Friday, February 19, 2010

The Need for Deprogramming the “Left Behind” Mind-set

I've just started my usual slow-paced reading with a new book. Right off of the bat, the heart of the author (Richard Sterns - President of World Vision) is percussing from the pages to my fingers as I read. The title is "The Hole In Our Gospel." Great title!

I'm copying some excerpts from his introductory pages to post on this blog in order to share his insight and prompt you to buy this book.

More and more, our view of the gospel has been narrowed to a simple transaction, marked by checking a box on a bingo card at some prayer breakfast, registering a decision for Christ, or coming forward during an altar call. I have to admit that my own view of evangelism, based on the Great Commission, amounted to just that for many years. It was about saving as many people from hell as possible – for the next life. It minimized any concern for those same people in this life. It wasn’t as important that they were poor or hungry or persecuted, or perhaps rich, greedy, and arrogant; we just had to get them to pray the “sinner’s prayer” and then move on to the next potential convert…

There is a real problem with this limited view of the kingdom of God; it is not the whole gospel. Instead, it’s a gospel with a gaping hole. First, focusing almost exclusively on the afterlife reduces the importance of what God expects of us in this life. The kingdom of God, which Christ said is “within you” (Luke 17:21 NKJV), was intended to change and challenge everything in our fallen world in the here and now. It was not meant to be a way to leave the world but rather the means to actually redeem it. Yes, it first requires that we repent of our own sinfulness and totally surrender our individual lives to follow Christ, but then we are also commanded to go into the world – to bear fruit by lifting up the poor and the marginalized, challenging injustice wherever we find it, rejecting the worldly values found within every culture, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. While our “joining” in the kingdom of God may begin with a decision, a transaction, it requires so much more than that.

I believe that we have reduced the gospel from a dynamic and beautiful symphony of God’s love for and in the world to a bare and strident monotone. We have taken this amazing good news from God, originally presented in high definition and Dolby stereo, and reduced it to grainy, black-and-white, silent movie. In doing so, we have also stripped it of much of its power to change not only the human heart but the world. This is especially reflected in our limited view of evangelism. Jesus commanded His followers to take the good news of reconciliation and forgiveness to the ends of the earth. The dictate is the same today.

Christianity is a faith that was meant to spread – but not through coercion. God’s love was intended to be demonstrated, not dictated. Our job is not to manipulate to induce others to agree with us or to leave their religion and embrace Christianity. Our charge is to both proclaim and embody the gospel so that others can see, hear, and feel God’s love in tangible ways. When we are living out our faith with integrity and compassion in the world, God can use to give others a glimpse of His love and character. It is God – not us – who works in the hearts of men and women to forgive and redeem. Coercion is not necessary or even particularly helpful. God is responsible for the harvest – but we must plant, water, and cultivate the seeds.

Let’s look more closely at this metaphor, often used in the New Testament to describe evangelism (see, for example, Matthew 9:37-38; Mark 4:1-20, 26-29; Luke 10:1-3; and John 4:35-38). For most of the twentieth century, American evangelists really honed in on this idea of the harvest, believing that the fruit was already ripe and just needed to be picked. This was the essence of Billy Graham’s great global crusades, Campus Crusade’s pamphlet The Four Spiritual Laws, The JESUS Film, and Evangelism Explosion. All of these tools and efforts were highly effective at proclaiming the good news that our sins could be forgiven if we committed our lives to Christ. Many millions of people did commit their lives to Him. In fact, my own life was influenced by both The Four Spiritual Laws and Billy Graham Crusade, so I can personally attest to how successful these “harvest techniques” are at harvesting fruit that has already ripened.

But what about the fruit that hasn’t ripened? For most of us who made our first-time commitments to Christ as adults, our stories were not of instant conversion the first time we ever heard about Jesus. In fact, according to the Barna Research Group, only about 6 percent of people who are not Christians by the age of eighteen will become Christians by the age of eighteen will become Christians later in life. It is rare that a simple recitation of the gospel will cause people to instantly change their minds. It usually takes much more than that. Our own narratives typically involve a journey of discovery marked by relationships with respected friends and loved ones, reading, discussions, learning about the basis for the Christian faith, seeing the difference faith made in the lives of people we knew and witnessing genuine faith demonstrated through acts of love and kindness toward others. In other words, before we became “ripe” for harvest, a lot of other things had to happen first.

