Tag Archives: compassion

Signs of a Stagnating Congregation

Jan 26, 23
JMorgan
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In mankind’s fallen state, success (in the world’s eyes) always breeds temptations – even for resolute church leaders like Daniel.  His extraordinary commitment to GC3 (the Great CommandmentGreat Commission, and Great Calling) led to rapid membership and member (in Christ) growth by positioning everyone as Kingdom employees trained to become “pastors” of their families, neighborhoods, and workplaces.  However, numerical growth gave rise to pressures that didn’t just distract from GC3, but directly competed with them.  Daniel’s goal had never been a large congregation, but now he had one.  That meant higher expectations, stakes, budgets, and demands for his time.  Before becoming a church planter, Daniel had been critical of pastors of his “mother” church, feeling they had abandoned GC3 – but now found himself a bit more empathetic.

During the first couple years, Daniel had the bandwidth to disciple staff members, network with local civic leaders, connect with other pastors, and spearhead compassion initiatives.  Now with 20 on staff, nearly 1,000 in attendance on Sundays, and a building project underway, Daniel’s days of personal disciple-making and community engagement seemed like a distant memory.  Yet he was still determined not to give in to powerful consumeristic forces that had stifled the growth of most American churches, if not in sheer numbers (of members) then in depth (of discipleship) and impact (on society).  Nevertheless, the train was running down the track so fast at Daniel’s church that his original vision of life and community transformation seemed to be irreversibly giving way to church transformation – speeding toward a destination he’d have to derail the train to avert.

The Cause: Compromise

Daniel meticulously walked through the church’s distinct mission and principles with each new hire.  During interviews, all expressed alignment with GC3 and its emphasis on personal discipleship, evangelism, and compassion.  However, “church as we know it” is all they had ever known.  The only way to silence competing voices within his leadership team at this point was to either reprogram or micromanage, neither of which fit Daniel’s management style.  He wanted staff to feel empowered to manage their areas of responsibility, but when the rubber met the road most “new’ ideas they brought to the table weren’t new at all – simply retreads of contemporary church growth concepts implicitly defining church as a place and members as “customers”:

  • “We need more small groups – our folks don’t have time for 1-on-1 discipleship.”
  • “If we invest in amping up fun in children’s ministries, more parents will attend.”
  • “We’re getting some complaints about services running over – what can we cut?”
  • “It would help us recruit more volunteers if your sermons had that call to action.”
  • “Young families are too busy for ongoing outreach, so let’s do seasonal events.”
  • “We should set up new committees to get lay leaders more involved in serving.”
  • “Would adding additional agenda items to prayer meetings get more to come?”
  • “Not many are signing up for evangelism classes – it seems like inviting friends to church and sharing a testimony is as far as most are willing to go”.
  • “Giving is down this month. Can we run a campaign or do a sermon series?”
  • “Our facilities and signage are aging a bit – how can we spruce them up?”
  • “Better musicians and sound systems could help rejuvenate our congregation.”
  • “Some people were offended by what you said about marriage and genders.”
  • “Pastor, we could free you up a bit if we restructure communication channels.”

The assumption underlying those suggestions is that church is in the business of making people happy.  Companies grow when they get more customers, but churches grow when members are growing.  Efforts to exceed “customer” expectations make sense for businesses but entice churches to compromise by encouraging staff to treat members like consumers and assume churchgoers’ rightful responsibilities (as Kingdom “employees”).

The Effect: Conformance

For years, Daniel’s church had been highly differentiated, not looking like other churches in town in terms of corporate and personal discipleship, evangelism, compassion, engagement, and unity within the body of Christ.  City, school, and ministry leaders had praised Daniel for his service to the community and his courage to stand out from the crowd.  However, small compromises that seemed innocuous at the time naturally and gradually infiltrated the fiber of his rapidly growing church.  Daniel recognized that mission drift but its glacial pace and his team’s (and congregants) contentment with the status quo kept him from taking drastic measures to reverse course.  Eventually, it became difficult to distinguish his church from most others, who operated like businesses in several respects:

  • Emphasizing joining the organization to secure and formalize the relationship
  • Promoting loyalty to the institution when an alternative provider is more suitable
  • Strategically presenting a friendly, welcoming face to the public (e.g. hospitality)
  • Inserting layers of hierarchy as impediments between “customers” and leaders
  • Investing heavily in technology and process improvements to increase efficiency
  • Assuming better leadership is the primary solution to a flawed (business) model
  • Reorganizing to regain momentum, akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic
  • Overpromising what (we think) people want and underdelivering what they need
  • Misrepresenting the product or service (e.g. “selling” cheap grace or prosperity)
  • Understating the commitment required, to garner interest (i.e. false advertising)
  • Measuring quantity of inputs (activities), not quality of outcomes (transformation)

Daniel had no intention of adopting any business practices when he planted his church.  However, lines blur between church and business when, for the sake of numerical growth, pastors reduce evangelism to referrals (Invite/Involve/Invest), salvation to transactions (“repeat after me”), and discipleship to small groups (which rarely make disciples).  It also likely doesn’t escape the notice of cynical non-believers how cherry-picking (out of context) the most commonly-abused Bible verses (e.g. Romans 8:28, Jeremiah 29:11, Matthew 18:20, Philippians 4:13) is similar to the misleading company ads they see on TV.

Daniel unwittingly gave in to the greatest temptation confronting founders of any thriving enterprise – becoming internally focused.  Catering to “insiders” (as if they were end customers) at the expense of “outsiders” (the real “customer) is bad business – for churches and corporations.  Yes, challenging and equipping churchgoers to live externally-focused Prayer/Care/Share lifestyles will scare off lukewarm believers – but doesn’t losing weight typically makes us healthier?

The Outcome: Stagnation

Years passed before Daniel realized member growth had stagnated, sacrificed at the altar of membership growth.  As he thought back on the early days and his ambitious plans for life and community transformation, he remembered the adage, “If you plant churches, you may not get more disciples, but if you make disciples you will plant more churches.”  In assessing the state of the union relative to his original vision, Daniel felt remorse and regret that his church had become a revolving door with too many slipping out the back exit essentially in the same condition as when they arrived:

  • Most came from other churches that offered fewer programs and amenities
  • The vast majority were rushing to their cars, leaving quickly after worship services
  • Online church had replaced in person services for many, even after the pandemic
  • Nearly all professed faith in Christ, but it seemed few had surrendered fully to Him
  • Business people were separating church life from work life, not integrating the two
  • Most were still living in the same sins, not repenting and leaving them behind
  • Even seasoned lay leaders weren’t holding others accountable for sinful behaviors
  • Few were crying out in prayer or for prayer except those facing a personal crisis
  • More non-believers were in the seats, requiring more scripted, simplified sermons
  • Engagement in worship was becoming less passionate, enthusiastic, and heart-felt
  • Few were witnessing to neighbors and coworkers, inviting them to church instead
  • Unity and diversity decreased, with the congregation looking more homogeneous
  • Factions formed, grouped in socioeconomically and racially segmented circles
  • Impoverished families met through serving were leaving the church, not feeling connected to those with more social capital
  • Giving was down but expectations were higher for pastors, staff, and facilities
  • Pastors were burning out, struggling to keep up with increasing demands
  • Volunteers expected a pat on the back for doing anything to serve at the church
  • Participation in and excitement around compassion activities had diminished
  • It felt like outreach had become “checking a box” and celebrating our “kindness”
  • Literacy partnerships with schools were losing steam as volunteering dropped

Meanwhile, all were flattering and praising Daniel for how well everything was going.  However, Daniel knew deep in his spirit that something was missing – and it was likely the Holy Spirit.  The church had lost its first love, and Daniel knew that a return to the original GC3 vision, principles and plan was the fix, but didn’t see how that was possible given the level of member resistance and fixed costs that stood in the way.  How could the church survive an upheaval almost certain to cut the congregation and giving in half?

It’s Your Turn…

As so often happens, when a church planter or entrepreneur realizes that growth led to internal focus and then stagnation, what is the appropriate response?  Considering how much more important member growth is than membership growth when it comes to churches (as opposed to businesses), what actions should Daniel take at this point?

Temptations of a Growing Church

Jan 12, 23
JMorgan
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3 comments

With the blessing and support of church leadership, Daniel felt empowered and excited about launching the new campus.  All were aware of the risks of Daniel’s radical vision, principles, and plan, which were heavily influenced by his experiences growing up in a missionary family.  The concern wasn’t whether a strong emphasis on discipleship, compassion, and evangelism was biblical but whether adopting Jesus’ prayer/care/share lifestyle was too demanding for contemporary American churchgoers.

