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Posts from July 2018

The Private-Public Divide May Be Killing Your Church

In America, the debate has raged for decades over the separation of church and state. I know that phrase is not in the US Constitution and it has become a tool for divisiveness and used out of sorts in many ways. However, this post is not about the separation (or presumed separation) of the church and state. This is about the private-public divide within the church or better yet within individual Christians.

Public Life

Speaking of local church members specifically, each of us has a public life, a persona that is known by others in the community, at work, or school. This may be due to volunteering at the elementary school, coaching youth soccer, serving on the homeowner association, being in the Rotary, or numerous other options.

These roles are not bad. In fact, they're wonderful. Christians should be seen and known in these venues throughout the community. 

Private Life

This is where it gets really personal. This is the life within our family, hopefully our church, alongside our friends and loved ones, etc. This is where our faith resides, since it is a personal walk with Christ. This is where viewpoints, convictions, struggles, and even sins live. They're private.

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Photo credit: pea. on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Encouragement vs. Enablement

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, educated at Cambridge and commissioned for missionary service by the Church of Scotland in 1936 to India for the following four decades had written much about what is now termed missional living and church/community engagement. When he returned from India to England in 1974 he wrote numerous articles and books over the subsequent two decades. The focus of his writing dealt with the question of how an authentic encounter between the gospel and western culture could take place.

He surmised that one of the fundamental issues plaguing modern western culture was the separation of public and private domains of life. Corresponding with this was the separation of values.1 He argues that this concept is a holdover from the age of the Enlightenment and is rooted in classical Greek thought. I have read some of what he has asserted and it makes much sense. Yet, I won't get into that here.

This very western concept of segmented lives is cultural and common. In fact, it is considered normal. The problem is that this normal life often leads to Christians having a "church life" and a, well, "real life" for lack of a better term.

The problem in the church is that while church leaders and pastors continue to encourage church members to "be light in dark places" and engage their world with the message of the gospel (rightly so, by the way), our systems of ministry often enable the continued separation from the world, thus creating a private-public dichotomy.

While we encourage missional living, we often enable sequestered huddling.

There is no easy remedy to this. We are pushing not only against human nature, but also centuries of cultural norms. 

The private-public divide often leads to a Kingdom-church divide. While we desire to see God's Kingdom grow and we know the "fields are white unto harvest" sometimes the church practices ministry that reveals a desire to see God's Kingdom within the church walls, while ignoring the commission to go, or better yet to live missionally as we go. The relationship between the kingdom and church must be sorted. Otherwise, churches will continue practicing a church-centered Christianity that ultimately remains detrimental to the kingdom of God.2

Even Within the Church Privacy Is Expected

While the evangelistic, missional living aspect of the Christian life is often negatively affected by the prominence of the private-public dichotomy, an equally dangerous aspect is the fear that fuels superficiality among church family members.

Scripture references unity in the body of Christ numerous times. It is not just a western, cultural aspect that celebrates guarded living. Fear of trust and often a desire to not let others in keeps many relationships, even among brothers and sisters at places that not only ignores unity, but may fuel division.

Paul David Tripp stated this reality so well in his devotional book New Morning Mercies...

Your walk with God is designed by God to be a community project. Anonymous, consumerist, isolated, independent, self-sufficient, "Jesus and me" Christianity is a distant an distorted facsimile of the faith of the New Testament. You and I simply were not created (Gen 2:18) or re-created in Jesus Christ (1 Cor 2:14) to live all by ourselves. The biblical word pictures of temple (stones joined together to be a place where God dwells) and body (each member dependent on the function of the other) decimate any idea that healthy Christianity can live outside essential community.

Yet many, many believers live their lives with a huge separation between their public church personas and the details of their private existence. We are skilled at brief, nonpersonal conversations about the weather, sports, and politics. We are learned at giving nonanswers or spiritually platitudinous answers to people's questions. We live in long-term networks of terminally casual relationships. No one really knows us beneath the well-crafted public display, and because they don't know us, they cannot minister to us, because no one can minister to that which he does not know.3

While more programs, emphases, and challenges are developed to "get people out of the church building and into the field" we see that perhaps the first hurdle is a barrier we have erected, and continue to add bricks upon, that separates our private lives from our public ones (even within the church.) 