Think about all the things that must happen before there can be a good harvest of crops. First, someone has to go and prepare the land. This is backbreaking work that involves felling trees, pulling massive stumps out of the ground, extracting rocks and boulders from the field, and moving them aside. But there’s no harvest yet. Next the soil has to be broken up. The earth needs to be plowed, fertilizer churned in with the soil, and orderly rows tilled to prepare for the seed. Then the seeds must be carefully planted and covered. But still no harvest. Perhaps a fence needs to be built to protect the plants from animals that might devour them. And always, the seedlings must be carefully watered, nurtured, and fed over the long growing season.

There are sometimes setbacks – bad weather, blights, floods, and insects – that can jeopardize the harvest. But if all of the hard work is done faithfully and with perseverance, and if God provides good seed and favorable weather, finally a glorious harvest is the result.

Haven’t we heard the stories of faithful missionaries who dedicated their whole lives in another country without seeing even one person embrace Christ as Savior – only to learn that fifty years later there was a tremendous harvest? In out instant-gratification society, we would prefer to go directly to the harvest. Who wants to do all that hard work of stump pulling and boulder removing? But isn’t all of that “other” work the essence of the coming of the kingdom of God in its fullness?

Get this book - "must reading."


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Uh 1... 2... 3... hit it!

Reading “Church Turned Inside Out” is like looking at a commentary on the raw data provided by George Barna. Authors Linda Berquist and Allan Karr (B&K) provide some great insight on the distinctions between an “Attractional Church” (AC) and a “Relational Church”(RC). By contrasting the two, I see the transition that has taken place in our lives over the past 9 years.

AC’s are big on “first impression” (front door/lobby, colors, aroma, sound, etc.). They are central and use a hierarchical structure. Organizational leadership and “job descriptions” are imperative. They use advertising, parking lot banners, leaflets, even movie type trailer videos that promote “come, hear, see, experience!”

They work well in cultures that are “still influenced strongly by modernism and in which centralized organizational systems are still perceived as the best way to organize.”

The highest challenges for AC’s are financial. A lot of money is demanded to commence, proceed, operate and maintain due to a majority of income being used for mortgage, utilities and staff salaries. It is the opinion of the authors that “the high investment of resources required to sustain the organization means many of these churches never develop a kingdom ecclesiology.” Assimilation is valued, but extremely difficult. And as a result, “there can be a large back door.”

Further quoting B&K “…a more consumer or audience culture (as opposed to a participatory culture)…” is a major draw.

RC’s are much more basic communities thriving on relational dynamics which enable them to focus more fully on expanding relationships and missional engagement. B&K surmise that “they tend to be structured simply and are organized as either a single cell or a decentralized network of affiliated cell groups.” RC’s are usually led by lay people or bi-vocationally. There is rarely a hierarchy consisting of clergy/lay people since leadership “is based more on spiritual and relational authority than on positional authority structures…They not only gather relationally but also focus both internally (ministry to one another) and externally (evangelism and hospitality) on relationship. Intimacy and accountability are byproducts.”

RC’s gather informally and encourage open participation. Teaching and sharing is open to all who are present and participants can ask questions or make comments freely. The gatherings are not dependent on location or a specific day or time. Homes, coffee shops, parks, etc are typical venues for RC gatherings.

Finances are not nearly as challenging to RC’s as they are to AC’s. This creates a freedom to direct resources to many more outside causes.

The greatest challenge for RC’s is the tendency to allow relationship to overshadow mission and a condescending attitude toward conventional forms of expression. It is the common “holy huddle” problem.

For Teena and me, the consequence between investing energy and time in each context has been radically different. Stress and pressure seem to be diminished greatly in the RC paradigm than it is in the AC paradigm due to the decrease of lofty and sometimes unrealistic expectations. The sacrifice has been a steady income with a “regular job” – but the adventure and intrigue makes up for the lack tremendously.