Daniel knew success hinged on convincing members that they were Kingdom employees and not church consumers.  Those accustomed to “church as we know it”, shopping for a church with the most engaging pastors, comfortable facilities, and applicable programs wouldn’t have an appetite for all that Daniel planned to ask of them.

The other question on the minds of leaders at the main campus was whether Daniel would stick to his guns or abandon his ambitions when he had something to lose.  It was easy to take chances and be externally focused when there were few members, a small staff, and no building.  They thought back to the early days of their ministries when they were more like Daniel, courageous but naïve about the inevitable pressures that awaited pastors when the church grew.  Most church planters can devote themselves to equipping and mobilizing Christ-followers to embody “church” between Sundays until the mounting obligations of organizing weekend services, managing staff, and catering to the demands of members pull them away from those primary, biblical responsibilities.

The Launch: Commitment

Determined to ensure that growing disciples, not a congregation, was the barometer of “success”, Daniel and his core team laid out a specific, detailed 10 step roadmap to foster life and community transformation through their church by the power of the Holy Spirit:

  1. Pray – as a leadership team and congregation for the Lord to move through our church and in our city because He controls the outcome of all our efforts
  2. Network – with community leaders and neighbors, showing hospitality, first inviting non-believers into our homes, not to a church service
  3. Listen – intently and document conversations to understand how to address the most critical spiritual, material, and emotional needs in our community and world
  4. Train – members for disciple-making and evangelism in preparation for the countless opportunities sure to arise when we minister to the broken and hopeless
  5. Respond – to real problems like Jesus did each time he encountered those hurting and lost, serving them with dignity, not through arms-length handouts but a loving hand up
  6. Engage – people in the true work of church (GC3Great CommandmentGreat CommissionGreat Calling), not just typical “chores” like greeters and ushers
  7. Welcome – those who sincerely want to know and worship Jesus, including the families our church serves, even though they may not look or sound like “us”
  8. Steward – by keeping fixed costs at bay, not falling into the trap of consumerism, which locks churches into vicious cycles of borrowing, building, and fundraising
  9. Accountability – to keep our church holy and never slip into consumer-driven, self-centered ways of conducting ourselves as a church or as individual believers
  10. Learn – through watching to see what the Lord does within our body and our city, making adjustments yet never veering from our God-given vision and principles

Many pastors and plants initially follow a similar path.  However, Daniel’s commitment was to persist in these practices indefinitely, no matter how large the congregation grew, how busy leaders got, or how risky it became to challenge families (when losing them could jeopardize the church’s financial stability in the face of rising costs).  It would take years of unwavering prayer, care, and share to restore confidence in an institution that was once the lifeblood of communities across America – our nation’s cultural and spiritual heartbeat – but is now widely regarded as a weekly gathering for those with the time and interest.

The Byproduct: Growth

Over the next year, Daniel’s church grew tremendously, not because it was the goal but because it wasn’t a goal.  Entrepreneurs succeed when they’re not focused on revenue growth but on providing great value and service.  Marriages thrive when both spouses prioritize the other’s happiness above their own.  Daniel refused to let himself or his leadership think about church growth, confident it would come as a result of reflecting the sacrificial, unconditional love of Jesus through countercultural, jaw-dropping acts of kindness.  So Daniel’s church…

  • Mentored and tutored students at two public schools in lower income areas
  • Commissioned members to serve as “pastors” of their neighborhoods, first responders in any crisis
  • Trained executives to instill Christ-centered values and chaplains in workplaces
  • Took a stand and spoke out on behalf of marginalized groups facing injustice
  • Volunteered and supported pregnancy centers and trafficking ministries
  • Conducted prayer vigils for law enforcement and victims of violent crimes
  • Rallied other churches and pastors to join them in these transformation efforts
  • Represented the demographics of the city, diverse racially and socioeconomically
  • Was recognized by media and government leaders for its compassion and impact
  • Had greater visibility than much larger churches, without advertising or mailers

Daniel was careful to ensure all local missions activities were built on a foundation of intensive, personal discipleship – not “outreach” that doubles as church marketing.  In other words, he wanted his congregation to act in a spirit of love, obedience, and desire to imitate Jesus.  Daniel knew people would see through any insincere “attractional” or seasonal “check the box” motives.  Nor did he permit a repeat of the failed “social gospel” movement, expecting actions to speak for themselves.  Daniel often said, “When our love opens ears to hear the truth, we need to speak it.”

The Red Flags: Temptations

However, after three years, cracks began to appear in the foundation of Daniel’s church.  His leadership team and the pastors at the main campus hadn’t anticipated and weren’t prepared to manage such explosive growth.  Nor were they ready to confront the following temptations to shift their focus away from discipleship, compassion, and evangelism – the catalysts which had sparked that growth:

  • More demands for the senior pastor’s time for visitations, weddings, and funerals
  • Structure and hierarchies needed to establish boundaries and divvy up responsibilities
  • Investment in systems required to improve efficiency of internal processes like membership, communications, volunteering, and giving
  • Splits and factions due to differing views and worship preferences between generations and amongst the church’s “old guard”
  • New staff hires with critical skills but indoctrinated in prevailing Invite/Involve/Invest church growth models
  • Young families, a target audience, with little time for discipleship or compassion
  • Churches down the road with state-of-the-art children’s ministries to lure parents
  • Community engagement activities that conflicted with scheduled church events
  • Rented facilities too cramped to accommodate all attendees and programs
  • Expenses rising too fast to keep pouring 30% of the budget into local missions
  • Conservatives and progressives differing over what was “sin”, pressuring Daniel to gloss over those topics from the pulpit
  • More non-Christians at services, shifting sermons toward “milk” rather than “meat”
  • Notoriety and public recognition raising external and internal expectations for Daniel’s “performance”

Business executives serving as deacons and elders at Daniel’s church were well aware of these challenges and offered advice.  Daniel began to invest much of his time (outside of sermon prep) consulting experts in leadership, technology, real estate, and human resources.  He read books by well-known pastors and attended conferences to learn how to navigate high growth periods.  Daniel delegated new responsibilities to his leadership team and reorganized around keeping the machine running.  Church priorities, attention, and resources gradually diverted from personal discipleship, compassion, and evangelism to managing operations.

The transition seemed eerily similar to young companies who panic when their laser focus on meeting customer needs spurs demand that soon outstrips infrastructure.  They turn inward, take their eyes off the ball, and lose touch with the market.  Consequently, growth slows.  The only difference for churches is that members are not supposed to be its “customers”.  In this case, the ones paying the bills are actually (Kingdom) employees who should be trained to reach the real, biblical “customer” – those who don’t know Jesus.

It’s Your Turn…

What other temptations (i.e. to see church as a place and members as customers) does church growth (regardless of whether that’s the goal) bring with it?  How has succumbing to those temptations been responsible for the declining growth, impact, influence, and public perception of America’s churches?

Confessions of an Idealistic Church Planter

Dec 28, 22
JMorgan
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Born to missionary parents, Daniel grew up determined to spend his life like them.  He couldn’t imagine a more rewarding career than carrying on his family’s legacy preaching the Gospel and making disciples.  Yet Daniel didn’t feel called into international ministry to unreached people groups.  On the advice of a pastor back in the States, he decided to go the more conventional route of leading a church, hopefully somewhere near his hometown.  So Daniel attended seminary after college and became a youth pastor for a large congregation, waiting for his opportunity and the Lord’s timing to plant a new church.  The leadership team understood Daniel’s ambitions and recognized his charisma, knowing they wouldn’t be able to hold onto him for long.  They’d had their eyes on a community across town as a potential location to go multisite and expand their footprint.  Several churches had been unable to take root in that area, sandwiched between comfortable suburbanites busy with children’s activities on Sunday mornings and relatively lower income neighborhoods served by small, ethnically divided congregations.

The Vision: Life and City Transformation

Daniel could hardly contain his excitement when those leaders approached him, offering their guidance and financial support.  He had a vision – idealistically imagining his church plant transforming the community, just as he’d witnessed as a child overseas.  He began to plan, leveraging principles of the “mother church” for consistency but emphasizing areas like evangelism, discipleship, and compassion where he felt they were falling short.  Reaching across demographics and socioeconomics, engaging both the disinterested and the disintegrated, would require more than attractional programs or eloquent sermons.  Nor would first class facilities and amenities, which they couldn’t afford anyway, draw people in.  Instead, Daniel believed achieving the vision of community transformation would require:

  • meeting diverse groups of people “where they are” rather than inviting non-believers to a worship service
  • understanding key issues and concerns they’re facing, which are often quite different for “soccer moms” and single moms
  • becoming visible and active in bettering lives, including partnering with organizations who are already “moving the needle”
  • committing to that community long-term, realizing it’s where God called him
  • raising up leaders equipped for dynamic prayer, care, and share ministry
  • multiplying disciples and mobilizing teams to demonstrate God’s love to the hurting and hopeless
  • being viewed as essential, such that people in both sacred and secular circles would not only notice but be deeply saddened if his church closed its doors

Daniel knew a heavy external focus was a departure from how most churches treated members like “customers” to attract and retain, not Kingdom “employees” to train and deploy.  As a missionary kid, he wasn’t accustomed to Americanized forms of church and was determined to eschew consumer-driven Christianity.  Yet, seminary seemed to indoctrinate most graduates in “church as we know it”, not alternative models and structures.  Likewise, Daniel knew of church planters who had high ideals and were attuned to the material and spiritual needs of a community, but eventually abandoned their visions and values to tend to internal affairs.