Once we remove these sinful barriers through repentance and dangerous openness, the church may grow healthy and recognize that its members who already are engaged in life outside the church structure can also remove the private-public barriers there as well. This may just result in the largest engaged mission force the church has ever experienced. Christians will realize they are validated by God to live holy and wholly for Him privately and publicly. 

In other words, as Christians continue coaching youth soccer (not creating a church version of it), serving on homeowners associations, volunteering at schools, spending time at Rotary meetings, etc., their Christianity is not practically shoved to the back burner. They are freed to live missionally, engaging their communities for the sake of the Gospel. 

Dangerous, perhaps, but worth it.

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1Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 14.

2Reggie McNeal, Kingdom Come: Why We Must Give Up Our Obsession with Fixing the Church – and What We Should Do Instead (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2015), 62.

3Paul David Tripp, New Morning Mercies (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), July 12 devotion.


Should You Tell Your Pastor When You're Leaving the Church?

The question in the title of this article came up in a lecture today by one of my professors at seminary. However, he just mentioned it in passing as he was speaking about churches and covenant membership. His point really had nothing to do with the need or responsibility of church members to communicate with their pastor regarding God's calling to move elsewhere, yet, it was mentioned. It caused me to think about this more deeply.

Any pastor who has stayed at one local church for any length of time (let's just say, five years or more) knows of the inevitable church member exodus that occurs at times (hopefully not all at once.) Members choose to leave the church for various reasons. Sometimes, these reasons are biblical, godly, and right. Sometimes...well, they fall in another category.

Does God Call Church Members to Leave?

The answer to the above question is "absolutely." God often calls his children to places of service in other churches. We have seen this in our church as individuals or families have moved to help launch new church plants, help revitalize dying churches, join a community church where they live and work, and even to join a church near their home following a work transfer or relocation.

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However, God sometimes gets blamed for church transitions that have little to do with his calling. This may be due to building frustration within the church body, personal embarrassment, disunity, disappointment regarding certain ministries, not feeling one's needs are met, not being fed spiritually, or just a desire for change for the sake of change.

When It's Right to Leave

Yes, there are times when leadership in the local church goes off course doctrinally and biblical fidelity has been forsaken. Sometimes leaders have been revealed as unrepentantly immoral. When there is no shifting or righting of these wrongs, I believe God does release his sheep at times to a new under shepherd (pastor) and flock (church.)

The reasons people leave the local church are as unique as the individuals who make up the local church. Sometimes, unrepentant, found sin becomes the catalyst for the pending good-bye. Paul's address to the Corinthian church addresses this, so it's not just a modern issue.

Things to Think Through Before Good-Bye

As I think through the process of seeing church members leave, much comes to mind. At this point, here are some things I've gleaned regarding this inevitable reality:

  • God calls His children to serve where He wants them, without seeking their vote for approval (this goes for pastors and church members.)
  • There is no perfect church. If you find it, don't join it. You'll ruin it's perfect record.
  • There is no perfect pastor. Believe me, they're as flawed as anyone and need much grace and mercy.
  • Your pastors are not omniscient. They do not know what you're feeling unless you tell them. Yet, the way you tell them may not be heard if done without grace.
  • Church is supposed to be family. It grieves me when new members never fully engage or become part of the family story. It also grieves me when family members seemingly disappear, or walk away angry.
  • Disunity is easy. In church. In family. In life.
  • Changing churches in search of the perfect youth ministry, children's ministry, men's ministry, women's ministry, missions ministry, coffee, music, etc. will leave you always on the move.
  • Abandonment of the gospel and ignoring biblical truth, doctrine, and orthodoxy by pastors and church leaders disqualifies them from leadership. If they refuse to repent, God will likely release you from that fellowship (unless he wishes to use you for a revival of biblical fidelity in that house.)
  • Seeking a church that matches your current political ideology will likely leave you with theological gaps in your life.
  • You may not be remembered for how you came into the church, but you will be remembered how you leave it, if done so with vitriol and anger. (from Carey Nieuwhof.)
  • "I'm not being fed" may be the most overused reason excuse given. Take my advice, don't say it. If it's true, it's perhaps the most non-constructive thing you can say. On the other hand, it may just reveal that you desire being spoon-fed biblical milk rather than served spiritual meat, complete with your own knife and fork. 

