I think many of us can identify with him.  But I want you to focus on those first two stories for a few moments.   In Luke 15:7 and Luke 15:10, we get a little glimpse of heaven.  Jesus said, after the story of the lost/found sheep and the party thrown by the shepherd, "I tell you, in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven or one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who don't need repentance."  How great is that???   Jesus Himself tells us that the residents of heaven are more concerned over the salvation of ONE lost soul than a church filled with religious people. 

Then in story of the lost coin, after the party thrown by the woman, Jesus siad, "I tell you, in the same way, there is joy in the presence of God's angels over one sinner who repents."  "Joy in the presence  of God's angels . . ."?   What that means to me is that GOD is doing the rejoicing.  Just like the loving Father in the story of the prodigal. 

So where am I going with this??  It's pretty simple.  Far too many of our churches have become respites for the religious.  We've become the 99, who raise a veil of religious tradition and cultural expection to keep out those who don't measure up.  We take possession of the church that rightfully belongs to Christ and restructure it as a bunker to hide from the world.  And in doing that, we've become the 99.

I think a cryptic principle in these stories is that God expects His Church to be party planners.   In everything we do, every dime we spend, every event we plan, we should be asking "What will this do to inspire joy in heaven?"   So that's my prayer for my church, for you church, and for every church that claims to be the Body of Christ.  "Lord, help us to be faithful party planners.  Help us to do the things that keep the streets of heaven filled with dancing and singing and joy.  Help us to redirecct of our focus from the "99" to the ONEs who are lost."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Call for Renewal

In the Hemingway novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Anselmo suggests that "we do not have God here anymore, neither His Son, nor the Holy Ghost."  That's a scary thought!  Yet, in 2011, it might be more prophetic of our churches than our secular society.  All around us there is evidence of a growing spiritual emptiness among people.  73% of 20-somethings define themselves as "spiritual" and express a desire to know more about God, yet this is a group which has abandoned our churches in large numbers.  The number of people over 30 who consider themselves "spiritual" is around 62%.  Yet, most of our traditional churches are growing "grayer" by the year.  The evidence for a large group of "seekers" is there, yet Christian churches continue to lose nearly 10,000 members a day.  And believe it or not, we live in the middle of the only inhabited continent not experiencing a riotous outpouring of God's Spirit.  With our resources, technology, and manpower, what's the problem?  Let me offer some possibilities.

First, our traditional churches have a tendency to promote programs more than prayer.  No great movement of God ever started with a program.  In most of our churches, it's not uncommon for more people to show up for a potentially contentious business meeting than for an authentic prayer meeting.  In most of our church meetings, prayer is a necessary addendum tacked on at the beginning and the end.  I don't want leave the impression that I think all programs are unimportant.  But I do want to leave the impression that the first and foremost thing that any Christian or group of Christians can do is to earnestly, fervently, and frequently pray.  Studies have indicated that the fastest growing churches in this country place a great emphasis on prayer ministry.  Every great historical spiritual awakening was preceded by the fervent prayers of godly people who expected God's intervention.      2 Chronicles 7:14 says, "If My people who are called by My Name will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways . . ."

Second is our tendency to magnify maintenance over ministry.  This problem manifests itself in two scenarios.  The first involves those folks who want to maintain things just as they have been for generations.  They don't really want to reach out to newcomers because they fear the potential changes that will come with church growth.   The second involves those who believe that doing God's work consist primarily of maintenance of buildings, grounds, and money.  I have a firm conviction about keeping church facilities beautiful as a testimony of offering our best to God.  But those facilities and resources must be accessible to the lost, lonely, and hurting hordes around us.  Church facilities are largely wasted space because most are used 6-8 hours a week and sit idle and empty for the other 160 hours.  We can become overly protective of the buildings and financial resources that God gives us while allowing the needs of children, youth, and adults to go unmet.  The New Testament teaches clearly that every professing Christian is a called to minister to others.  See James 1:22; I Peter 2:9; I Peter 3:15; Romans 12:6

Third is our tendency to claim comfort over conviction.  I remember a Sunday School teacher in a church I pastored.  He and his wife had no children.  Both were retired military and worked civil service jobs.  They were good folks and faithful stewards, BUT he had a bit of wrinkly in his theology.  He honestly believed that material blessing was evidence of God's pleasure.  Not unlike the "health and wealth" philosophy espoused by so many television evangelists.  But if you study the scriptures with an open mind and heart, you'll realize that obedience to God does not always bring comfort.  Jesus Himself owned nothing but the clothing on His back.  Though He was sinless, gentle, and loving, people hated Him and ultimately crucified Him.  Hebrews 11 provides a litany lists of those whose faith and service brought them pain and suffering.  The writer of Hebrews tells us that "Some faced jeers and flogging while others were chained and put into prison.  They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they were put to death by the sword.  They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute,  persecuted, and mistreated --- the world was not worthy of them."  In every nation experiencing genuine revival today, scores of Christians are persecuted, imprisoned, and killed each day because they cling to their convictions in Christ rather than the desire for comfort and complacency.  Perhaps we've become a little too comfortable!

So what can we do to turn things around?   First, realize that God is always at work around us and join Him in that work.  Second, instead of making plans and praying for God's blessing, let prayer be the starting point.  Prayer should be the priority in finding and following God's will.  Pray and ask God to show you where He is working and what He is doing and then join Him.  Third, remember that people are always a priority for God.  At the Judgement Seat of Christ, the beauty of our buildings and the size of our bank accounts will not be a positive issue.  Jesus will more concerned with how we dealt with people.  Open your hearts, open your buildings, open your checkbooks to serve others in Jesus' Name.  Finally, run the race with conviction.  Hebrews 12:3 says to "consider Him Who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart."  It's a marathon.  But in the end, when we cross that finish line, we'll have the joy of hearing Him say, "Well done, good and faithful servants! Enter into the joy of your Lord."    The embers of revival are glowing.  Will you do your part to fan the flame??