Any pastor new to an area must network and be hospitable to create awareness.  However, maintaining that level of external orientation and challenging members to do the same (through compassion, evangelism, and discipleship) is riskier when there’s more to lose – staff, members, and buildings.  Daniel saw that same dynamic with business entrepreneurs who began laser focused on the market, resulting in exponential growth, but soon got distracted by internal expectations and obligations.  In business, executives taking their eyes off the ball leads to declining productivity and profitability.  In churches, ignoring the intended “customer” (those who don’t know Jesus) has far more serious, eternal consequences.

The Principles: GC3

With those cautions in mind and a firm resolve never to let them infiltrate his church, Daniel met with his team of lay leaders for strategic planning and brainstorming.  Several guiding principles, priorities, and next steps emerged from their first session:

  • value prayer over self-reliance, worship over socializing, and humility over status
  • operate out of an abundance (vs. scarcity) mindset yet steward resources responsibly
  • practice 1 on 1 discipleship leveraging proven tools, with Daniel leading the way, commissioning those he disciples to follow his example
  • research, survey and meet with local leaders and residents to uncover burning issues, which at first glance appeared to relate to similar underlying problems in affluent and poorer neighborhoods (mental health, substance abuse, parenting)
  • conduct evangelism training for current leaders and willing attenders
  • encourage and support promising ministries spearheaded by church members
  • realize workplaces, neighborhoods, and homes are where “church” takes place all week long, so prepare the entire congregation to be “pastors” of their coworkers, neighbors, and families

While Daniel’s intent was to serve that community, doing so couldn’t involve compromise in any of those areas.  Daniel and his leadership team understood how much they were asking of their members, and that they’d likely lose many to other churches in town with far lower expectations.  However, Daniel couldn’t reconcile anything less with what he saw in Scripture or settle for less than he’d experienced during his missionary upbringing.

Holding weekend services in a school would conserve costs but mean more work setting up every Saturday and tearing down on Sundays.  Personalized, intensive discipleship would be time consuming but foster a level of authenticity and accountability rarely found in small groups settings.  Equipping and calling busy Americans to live prayer, care, and share lifestyles would be prohibitively demanding and disruptive for those not completely surrendered to Jesus.  Yet GC3 (Great Commandment, Great Commission, Great Calling) are prerequisites and non-negotiables, not optional suggestions, for all Christ-followers.

The Plan: Success in God’s Eyes

Daniel understood his vision and principles didn’t align with the typical metrics used to gauge the viability of church plants or the performance of established congregations.  Convincing his superiors at the main campus to adopt a different set of measures (than they applied to themselves) to track his progress would be a hard sell.  Nevertheless, Daniel felt metrics tied to attendance, revenues, and facilities had been borrowed from the business world and wouldn’t create the proper incentives for his staff.  Instead, he envisioned “success” not around inputs or activities, but outcomes:

  • Not baptisms alone, but evidence-based commitments to following Christ
  • Not small group participation, but the number engaged in discipling relationships
  • Not church attendance alone, but personal practice of spiritual disciplines
  • Not new members (from other churches), but new believers entering the Kingdom
  • Not headcount of guests invited to church, but people led to the Lord by members
  • Not number of verses cited to substantiate opinions, but adherence to the Word
  • Not veiled marketing through “outreach” events, but sincere unconditional love
  • Not seasonal compassion to “check the box”, but year-round poverty alleviation
  • Not independent solo city projects, but collaboration in unity with other churches
  • Not number of hours and people serving externally, but the size of the dent made in causes important to the city
  • Not square footage of buildings, but maximizing utilization of each foot all week
  • Not size of the children’s ministry, but how many lives changed, not entertained
  • Not staff and payroll budget, but degree of empowerment by flattening hierarchies
  • Not dollars given to abdicate GC3 functions to pastors, but reclaiming “ownership”
  • Not diversity for diversity’s sake, but integration and unity among the entire body

Daniel was nervous about presenting his vision, principles, and plan to the pastors who’d entrusted him with responsibility for planting the first new campus in its multisite strategy.  As experienced leaders well-versed in modern church growth models, they considered Daniel’s plan idealistic and naïve, but couldn’t deny it was biblical and liked his approach in theory.  Despite the risk, they appreciated Daniel’s heart, passion, and capabilities – and were curious to see how his church’s members and the community would respond to such lofty ambitions and expectations.

It’s Your Turn…

We’ll continue telling the story of Daniel’s church during the coming weeks, tracing its progress through the cycles and stages experienced by nearly all churches in America.  Based on your observations and involvement with churches in the past, what do you think happens next as Daniel and his team begin to implement their vision, principles, and plan?

Sin and Hopelessness: The Cause and Cure

Dec 15, 22
JMorgan
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Merry Christmas!  There, I said it – not “Happy Holidays” or “X-mas”.  Many Christians are offended by the secularization and commercialization of Jesus’ birthday, unaware they may be complicit in campaigns to take Christ out of Christmas.

Over the past few weeks we’ve discussed how America has become more divided, consumeristic, stingy, and stressed out not despite Christianity but in large part because most Christians lack unity, act like (church) consumers, don’t share Jesus’ concern for the poor, and fail to exercise unwavering faith.  Similarly, our culture is becoming more decadent and depressed largely because people look elsewhere for answers to life’s most pressing questions when Christians don’t enthusiastically celebrate and speak up about the forgiveness, freedom, hope, salvation, and sanctification that only Christmas can bring.  In other words, if our Christmas spirit were fueled by the Holy Spirit, we’d possess the wonder and joy of the three wise men and help America rediscover the reason for the season.

Forgiveness

America rejects the best Christmas gift of all (redemption), believing there’s no need for justification because there’s no such thing as sin, when Christians and churches don’t take (their own) sin seriously enough.

  • Acting self-righteous, hypocritically pointing fingers at non-believers for committing that exact same sin (i.e. presuming their own righteousness)
  • Keeping a distance rather than pursuing “sinners” at close range like Jesus did
  • Speaking out about what we’re against, rather than exhibiting what we stand for
  • Applying our moral standard to those who do not follow our Standard-bearer
  • Conforming to culture such that culture sees little need to conform to church

“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29)  If Christians are less cognizant of their sin than the sins of others, why would we expect people to understand what Christmas is all about?  In other words, if we’re less transparent it’s harder to see Jesus through us.  Dutiful churchgoers can start to believe their own press, less aware of their need for grace now that they cuss less and serve more.  Ironically, we wonder how non-believers can squelch their consciences while ours atrophy.  Christmas will continue becoming more about Santa than our Savior unless Christians fully recognize the value of the gift they’ve been given.

Freedom

America rejects the true freedom the Father offered us that first Christmas, believing Christianity represents the opposite (restraint and oppression), when churchgoers are legalistic and dogmatic the rest of the year.

  • Clinging to our “free” ticket to heaven instead of freely sharing our good news with others so they can be liberated from sin too
  • Fighting for our religious freedoms by politicizing faith and backing church-friendly candidates, only to discover any short-lived victories incite a backlash against perceived imposition of Christian values when secular leaders regain control
  • Growing large, prominent churches that invest more in buildings than discipleship (in times of peace and prosperity), whereas the Church in persecution tends to decentralize, take ground, and make disciples

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)  Given attempts by activists and educators to associate slavery with Christianity, ostensibly to remove the shackles of Christian heritage and morals from American culture, it’s challenging to make the argument that those who’ve removed Christ from Christmas are enslaved to sin.  Yet without repentance and redemption, no one is free from the lure of temptation and the burden of guilt.  Contemporary society threatens to curb the rights of Christians to speak and practice freely in order to protect their rights to sin freely, without reminders of or remorse for their actions.  Christians and churches shouldn’t go through the motions at Christmas but truly celebrate the emancipation it can bring to anyone humble enough to recognize their captivity (to sin).

Hope

America rejects the only source of enduring hope, settling for the traditions of the Christmas season without the hope it brings, when Christians appear to be subject to the typical holiday concerns and stressors.