Everyone Eventually Leaves 

This is truth. There is no one who remains for eternity as a member of their local church. You will either leave your church because you have been relocated due to work, school, or circumstance, because you are called by God to serve Him elsewhere, because you just desire a new church for whatever reason, or because you have died. 

Thabiti Anyabwile wrote an article a number of years ago titled "5 Things to Do Before Leaving Your Church." The five things are:

  1. Share Your Thinking/Reasoning with the Leaders
  2. Resolve Any Outstanding Conflicts
  3. Express Your Appreciation for the Church's Ministry in Your Life
  4. Say "Goodbye" to Friends and Family
  5. Be Honest with Yourself about Your Own Efforts, Motives, and Failings

These are just the points. I recommend you read the entire article available at The Gospel Coalition here. Remember, the church is family ... and family life is not easy.

"Parting is such sweet sorrow." - William Shakespeare


Freedom and Dependence

Independence Day in America is a time for the red, white, and blue apparel to arrive, complete with vintage Old Navy t-shirts and clothing that looks like it was made from a flag (BTW - according to extensive research ... a five-second search on Google ... it is not illegal to wear clothing that has stars and stripes on it, but it is not appropriate to wear clothing made from an actual flag. There you go.) However if you do wear your 4th of July inspired, patriotic shirt, don't be like this grandma featured on Twitter who thought she was honoring America by wearing this shirt for the past twenty-five years on the 4th, but apparently was actually wearing a shirt that looked like the Panamanian flag.

 

 

This day is often a time to celebrate our freedoms as Americans with family get-togethers, cookouts, ball games, parades, and of course fireworks.

The United States is far from perfect, but even with our imperfections and challenges, we find ourselves blessed in ways others throughout history and in other parts of the world today long for. Our freedoms, however are often taken for granted. Friends who grew up in other parts of the world, under heavy oppression and great difficulty, remind me regularly how much we presume regarding personal freedoms. 

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Yet, as stated earlier, we still have far to go. Many in our own nation face oppression and injustices in ways that others cannot imagine. These are due to a variety of circumstances.

This past weekend many Christians were debating aloud and online about the veracity of holding patriotic services in their churches on Sunday. This debate comes every year at this time. What had been viewed as normative for evangelical churches in past decades (the shelving of hymns and sacred songs for patriotic anthems, coupled with overtly America-themed testimonies and messages) now causes many to wonder. From my perspective, anything that is allowed to supersede Christ and the gospel in a service of worship runs the risk at best of passively confusing attenders regarding the focus of worship. Therefore, while we may at times add a song or two speaking of God's blessings upon us, we will not intentionally shift our focus from Christ by allowing anything (or anyone) stand in his place. 

Ultimately, if your worship service looks just like the community Independence Day rally, you may be doing it wrong.

Believe me ... I know how to do things wrong. I have much practice at it.

Nevertheless, to ignore that which God has blessed us with would be insulting, in my opinion. So for the freedoms this experiment of a republic has allowed for us, continues to allow us, and hopefully will offer in the future, we thank God. 

Freedom

I'm reminded of a deeper freedom, however, than those listed in the Bill of Rights. This freedom is expressed throughout the New Testament, but most clearly in Galatians 5. 

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1 (ESV)

It sounds obvious. Almost, too simple. It is for freedom we have been set free. Of course. Yet, the freedom we have in Christ is often ignored as the old nature continues to rise up within us, leaving us living as slaves to sin. Sin that has already been defeated. Sin that has already been covered.

Dependence

As Americans we often speak with pride of our independence. That's what the holiday we're celebrating this week focuses upon. I love this holiday. Yet, as Christians sometimes the prideful statements of individual independence overwhelm the fact that as free children of God we are not independent, but fully dependent. Our dependence on Christ is what gives us freedom. 

While we may tout our rights in this nation, we must remember that we have sacrificed our individual rights on the altar in order to live as fully-devoted disciples of Jesus Christ. It is in this dependence upon God we are free indeed.

That is why we declare our dependence. In Christ alone. Today and every day.

Here's a good reminder of this by the Mississippi Mass Choir...