left behind

Sorry! I couldn’t resist using this picture even though it has nothing to do with the topic of my post. Well, actually, come to think of it does! The fact is, when we hear the phrase “left behind,” if you’ve been in church all your life, your mind probably jumps to either the apocalyptic Christian book series with the same title or the rapture of the Church.

I was reading in Mark 4 today when a couple of verses jumped off the page. First, the context of this chapter is that Jesus is teaching the crowds about the Kingdom of God. In this chapter we see several parables that He used to explain what the Kingdom of God was about–the parable of the sower, the parable of the growing seed, and the parable of the mustard seed.

At one point, Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” His answer is shocking! In Mark 4:11, He says, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that [and then He quotes Isaiah 6:9-10], “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.”

In other words, there are some who followed Jesus who listened to His words and were all about learning but were never able to acknowledge the truth, because if they really did acknowledge the truth, they would turn from their ways, repent and receive forgiveness.

I think there are two ways to look at this passage. In the past, when I’ve read this passage, it almost seems like Jesus is intentionally hiding the truth from people so they don’t understand the truth, turn from their ways and receive forgiveness. I guess if you’re a 5 point Calvinist, you could use this text to show that God picks and chooses whom He will save and whom He won’t.

But, I don’t think that’s what this passage is teaching us. I believe, like many other people, that most of our churches are filled with people who are not Christ followers (hence, the parable of the tares sown among the wheat in Matthew 13). Sure, they’ve prayed a prayer, talked to a pastor, been baptized, etc., and they claim to follow Jesus, but they are having to greater impact for the kingdom of God than before their “conversion”–there is no fruit. They are ever learning, dare I say “consuming” religious goods and services, but, according to Jesus, they are not a part of the kingdom of God.

What is amazing to me about the ministry of Jesus is the laser-like focus He had on equipping His disciples. Yes, He healed the sick and taught the masses, but He wasn’t afraid to walk away from the crowds, either. In Mark 4:36, we find another shocking act Jesus took–”Leaving the crowds behind…” What!? Jesus, this is not how you grow a movement! You can’t leave people behind!

The problem in most of our churches today is that we’re not willing to leave people behind to make disciples. We make our decisions based around what is going to add to our bottom line the quickest. What’s our bottom line? Well, all you have to do is hang around a group of pastors and you’ll quickly find out how we typically measure our success–how many? (attendance) and how much? (money). We set up our churches–our services and programs–according to these measurements. If we have a good crowd on Sunday and a good offering, we’re really doing something right!

But Jesus didn’t do that! He had a laser-like focus on equipping His little army that would change the world. Do you realize that if you’re a Christ follower anywhere in the world today, your spiritual lineage can be traced back to one of the 12 disciples? That blows my mind! Jesus had a very intentional strategy that ensured that He made disciples who made disciples who made disciples, etc, etc, etc, until YOU received the Gospel! If that process had broken down and just one person decided to keep their “personal relationship with Jesus” to themselves, you might not be a Christ follower today!

So, are you truly a Christ follower? Could you prove it with something more than your baptism certificate, your church membership or a story about when you cried during an invitation and talked to a pastor? Have you died to your plans for your life and been raised to walk in the life He has planned for you? Or, are you one of the perhaps millions of people who dutifully file in to church on Sunday morning but have never been transformed by the Gospel into a true follower of Christ who makes disciples who makes disciples who makes disciples… If you’re not a discipler, I think there’s a good chance you could be left behind.

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rethinking church

Countless articles, books and papers have been written on the subject of “rethinking church.” In fact, when I typed those very words into Google, I got 3,520,000 results! Well, make that 3,520,001, because I’m about to add my 2 cents!

I guess you could say that rethinking church has been kind of a hobby of mine for the past 4 years or so. For starters, let me summarize the typical approach of churches for the past hundred or more years regardless of denomination, worship style or translation preference…

Get “those people out there” (lost, sinners, pagans, etc.) in “here” (to the church building) where hopefully they will hear the Gospel, give their lives to Christ and become faithful church members. How churches get the people into their facility differs greatly, but most churches try to lure people to their building with some sort of program–VBS, Awana, a concert, special speaker, revival services, contemporary (or traditional) worship services, fill in the blank. Its church members become the ambassadors for the church’s programs or services and are encouraged to invite people to events and services at the church.

This is not a bad approach and it has worked remarkably well for decades. The problem is that this is not what the church was designed for. It just happened to work because we lived in a culture that predominantly held to a Christian world view. As we all know, that is not the case anymore. It is no wonder that church attendance is rapidly declining and conversions often measured by number of baptisms is also declining.

You’re probably wondering, “So, what was the church designed for?” I’m glad you asked! First, it is important to understand that the Great Commission was not given to the Church. It was given to individual followers of Christ. The Church was designed to be a place of gathering for followers of Christ for teaching, training, encouragement and community as believers pursued carrying out the Great Commission where they live, work and play.

There is much talk about the “missional church” and “getting outside the walls of the church.” I applaud these efforts because at least it is a little bit of progress away from the mindset so many churches have that says “they know where to find us.” However, I would contend that churches aren’t missional–people are. A church that creates ministry opportunities for its members–even if it is outside of the church–can still miss the point. If churches are not equipping believers to live a missional lifestyle–living as a missionary where they live, work and play–it’s just another program. And it is likely that our programs extract people out of their own context and the ministry God wants them to have.

Now, I am in favor of churches that design externally focused ministries as long as it is with the goal of exposing and training its people to a missional lifestyle. I also believe that a local church should also band together to serve its community–feeding the poor, doing acts of service, etc., but it should always be done in the name of Jesus and not the name of a particular church (another subject entirely!).

The problem is that we have gauged the success of the church with bodies and bucks. So, if that is your measurement, the more bodies in the building and the more bucks in the collection plate, the better your church is doing. And, admittedly, the “attractional” approach is much more successful at supporting that type of bottom line. However, it fails abysmally at making disciples.

The slow, steady way of making disciples is the way of Jesus–He lived His life in deep community with 12 men who spread the Gospel to the entire world. Isn’t it mind boggling to think that you could actually trace the spread of the Gospel that penetrated your heart back to one of the 12 disciples? It is slow and steady, but could you imagine if every follower of Christ took seriously the Great Commission to make disciples where they live, work and play? The Gospel would spread virally around the world which is exactly what happened in the early church.

Until the Church shifts its focus from running programs to building missionaries, we will continue to see rapid decline. That’s why I think it’s time we rethink church.