  • Running from shopping malls to family gatherings, worried about racking up debt and seeing relatives who were more easily avoided the other 364 days
  • Cleaning up our act, careful not to reveal our true selves, making God seem less accessible to those with a more realistic (and honest) view of their depravity
  • Engaging in the religious activities, cards, and decorations of the holidays yet not truly putting Christ back in Christmas by living a prayer, care, and share lifestyle

“Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:12)  We live in a nation where young people who’ve been pressured by professors into renouncing their parents’ faith aren’t being given any satisfactory alternative sources of hope.  It’s only a matter of time before most realize they’ve been duped, unable to find any enduring purpose or meaning in things of this world – all while edging closer to their eventual demise, fearing those in whom they entrusted their eternal fate were wrong.  However, attempts to point people back to Christ at Christmas will fall on deaf ears unless Christians are unusually loving, selflessly compassionate, and oddly calm in the face of adversity.

Salvation

America rejects the arrival of our Savior, trusting instead in governments and economies to save them, when they don’t see convincing evidence of the supernatural or transformation (in keeping with assurance of eternal life) among Christians and churches.

  • Failing to convey the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice and inadequacy of our works by publicizing the good we do, seeking praise from people when eternal life is our “reward”
  • Not understanding how to communicate the Christmas message clearly, that Jesus descended into our decadence because only He was capable of obtaining salvation the “hard way” (complete obedience to the law), the one perfect Lamb qualified to take our place and give us the opportunity for salvation the “easy way” (grace)
  • Living for the “dot” and not the “line”, without eternal perspectives or priorities that alter and mitigate typical human behaviors, like anxiety and greed

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)  Since the beginning of time, humanity has been searching for a way to fix what we broke – the relationship with our Creator.  Only God can make things right, which He did that first Christmas.  To the extent Christians tout our good deeds and criticize the errors of others, we give the impression that salvation is in our hands, not a Christmas gift but an earned wage.  When Christians and churches exude the joy of salvation, give God all the glory, and discard “cheap grace” (salvation without surrender), America may once again discover the meaning of Christmas and stop looking to self and worldly “saviors”.

Sanctification

America rejects Christmas carols like “O Holy Night”, believing those “true to themselves” are perfect just as they are, when churchgoers and churches don’t reflect Jesus’ holiness or the new nature His birth, death, and resurrection should illuminate in believers.

  • Exhibiting characteristics misaligned with those typically ascribed to Jesus, like love, humility, and sacrifice
  • Forging our own path and priorities rather than God’s plan and instructions, leading culture to follow our example and declare its independence
  • Not realizing and debunking the fundamental misconception fueling progressive ideals – the false premise that human nature is inherently good
  • No longer occupying the front lines of compassion, losing our voice in society because most churches treat members, not the community, as their “customer”

“And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11)  When we confess our inadequacies and admit only God is good, non-believers may rethink their overestimation of their own virtue.  Our culture has no issues with Jesus’ values, but over time adopted a different set of values they observed in His followers (e.g. pride and self-centeredness).  If Christians and churches truly learn and practice what it means to be in the world but not of the world, seeing the Holy Spirit in us will attract those disillusioned by progressivism’s failed promise of “sanctification”, proving Christmas is the only path to holiness.

It’s Your Turn…

Have you seen a church’s Christmas celebration spark revival in a city or a family’s Christmas spirit awaken faith and hope in a neighborhood?

Stress and Anxiety: A Cause and Cure

Dec 01, 22
JMorgan
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2 comments

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)   Thanksgiving last week reminded us that thankful is the opposite of stressful.  To represent Jesus well, Christians should be joyful and peaceful at all times.  Thankfulness is an attitude of gratitude for the Father’s faithfulness in blessing and rescuing us, the undeserving.  Worry demonstrates a lack of faith in God’s love and His plan, disappointing a watching world wondering if Christianity could transcend the distress of a hopeless existence.  Because most Christians appear just as concerned about life’s challenges and dangers as everyone else, those who don’t know Jesus look elsewhere for an escape hatch from reality – drug and alcohol abuse, avatars, affairs, or even suicide.

In other words, just as our division contributed to the fracturing of American culture, our consumerism exacerbated America’s overindulgence, and our stinginess made America less generous, our lack of faith has raised our nation’s collective stress level about…

Survival

America rejects our faith as the source of hope, taking extreme measures to blind themselves to the inevitability of death, when Christians act as if eternal life in heaven is not a certainty.

“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Luke 12:25)  When Christ-followers strive and stress about growing careers, families, and churches, our fears devalue God’s provision and promises.  Living for self, success or survival conveys the sufficiency of mankind and insufficiency of God, freeing secular observers to dismiss the Gospel and face the trials of life without peace – and eternity without Jesus.  When churches and Christians exhibit countercultural reactions to adversity, the world will find the hope it’s desperately seeking.

Health

America rejects the idea that the Holy Spirit lives in believers, writing off the supernatural as “fairy tales”, when Christians and churches don’t conduct themselves as if they were His temples.

  • Damaging our bodies through anxiety and stress we shouldn’t be experiencing as acutely as those not indwelled by the Holy Spirit
  • Becoming addicts to ease pain Christ-followers should endure more courageously knowing this world is not our home as citizens of an everlasting Kingdom
  • Suffering as a result of unhealthy lifestyles, not understanding we, like Jesus, will be resurrected in physical form
  • Humanizing church, making it seem like any other organization, by focusing excessively on how it appears on the outside versus who we are on the inside

“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’” (Matthew 6:31)  The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the dearth of discipleship in America’s churches.  Most Christians appeared more concerned with self-preservation than self-sacrifice, not personifying “church” when the buildings’ doors were closed.  If we rested on the Sabbath, accumulated less “stuff” (since each asset we acquire adds stress), and trusted God to take care of us, imagine how much healthier Christians, churches, and our nation would be.

Value

America rejects our churches as being necessary and relevant, turning to government and academic institutions for answers, when we don’t pursue biblical opportunities to remain integral in a post-agrarian society.

  • Abdicating the front-line role in alleviating the pressure of poverty, leaving it to those who can only provide (transactional) handouts, not a (relational) hand up
  • Imitating churches in worrying about having enough to pay the bills, only giving leftovers, not first fruits, to help struggling families
  • Developing church strategies and programs to feel needed, wondering whether the community would notice if we shut our doors
  • Wanting to return to a position as the “center of town”, as churches were for centuries in America, yet realizing post-agrarian culture now has other social, charitable, and educational outlets

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)  Jesus was more concerned about growing disciples than growing churches.  We’re the only light in a dark, anxious world – but our light dims if we’re not active in compassion and evangelism.  Today, it’s not just secular media questioning the importance of churches.  According to Lifeway, 1 in 4 pre-COVID regular churchgoers have not returned.  Regaining reach and relevance requires following Jesus’ example – going out to care and share, not just inviting the “lost” to come in.

Reputation

America rejects the (traditionally) positive public perception of churches and Christians, showing greater respect for resolute post-modernists who hold their ground, when fearful believers compromise to adapt and conform to culture.

  • Protecting social and employment status by pretending to be who we aren’t, not taking risks like speaking out about Jesus or professing to hold Christian values
  • Inviting accusations of hypocrisy when churchgoers live inconsistent with their beliefs
  • People-pleasing, losing sleep over how others perceive us instead of how God sees us
  • Attracting congregants by catering to their needs rather than challenging them, soft-pedaling the costs of discipleship and commands to keep the Church holy

“And why do you worry about clothes?  See how the flowers of the field grow.  They do not labor or spin.” (Matthew 8:28)  Jesus wasn’t concerned with being liked, nor should we.  Our efforts to impress anyone but God has the opposite of its intended effect, causing anxiety for us and for secular observers by taking the spotlight off Jesus and shining it on our insecurities, making it less likely they’ll see Him clearly.  If Christians and churches would focus on loving God and others, not being liked but respected, our faith would lower our nation’s collective stress level.

Influence

America rejects conservative values, gravitating toward those who don’t have their best interests at heart, when Christians and churches fret over gaining influence in society rather than electing to pursue Jesus’ path to prominence (caring for the “least of these”).

  • Stressing about politics and elections when we’ve already read the end of the story (The Book of Revelation), knowing Jesus and His Church win
  • Bemoaning the state of our world in this Age of Decadence as if the sky is falling when fulfillment of prophecy should increase our faith, not jeopardize it
  • Seeking earthly power, scaling the tops of the 7 mountains rather than relying on God’s power, realizing Jesus walked away from every attempt to enthrone Him
  • Centralizing into “skyscrapers” that don’t occupy much ground instead of equipping and sending disciples to engage those who would never darken the door of a church

“When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say.” (Luke 12:11)  Quietly serving in obscurity or decentralizing church to occupy a larger footprint doesn’t create notoriety but expands the Kingdom exponentially.  The Lord’s math is the multiplication of disciples making disciples, not the addition of Invite/Involve/Invest church growth strategies.  There’s tension in the precarious task of trying to build a large platform, and it’s hard to compete for attention with secular, for-profit organizations.  If Christians and churches were less concerned about size and influence, we would gain more of both, and Americans would be less stressed in trying to outdo one another.

