CHRISTIANS, WE NEED THIS!
The Christian life is not as easy as some might guess. Many believe that you confess Christ and then you just live your life pretty much as usual. There are markers in our lives that indicate what we are becoming as Christians. The Christian is not a static being who never changes. Rather, the Christian is always changing, growing becoming more like Christ and less like our sinful self.
Or, that is the theory. Unfortunately, most of us make very little progress in our Christian lives. And churches seem to be happy to affirm a mediocre lifestyle. Churches think they must market themselves to the world, to be relevant, worldliness as a positive trait. This leads to compromise of the Christian life and of the church. it should be a concern to all of us because there is no question that there is a decline in church life and in Christianity in the western world.
I don’t want to be negative and whip a dead horse. Many have written on the compromise of the church and probably most pastors have preached on the subject countless times in recent years. What I hope to do is find a remedy, or at least part of one.
I do think we look for answers in the wrong places. Demographics will only tell you about your community make up or if it is dying or growing. Demographics fail in that it stereotypes people into groups as if everyone in that age group or racial group act and think the same way or have the same needs. We should not be blinded by the dazzling numbers that are thrown at us by studies that inform us our church life should be this way or that way. We should not be impressed at conferences when selected churches are held up as the example that everyone can be if we only follow their methods. We need a more biblical approach.
I do not think that church programs are the answer. In Southern Baptist life we run after new programs about every two years and often it is a repackaged program for days past. I am not saying that all programs are bad. Some are very useful. Biblical education and discipleship studies are very important in the life of the church. Every Christian should have a biblical and theological understanding of what they should believe and practice. These are basic to the church. But programs are not the answer to revitalizing of Christianity, and that should be clear by now.
Gimmicks are not the answer. There are so many gimmicks that are designed to get people to visit a church; concerts, fairs, and other community events. But these do not work. You may gain someone occasionally, but gimmicks are not the answer to a declining or dying church.
I have used these methods and know from my experience the inherent weakness of these approaches. Demographics damage our view of the community. Demographics makes us stereotype everyone and place them into tribes and then informs us we cannot reach that tribe, but we can reach another tribe. It removes the biblical view of our neighbor. It often happens that the people we identify and target for outreach are just like us and often, we think, have money to support the church. I tried all sort of programs. I wore the Hawaiian shirt. I sent out post cards at Christmas. I tried evangelism training and programs of all kinds and all ended in failure. And we tried the gimmicks. We sent our 20,000 Christmas cards one year and had one family to visit. We did fall festivals, trunk or treat, concerts, etc., and while many came, very few come to worship and fewer still joined the church.
I think the biblical answer lies in the people of the church. Christians are both the strength and weakness of the church. Churches will do as well or as badly as the average church member. It is important that we increase our expectations of how Christians live. In the past, not much was done because leaders were afraid that if we had higher expectations of church members, they might stop attending church and thus the loss of money. But there is another reason. Church leaders don’t want any kind of expectation on them that may require a change of lifestyles or to give up a pet sin or to lose opportunities in business and at work because of their Christian values.
There is a kind of corruption in the church. Unqualified men leave the church because they did not get elected as a deacon or elder instead of repentance and change of lifestyles. I know of a situation where a man, with undisclosed charges of child sexual abuse, was allowed to go on a trip with boys. When confronted with the truth, his friend left the church because child welfare concerns were too harsh, because the accused was his friend. Leaders cheat in business, live adulterous lives and participate in non-Christian behavior. Those outside the church are not impressed with most of us.
Biblical expectations of our Christian life require both training and discipline. We desperately need to know what the Bible teaches and what it means for our daily lives. We need church discipline on occasion to make sure we do not morally bankrupt the church. But what we need the most is personal discipline to guide our Christian living.
When we think about Christian disciplines, we think of matters like regular worship, prayer, Bible study, stewardship, and evangelism. These things are important. We must feed our souls in regular worship and prayer and Bible study. Our spending of money should reflect our beliefs and certainly we should witness to others about Christ. But there is another kind of discipline we need to think about.
Jesus commanded certain behaviors from his followers. Those commands are further elaborated on in the rest of the New Testament. These commands are a form of discipline. Let’s face it, we are inclined to think and act in many ways that are contrary to Scripture. I am my own worst enemy with it comes to the Christian life. I want my natural, innate way on most things and most of the time, that is a bad thing. Our innate behavior and thinking can be changed only if we practice these commands as disciplines.
The kinds of disciplines that I am thinking of are love (yes, love), holiness, compassion, our minds or mental states, and humility, are just some of the disciplines.
Love is a command. Jesus commanded us to love one another. Christian love is not an emotion, but it may certainly be accompanied by emotions. Rather, love is a disposition and a behavior. How are we to love our enemies if it is about emotion? God’s love for us is his disposition toward us. Therefore, God can love us and be angry, or worse wrathful and judgmental. God’s love is freely given but it comes with high expectations to those on whom he pours out his love.
We are commanded to be holy. This is another high expectation for the people of God. Holiness means, among other things, that we are to live separate lives from the world. We cannot behave and think like the secular world and be holy.
Compassion, mercy, kindness should be a common expression of the Christian life. Yet I often “feel” uncompassionate toward others. “They got themselves into this mess.” “They only have themselves to blame.” But love demands our compassion toward others. God’s love for us causes him to act with mercy and compassion toward us. It is a discipline that we must practice if we want to reflect the image of Christ in us.
The discipline of our minds is critical for Christian living. The Apostle Paul talked about disciplining his mind and body. He tells us to put on the mind of Christ. It may be the hardest of the disciplines. But it is practiced every day. Schools teach to improve the minds of their students. Parents instruct their children in the right way to live. We must learn to control our thought world. Jesus said that sin in our thought world was just as sinful as the actions we take. We have to take responsibility for our minds and use them to the glory of God.
I recently wrote about the discipline of humility. It is the forgotten discipline. We need to practice it in our daily lives. Pastors need to be humble. Church members and leaders need to be humble. The opposite of humility is arrogance and it will lead to ineffective leadership and failure in Christian living. God hates the proud but loves the humble. Humility is a virtue that is pressed upon us in Scripture both in the Old Testament and the New Testament.
I hope to deal with these disciplines and perhaps others in the coming weeks. I am slow, so it may take some time. I am also shocked by my failure to live these vital disciplines. So, I am confronted by Scripture and I need to learn to practice these disciplines. But I hope that through it all, God causes you and me to grow in our walk with Christ.