It’s Your Turn…

Where have you seen a Christian’s or church’s faith in dire circumstances move the needle on a family’s or community’s sense of peace and hope in the midst of trials?

Poverty in America: A Cause and Cure

Nov 17, 22
JMorgan
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2 comments

Throughout most of America’s history, churches were the food bank and homeless shelter, the first place the destitute went for help.  In fact, across much of the world for over 1900 years, churches followed Jesus’ model of demonstrating the Father’s love before telling people who He is (i.e. the Gospel).  During recent decades, however, churches in America developed growth strategies that precluded continuation of its indispensability in helping the materially poor.  If all Christians still took Jesus’ example and commands to serve the poor seriously, our nation as a whole would be more accepting of Christians and less tolerant of poverty on our shores and abroad.

In other words, just as our division contributed to the fracturing of American culture and our consumerism exacerbated America’s overindulgence, the Church’s decision decades ago to abdicate its lead role on the front lines of poverty relief has diminished our influence and convinced many not to follow our…

Leadership

America rejects Christianity as the model for how to live, believing government and secular charities are kinder and more compassionate, because the average church’s investment of time, energy and dollars into serving the poor has dropped 95% over the past hundred years.

  • Changing the definition of “church” to emphasize gathering of Christians in a place on a weekend rather than scattering of disciples into ministry the rest of the week
  • Consequently, catering to those Jesus challenged (to live out the Great Commandment and Great Commission) while underserving those Jesus catered to (the poor, ill, and hopeless)
  • Finding intensive discipleship too demanding for church “consumers”, therefore not understanding how Jesus truly lived and what it means to follow in His footsteps
  • Not dying to self as the Bible commands, more concerned about our wants than the needs of others

Every human being is looking for a light in this dark word.  Christians are to radiate the love of Jesus to illuminate the path to the Father.  In America and around the globe, history reveals a direct correlation between compassion of Christ-followers and the growth of Christianity.  Similarly, there’s an indisputable connection between times our faith becomes associated with legalism, judgmentalism, and political parties and its decline.  As churches in the U.S. became more consumer-driven and less compassion-driven, that influence spilled over into secular culture, turning it more consumeristic and less generous.  Where else will people learn about love and mercy except from Jesus?  Yet society no longer looks to churches as viable examples of those qualities, nor will they until we again become a shining beacon of light to the poor and marginalized.

Savior

America rejects our Lord as the answer to meaning in this life and hope for the next, looking to secular flourishing and social justice causes for fulfilment, as Christians and churches increasingly deviate from Jesus’ model of Prayer, Care, and then Share.

  • Wondering how Jesus can save people eternally if churches in their communities aren’t active in rescuing those suffering on this side of heaven
  • Hearing stories about Jesus’ miracles of healing and feeding during their youth, but not observing anything transformative that borders on the “miraculous” today
  • Instead seeing Christians occupied in the unremarkable, indistinguishable work and worries of managing careers, raising families, and operating (religious) institutions
  • Losing respect for Jesus when Christ-followers attempt to “outpreach” Him (who despite speaking perfect words still felt it necessary to open ears through loving acts of service)

Whenever Christians fail to reflect Jesus’ deep concern for the (materially) poor or don’t imitate His approach for reaching them with the Gospel, we misrepresent and discredit our Savior.  America’s accelerating departure from its Christian heritage is not an indictment of Jesus, but of those who depart from His model and mission (“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free”.)  Despite our nation’s entree into the Age of Decadence, a last gasp for revival by the power of the Holy Spirit could be sparked by a repentant reassumption by Christians of the leadership mantle for poverty alleviation, a responsibility Jesus (and His disciples) told us never to abdicate.

Philosophy

America rejects our approach to dealing (compassionately) with those we don’t agree with, even if they’re Christians, turning to godless yet more welcoming friends and groups for answers about how to treat others, because most Christians and churches no longer clearly convey what Scripture commands about love, relationships, forgiveness, and humility.

  • Coming across as morally superior, a stance Jesus reviled and repudiated
  • Being known more for what we’re for than what we’re against
  • Taking a back seat on discrimination and injustice when Jesus condemned silence
  • Essentially ignoring our own persecuted brothers and sisters overseas

Poverty is not just in material wealth and possessions.  Nearly everyone endures some from of poverty – whether emotional, spiritual, relational, or financial.  The materially poor lack hope for the future because they’ve lost and haven’t been able to reestablish symbiotic connections to God, self, others, and the rest of creation.  Their isolation leaves them without the opportunities most of us have for relational (rather than transactional) support when times get tough.  Our society knows enough about Jesus to understand He commissioned churches to be the only earthly institution that’s perfectly designed and equipped to provide compassionate assistance for all 4 types of poverty to rebuild all 4 types of relationships.  Non-believers will become interested in and curious about Christianity again when churches stop walking by the poor, going about our “business” rather than fulfilling our calling and emulating Jesus.

Religion

America rejects our religion as truth, opting to invent their own realities and identities, because if what we claim is actually true, then more churchgoers would be radically transformed by the power of Jesus’ resurrection and eager to pay forward the grace of Jesus’ sacrifice.

  • Talking the talk (“I’ll pray for you”), not walking the walk (“I’ll feed and clothe you”), when the gift of eternal life should compel action on behalf of the lost and hurting
  • Complaining church members only give leftovers when they’re imitating churches who have little or nothing left over for local missions after other bills are paid
  • Missing opportune moments to preach our message of hope to the hopeless, making non-believers question whether Christians really think there’s a Hell

Our culture increasingly elects the visible over the invisible, doubting God’s existence or goodness as they witness abject poverty and the complacence of wealthy American Christians.  We may signal concern (virtue) on social media about injustice and oppression to gain clout, yet most of us said or did little before it was in vogue.  If all Christians practiced what Jesus preached, we’d have ample resources to ensure no one goes without and far greater influence over the generosity, compassion, and spiritual health of our nation.

Institutions

America rejects Christianity when churches devise solutions for alleviating (material) poverty that appear more like self-serving, thinly veiled advertising – seasonal events that may make churchgoers feel good but actually perpetuate poverty.

  • Replicating in local missions the “fast-food”, event mentality practiced by most churches on weekends to appease a busy, time-constrained congregation
  • For convenience, writing checks at arms-length without getting hands dirty in the hard relational work of true, needle-moving charity
  • Preferring geographic distance, afraid Jesus’ proximate model would attract those He did
  • Redefining “outreach” in the church lexicon to mean initiatives to grow membership

When churches were the center of town, a safe haven and shelter for America’s poor, we did more than provide short-term relief.  We offered the chance to become part of a family of Christ-followers, a support structure to help navigate the path to a brighter future.  When government usurped the lead role in compassion, it could only offer a “safety net” of handouts that extend the relief phase indefinitely and foster unhealthy dependence.  Surveys indicate that the American public still expects churches to be a first responder in compassion but the approach most have adopted looks more like government assistance programs, not the Church’s traditional, dignifying, biblical model.

It’s Your Turn…

Where have you seen outpouring of compassionate service to the poor soften hearts toward Christianity and open doors to evangelism among those who had appeared unreceptive?

American Consumerism: A Cause and Cure

Nov 03, 22
JMorgan
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2 comments

As the upcoming election vividly illustrates, America has become more divided and divisive than at any other time in recent memory.  However, regardless of political or religious affiliation, the vast majority of us are united in one unfortunate arena – consumerism.  Americans have by far the largest amount of total household debt (over $16 trillion) of any nation in the world.  The average American carries $100,000 in consumer debt and a debt-to-income ratio of nearly 150%.  Just as division among churches and Christians has contributed to the fracturing of our culture, consumerism within Christianity has exacerbated America’s overindulgent spending habits…

Church

America rejects our institutions and places more “faith” in its own (e.g. government and businesses) as Christian engagement with churches becomes more consumeristic and as lines blur between religious organizations and secular companies in terms of:

  • Shifting the weight of expectations and accountability from members to pastors, reducing demands for discipleship while upping the ante on programs, performance, and facilities
  • Shopping (and frequent “church hopping”) based on the comparative quality of “services” provided rather than the adherence of leadership and membership to the truth of Scripture
  • Defining church as a place and not as its people, positioning churchgoers as “customers” to attract and retain instead of Kingdom “employees” to train and deploy to pursue the real customer (those who don’t know Jesus)
  • Designing church growth strategies that breed loyalty and prioritize numerical growth over personal growth in Christ (e.g. replacing intensive discipleship with “sticky” small groups)
  • Implying that joining, serving, and giving (within the comfortable confines of a church) is an adequate substitute for boldly risking prayer, care and share lifestyles in public view

Businesses advertise products they promise will transform consumers’ lives but fail to deliver.  Churches promise life transformation, but surveys show most Christians don’t look much different than non-believers to the naked eye.  America will continue drifting farther from God as long as church operating principles and consumer-driven practices converge with those of everyone else.  No matter how content and confident non-Christians may appear, they earnestly seek the hope and forgiveness only Jesus can provide.  However, pointing them back to the cross will require abandoning any vestige of commerce and consumerism from the functions of churches and lives of churchgoers.

Materialism

America rejects our social criticism and commentary, heeding instead the counsel of secular media and academic leaders, when Christians lose their voice by appearing nearly as materialistic and apprehensive as those who do not profess faith and hope in Christ:

Even those unfamiliar with Scripture understand Christianity is incompatible with the American Dream.  Jesus was blatantly countercultural when it came to consumption, foregoing possessions and property.  To the extent churches and believers amass wealth for personal gain and security, not exhibiting the faith Jesus modeled – relinquishing our rights and sense of ownership of assets as long as poverty and oppression persist – America will continue distancing from Christianity.  However, when we take our faith so seriously that we value the relationship with our loving Father above all else, our light will illuminate the futility and shallowness of meaningless accumulation of belongings.

Attention

America rejects our example and leadership, elevating and listening instead to secular authority figures, when renowned pastors and Christian leaders seek the spotlight, garnering notoriety for themselves yet tarnishing the name of Jesus whenever they:

  • Misunderstand the humble, servant leadership style of Christ, who at the height of His popularity, either went off alone to pray or preached His toughest message to weed out insincere followers
  • Believe the path to reversing the course of our culture is to scale the tops of the 7 Mountains (e.g. education, government, media), an approach Jesus repudiated
  • Establish hierarchies, increase influence, and build skyscrapers (gathering many but occupying a small footprint), bringing celebrity worship to churchdom
  • Forget that the “bigger they are the harder they fall”, generating unwanted publicity from secular media waiting to pounce when prominent Christians violate God’s laws or society’s code of ethics

Any diversion of attention from our perfect Lord onto flawed human beings is a serious mistake.  We misrepresent Jesus when we pretend we’re anything more than sinners in dire need of a merciful Savior.  It can be difficult to see Christ through us if our egos block the view.  Transparency through confession makes non-believers aware of their need for forgiveness.  The path to church reform and cultural reform is one and the same – making disciples who live consistent with the faith they espouse, children of a loving Father mobilized to infiltrate and transform the body of Christ and their communities.

Gospel

America rejects the Gospel and assumes it isn’t better than the “good news” offered by advertisers and educators when Christians “consume” the salvation message (for their own benefit) and hesitate to share it with those we claim are destined for Hell without it:

  • Receiving a “free” ticket to Heaven, cheap grace without obligation for obedience simply by repeating a few phrases (the Sinner’s Prayer), implies that it’s not worth much if it costs us so little (though it cost Jesus so much)
  • Wondering whether our cure for secularism’s terminal illness (sin leading to death) is credible if the average Christian tells so few people (even those they love) about it
  • “Selling” Christianity to appeal to consumers through self-centered marketing pitches like ”Jesus died for you” and “Jesus came to give you abundant life”
  • Questioning whether the Gospel transforms lives if it didn’t convince us to abandon consumerism and to love others enough to risk our social standing for their sake

A non-believer who knows anything about Jesus understands that His death and resurrection was not intended to be consumed or concealed but boldly proclaimed from the rooftops, not just by paid professionals but by all Christ-followers.  Gen Z would be more inclined to believe Jesus’ story has real value if they knew we truly “bought what we were selling”.  However, when the role of most churchgoers in evangelism stops short of the Great Commission, typically only going so far as to invite a friend to next weekend’s church service, we make the Gospel seem less important and interesting than their other options for how to spend a Sunday morning.

Love

America rejects us and God (as the embodiment of love) and adopts its own definitions of “love” when Christians consume His love for them but don’t seem to pay that love forward in how we treat our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in Christ, or those who persecute us:

  • Watching to see if Christians reflect the love of Jesus, possibly open to a deeper form of (unconditional) love than the emotions, affection, and romance that often disappoint and never fully satisfy
  • Not “earning” the right to speak to culture and mitigating the inevitable backlash against Christ-followers by leading with compassionate demonstrations of God’s love, particularly for the (materially) poor and oppressed
  • Running “transactional”, seasonal outreaches that actually perpetuate poverty, create dependence, and double as church “advertising”
  • Not caring for our own and loving one another due to theological differences or physical distance (i.e. the persecuted overseas), sowing division within our ranks

Many churches emphasize God’s love without giving equal airtime to aspects of our Father’s character (that flow out of His love) like high expectations for His children to dispense that love rather simply soak it in.  Pointing fingers, politicizing our faith, and positioning God’s love as a one-way street may attract lukewarm attenders to our churches but invite ridicule from a society expecting Christians to live more like Jesus.  The more self-centered, angry, judgmental, and divided the body of Christ appears, the more the world will follow suit.  However, churches that return to their first love by valuing loyalty to the Father over loyalty to the institution will produce disciples who love others and one another in ways that draw all people to Him.

It’s Your Turn…

Did the chicken or the egg come first?  Did churches treat parishioners like consumers (to sustain the organization), driving their consumeristic behaviors?  Or were Christians infected by America’s consumer-driven culture, forcing pastors to accommodate more demanding congregations?  Regardless of how it started, how has consumerism within Christianity undermined our influence and abetted our nation’s pursuit of the American Dream over God’s Kingdom?

America Divided: A Cause and Cure

Oct 20, 22
JMorgan
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4 comments

Jesus says unity of His followers will convince the world He is their Savior.  Christians are quick to point out how divided America has become, yet what do we see when we look in the mirror?  Has division within the body of Christ contributed to (or even caused) our culture’s polarization?  Warring factions within our faith have battled for centuries over theology, morality, politics, and mission, fracturing into denominations, movements, parties, and parachurch ministries.  More recently, but still preceding (or concurrent with) the divisiveness of America today, churches and their members have taken opposing positions on presidents, pandemics, progressivism, and preferences that invite splits and competition.

Not seeing our unity, which would have brought the nation together by recognizing Jesus in and through us, America has followed our lead and divided into firmly-entrenched stances for and against Christianity, with the latter crafting alternatives to biblical…

Love

Americans rejected our definition of love and made up their own (e.g. feelings, romance) because Christians are divided over what it means to love one another and our neighbor, not united in:

  • Caring for distant members of our family, persecuted brothers and sisters overseas
  • Building up one another, committed to personal discipleship
  • Sharing the only cure for sin and separation from God with the terminally ill, training believers for evangelism
  • Fighting the culture war via a ground attack of love and compassion at close proximity instead of an air attack dropping verbal bombs from a lofty height
  • Showing genuine concern for the poor, whereas most churches organize occasional “outreach” events that don’t alleviate poverty and double as “advertising”

God is love and Christ gave us a script for paying His love forward.  When we deviate (from that script), we divide.  When we ignore the persecuted, it opens the door to persecution.  When we judge, it exposes Christians to judgment.  When we make church about loyalty to an institution, it breeds disloyalty to our Father.  When churches become more self-centered (as a result of internally-focused, Invite/Involve/Invest growth models), Americans turn to Selfism.  Rather than further compromising to adapt to an increasingly divided, self-absorbed nation (that Christians helped create), revival may come when persecution unites us around Scripture’s definition of (selfless, unconditional Agape) love.

Identity

Americans rejected our identity (as children of a loving Father) and made up their own (e.g. sexuality, gender) because Christians divided by reducing identity to a label (by birth) or allegiance to a particular church (or denomination), not united in:

  • Introducing ourselves first and foremost as followers of Christ
  • Practicing and not just professing faith through Bible study, prayer and other spiritual disciplines, reflecting a personal and growing relationship with Jesus
  • Defining “church” inclusively, not as a place or pastors, but as each of us (and all of us) who have surrendered to the Lord
  • Not answering questions about our “religion” by citing a denomination or church
  • Humbling ourselves like children, not drawing attention away from Jesus

We should bond as sons and daughters of the same Father, not segment the body of Christ into cliques or foster an “us vs. them” mentality with non-believers.  As we’ve formed Christian subgroups (implying superiority) and reserved God-given gifts for creating content (e.g. movies, music) only for Christian audiences, Americans have followed suit and became starkly divided for or against us.  Rather than regressing further into division in response to today’s Post-Christian culture (that we inadvertently encouraged), all Christians should unite as the Father’s children in the shared mission of reaching the lost.

Mission

Americans rejected our mission and made up their own (e.g. tolerance, justice) because Christians are divided over the importance of reaching out to them through discipleship and evangelism, not united in:

  • Realizing that churchgoers are not consumers but Kingdom employees who should be challenged to live prayer, care, and share lifestyles within their circles of influence
  • Rejecting costly, attractional church models that distract and divert resources from biblical priorities of equipping and deploying disciples
  • Subordinating institutional growth and member retention goals (addition) to personal growth and member footprint metrics (multiplication)
  • Putting aside our “squabbles” as hostility mounts toward all Christians, developing a common sense of urgency, collaborating to seek community transformation
  • Moving the needle collectively on social issues that are near and dear not only to the Lord’s heart (e.g. material poverty) but to Gen Z (e.g. social justice)

When churches differentiate from one another to stand out, we divide.  When churches placate consumers who don’t reflect Christ between Sundays, they may come back next weekend but guarantee others will never darken our doors.  When “Christians” don’t live on mission or conform to culture, their hypocrisy creates division within and outside the “4 walls”.  Rather than accentuating distinctions between Christians or minimizing differences from the world to “fit in”, now is the time in this increasingly secular economic and political environment (which Christians fostered) to present a united front around the purpose and plan set out for all Christ-followers.

Morality

Americans rejected our moral code and made up their own (e.g. the pursuit of happiness) because Christians are divided over how to deal with sin inside and outside the church, not united in:

  • Seeking righteousness over being “right” (self-righteousness)
  • Confessing, not concealing, our sins and need for a Savior (so others can see theirs)
  • Being known for Who we’re for instead of what we’re against
  • Living one way on Sundays and much less like Jesus the rest of the week
  • Adopting Jesus’ perspective on sin, not judging those who can’t be expected to follow the laws of the King when they’re not citizens of His Kingdom

Christians point fingers at society for virtue signaling, yet the practice originated with churchgoers claiming ownership of the moral high ground while unsuccessfully trying to hide sins.  As we’ve disobeyed Matthew 18’s clear instructions to keep the church holy, our standards and accountability have diminished, undermining Christianity’s credibility.  We shouldn’t be surprised or accusatory when witnessing the advent of America’s Age of Decadence.  Rather than widening the divide with non-believers (which we unfortunately exacerbated) or splitting legalistic hairs with other Christians, we should unite in repentance and reconciliation, dying to self to demonstrate our humility and God’s forgiveness.

Worldview

Americans rejected our perspectives on life and creation and made up their own (e.g. secular humanism) because Christians are divided in their degree of focus on worldly concerns, not united in:

  • Aligning with politicians espousing Christians values and advocacy of public policy benefitting churches and ministries
  • Understanding of human nature, whether it’s truly as evil as the Bible describes
  • Believing that God has predetermined all things, but concluding that our potential impact is limited
  • Engaging in popular causes like protecting the environment, working to eradicate poverty, and protesting injustice

Our varying opinions about the extent to which we should get involved in human affairs not only divides the body of Christ but makes non-believers question whether Christians care.  As a result, society drifts from God and (since this world is all it has) becomes even more consumed with the issues churches and Christ-followers are accused of ignoring.  Rather than being “so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good” (as the saying goes), we could close the gap with other believers and mitigate the cynicism of secular humanists (which Christians have stoked) by uniting around what is important to Jesus (e.g. people, not politics).

It’s Your Turn…

How much blame rests with the Church for America’s departure from its Christian roots?  How would greater unity of our Father’s children around biblical love, identity, mission, morality, and worldview decrease division within our nation?  Or will the response of Christ-followers to a more combative culture be further division within our ranks?

The Battle for Post-Christian America

Oct 06, 22
JMorgan
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The question is not whether America will travel the well-trodden path of protection (from evangelism) to prevention (of evangelism) to persecution (for evangelism).  Unless the Lord and His Church intervene, the process of removing Christianity from America’s heritage and culture will continue unabated.  The temptation to believe human nature is inherently good, obviating the need for forgiveness by denying the existence of sin, has proven irresistible to countless nations and gained a secure foothold among America’s next generation (Z).  However, faith in mankind never ends with “innocent” naivete but aggressive suppression.

What’s not yet clear is what will win the tug of war for power once Christianity is out of the mainstream.  Humanistic and progressive ideals have America heading either down one of two roads, both of which result in persecution of Christians – toward China or Saudi Arabia, Russia or Afghanistan, North Korea or Nigeria – autocracy or theocracy.  Since Christianity is correct that humanity is evil by nature, elimination of the only effective behavioral constraint and motive for goodness – the love of Jesus – inevitably leads to the pursuit of unimpeded control.  The question is whether the leaders who conceal their ambitions under the guise of ending “oppression” or those who claim authority in the name of “god” will emerge victorious.  In either case, Christianity becomes enemy #1 because it offers a Savior who demands loyalty, competing with lesser dictatorial or religious “saviors”.

For those writing off this argument as hyperbole in Americas’ case, consider the “democracies” teetering on that same precipice – at risk of falling into political or religious totalitarianism – as evangelical Christianity declines.  The scenario is not unlike Rome in the New Testament where autocrats were in power but theocrats were angling for supremacy when Jesus came to establish His Kingdom.  The Bible states plainly that all Christians will be persecuted in every nation before Jesus returns – and America is no exception.  In fact, the process of protection, prevention, and persecution (that culminates in criminalizing evangelism) has already begun here.  Selfism, the fastest growing religion in America, now “protects” non-believers from judgmental Christians who dare to accuse (of sin) or impose (beliefs) – and “prevention” is underway as well.

Selfism appears to lack the authority to “persecute” until we examine its implications more closely (in the next section).  However, the greater threat to Christians is what comes after Selfism runs its natural course.  Cracks are already appearing in its foundation with unprecedented levels of depression and addiction from the futility of making “self” the ultimate authority.  Persecution in America will look more like what we see among the 360 million marginalized Christians worldwide when a more autocratic or theocratic regime steps in to rescue us from the divisive, crime-ridden, and medicated society we have become by relegating Christianity to the sidelines.

Persecution of Christians…in America?

Media conditions us to think of persecution in its worst forms occurring in far-away lands.  Yes, Christianity is the most persecuted faith and thousands of believers are murdered, beaten, imprisoned, and kidnapped every year in nations where extremist groups target anyone who follows Christ.  Radicals do burn hundreds of churches to the ground and disown family members in countries Americans consider far less “civilized”.  However, it’s also true that some governments officially sanction violent, vengeful acts against Christians or condone law enforcement turning a blind eye.

Persecution also takes place in more subtle (but no less systemic, discriminatory, or intimidating) forms not only in those countries but in others not appearing on any global “watch lists”:

  • Mocking and denouncing Christians on social media, TV and radio to stir up hatred (in direct opposition to the progressive narrative decrying public “shaming”)
  • Disinformation, “cancellation” campaigns labeling any reference to biblical perspectives hate-speak (if they run counter to cultural, “acceptable” norms)
  • Encouraging consumers not to shop at stores of small business owners who subscribe to Christian views on marriage, gender, or preborn viability
  • Forcing companies to provide benefits or services that defy their Christian values
  • Smearing, vilifying Christians for the crime of voting for a particular candidate
  • Refusing to hire (or firing) those who do not disavow politically incorrect positions on hot-button issues (since they’re not commercially expedient)
  • Stigmatizing high school or college students bold enough to profess belief in Jesus
  • Removing Christian objects, symbols, and tributes from public venues
  • Ostracizing or treating Christians as second‐class citizens in communities where they live and socialize

Are any of those (or all of them) happening in America today?  Economic persecution is one of the most demeaning and harmful means of discriminating against Christians across the globe – and it’s widespread and even applauded in the U.S. today.  The inability to get a job, keep one, or stay in business if you espouse biblical values has the same effect as subjecting Christians to indentured servitude or not educating Christian children – both common in “watch list” countries.  And though it may not rise to the level of persecution, its precursor – “prevention” (of evangelism) – has been alive and well on our shores for years.  The name of Jesus is somehow exempt from our “free speech” lexicon in government and public school settings, coaches are fired for praying after football games, parents are dubbed terrorists if they speak out about curriculum critical of Christianity, and pastors are censured for simply repeating countercultural passages from Scripture.

How Should Churches and Christians Respond?

The first step to stop the progression from protection to prevention to persecution is prayer.  We need the Lord’s guidance to understand the motives behind the crusade to eliminate Christianity from our culture.  To what extent are Christians to blame and need to repent for not living much like Jesus, hesitating to share the “cure for cancer” with the terminally ill,  watering down the truth of God’s Word, abdicating our role in discipleship, or politicizing our faith to gain advantage?  And where are we not at fault for professing a Gospel that Jesus said would offend, holding contrarian views of human nature, pledging loyalty to a competing Kingdom, and standing up for truth in a Postmodern world.

Is this Age of Decadence too late to reverse America’s course toward greater levels and severity of persecution?  Is our fate sealed by the indoctrination of Gen Z, dependence on (big) government, rise of the Nones and Dones (with church), and higher birth rates among followers of religions not warm toward Christianity?  Rather than sitting idly by, reminiscing about how things used to be, awaiting the inevitable, Christ-followers can take action now for the sake of their children and grandchildren otherwise destined to suffer for their faith:

Ironically, times of persecution like Christians are starting to endure here in America can be opportunities for purification and multiplication.  It could awaken a Church long declining in growth, impact, influence, and perception.  Persecution makes it nearly impossible to continue several hallmarks of contemporary, ineffective church growth models – like conspicuous, underutilized buildings and top-down leadership hierarchies.  Lukewarm Christians quickly disappear, leaving only committed disciples, like the few who followed Jesus faithfully and changed the course of history.  As seen in China, an unintended consequence of persecution, which compels Christians to scatter and resume personal responsibility for the Great Commission within their circles of influence, is explosive growth in the body of Christ.  Suffering persecution also makes Christians more attune to the plight of those they’d previously ignored, creating unity when we appear divided.

It’s Your Turn…

Are the self-inflicted wounds of compromise and division within the Church making Christians more susceptible to mounting pressures (and persecution) to renounce their faith or beliefs?

Is America Moving Forward or Backward?

Sep 22, 22
JMorgan
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3 comments

Whether the “advancements” society celebrates are actually moving us forward depends on how we measure progress.  Some are unquestionably positive, others are debatable, and many are harmful.  Medical advances have contributed to a nearly 30 year increase in average lifespans since 1900.  Commercial and fiscal innovations have reduced poverty in the U.S. by 50% since the 1950s, but the wealth gap has increased (the top 1% now owns more than the bottom 90%).  The social impacts of some modern technology breakthroughs, like cell phones and Artificial Intelligence, are being called into question.  Likewise, America may one day discover that our culture’s recent advancement in self-awareness, self-determination, and self-actualization represents progressivism but not progress.

Even seemingly unassailable objectives of equality, freedom, and justice can undermine rather than improve the social order if their definitions are based on a flawed or biased understanding of those terms.  Achieving them for one group often entails removing them from another.  Those benefitting from social reforms measure their success by a different standard than those adversely affected.  For example, the efficacy of criminal justice reform depends on whether you ask the perpetrators or the victims, each of whom can find statistics to back up their position.

The net effect of progressive thought and policies on the overall advancement of our nation hinges on the standard of measure.  The general premise is alluring – faith in mankind to improve the human condition, to strike a delicate balance between environmental and economic interests, and to make decisions that are best for ourselves and others (without competing agendas).  However, how trustworthy are human intellect and intentions when top doctors, scientists, Wall Street analysts, university professors, government officials, and corporate executives are so often (proven to be) wrong or unscrupulous?

Underlying faith in mankind to do the right thing is the assumption that people are inherently good.  Ironically, postmodernism rejects any standard for “right” (except for attempts to establish one).  In contrast, Christianity claims only God is good and human nature is evil, resistant to what the Bible (clearly) defines as right.  So the determinants of social progress depend on the reality of mankind’s situation – are we heading toward or away from the truth about human nature?  Progressive is regressive if trust in humanity’s goodness is misplaced.  If there is a God and we are sinners in dire need of a Savior, then (for example) less law enforcement and more government dependency are not progress.

The following 7 sets of options represent opposing views of what constitutes social progress due to fundamentally conflicting assessments of human nature:

1. Ego or Humility

Continuing the transition from Christianity to Selfism as America’s predominant religion is a step forward in the eyes of atheists and agnostics.  Secular humanism sounds people-positive and empowering, attracting idealistic youth, but is it true?  Companies and politicians artificially inflate our self-perceptions for profit and power.  Is accumulation of wealth, worship of celebrities, and pursuit of happiness actually progress or just progressive?

If, on the other hand, Jesus is Lord then our culture is heading in the wrong direction.  Confession, repentance, and revival would be progress – bowing before our heavenly Father and asking forgiveness for overestimating our goodness and asserting our independence from Him.  In that scenario, only a society characterized by unconditional love and selfless generosity would be viewed as genuinely flourishing.

To reverse the tide, churches and Christians should lead the way in humility, not incorporating elements of Selfism into our faith (e.g. “cheap grace” of salvation without surrender).

2. Knowledge or Wisdom

If secular humanists are correct about the origins of matter, earth and human life then untethering knowledge acquisition from the shackles of religion will make our society wiser.  In their view, our wealthy and educated nation should no longer subscribe or subject itself to the arcane principles and practices of the previously “unenlightened”.

However, is America gaining in intelligence if it’s no longer building on a foundation of truth?  If there is a Creator and man is not the supreme arbiter of fact or fiction, then America’s public colleges and high schools are leading students astray.  If science is the study of what God made, yet scientists don’t understand it in that context, then the basis for their discoveries is disputable.  If business and technology innovations do not align with biblical principles of love, worship, and fellowship then they risk discriminating, distracting, or disconnecting.

Churches and Christians are rarely cited as sources of wisdom today.  As believers, we need to be equipped with biblical answers to questions the world can’t answer through intensive discipleship and evangelism training.

3. Equality or Dignity

The progressive goal of ascribing equal value to every human being, treating people of any gender, creed, and race with the same degree of dignity and respect, aligns with Scripture and undoubtedly represents social progress.  The humanistic definition of equality departs from Christian values and takes America off track when it signals that our virtue exceeds God’s and fails to recognize the intentional distinctions wonderfully designed by our Creator.

Churches and Christians shouldn’t conform to culture by minimizing the differences in God’s design.  Instead, we should highlight God’s goodness by reflecting His unconditional love to those who revile and “cancel” us for not agreeing with their definition of equality.

4. Justice or Unity

Social justice brings true progress, and not political progressivism, only when it recognizes that all people are sinful.  No one cares more about justice and the rights of the oppressed than Jesus – it fact it was His mission statement.  Yet since only He was sinless, His definition of justice isn’t skewed to claim superiority for Himself or a special interest group.  Jesus knew division would be a result of His fight for justice but didn’t pit sides against each other to sow division for personal gain.  Instead, His solution was the ultimate injustice, paying the penalty for our sins and asking the Father to forgive His murderers.

The rights of churches and Christians are also being sacrificed unjustly today, but we should respond like Jesus, displaying His goodness and seeking unity (amongst ourselves and across humanity) in the pursuit of justice for all.

5. Government or Accountability

If politicians are trustworthy and government is a good steward of resources, then our nation is progressing forward when we entrust them with more power.  Most Americans would reject those propositions, yet federal spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product rose from 3% in 1929 to 30% in 2021.  If “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and only God is good then substituting government for Jesus (as our savior) isn’t progress.

Churches and Christians should resume their role on the front lines of compassion to reduce dependence on government handouts that perpetuate poverty.  We must model and emphasize personal responsibility, diligence, and reliance on the Lord for provision.

6. Relativism or Reality

If there is no God and mankind is naturally kind and considerate, then doing whatever we feel is right and lifting the veil of religious dogma that’s clouded our vision for centuries make perfect sense.  In that case, Postmodernism is right to reject truth claims (except those in the eyes of the beholder).  As long as one person’s “truth” doesn’t invade or suppress another’s, then relativism is social progress.  However, our beliefs don’t alter facts – atheism does not cause God to cease to exist.  The Creator, our loving Father, was kind and considerate enough to give us life and reveal countless truths about Himself and our nature in His autobiography, the Bible.

Churches and Christians can lead America in the right direction by refusing to compromise or soft-pedal principles in God’s Word to appease a relativistic, egocentric culture.

7. Freedom or Guardrails

If human nature is good, a society advances when people are trusted to do whatever they want with their bodies and the world they live in.  Activists envisioning a utopia of legalization without law enforcement aren’t moving America forward.  However, Jesus understands human nature so He didn’t come to abolish laws.  The earth and even our own bodies belong to Him – so we are subject to the rules the Owner established for their care and maintenance.  Culture regresses when it operates outside of the Lord’s parameters.

Churches and Christians must set the example of loving obedience as children of the Father, deal with sin biblically among believers, and not judge those outside the church.

It’s Your Turn

Is America progressing or simply progressive today?  How has an errant view of human nature led to the moral, economic, mental health, and spiritual decline of our country?