Sharing the Gospel With Un-Churched People

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Lately my ministry has taken a new and notable turn.

I suppose if I wanted to pick a “start date” to the whole thing it would be a couple months ago when a man from our neighborhood walked into our church and decided to start regularly attending.  He and his wife work in law enforcement.  He grew up religious but she did not.  Neither one of them had attended a church in years.  But he was starting a new business venture and his mentors were religious folk who argued that you must have a proper relationship to the Almighty if you are going to succeed.  So he decided to give us a try.  I have been meeting regularly with his family since then and we have become fast friends.

Awhile after that, I received an email that a woman from a sister church had been electrocuted and was now in the burn ward here in town.  I found myself down by the hospital one day so I decided to drop by and say “hi.”  I discovered a rural couple who worked as farmhands and lived, or rather died, from paycheck to paycheck.  Their faith was brand new.  They had only been baptized on Easter Sunday, mere weeks before the accident.  As such, their faith was also fragile and an electrocution had provided an incredible challenge.  I walked out of the hospital that day vowing to see them as often as I possibly could.

Shortly after I got an email out of the blue.  It was from a family who lives 50 miles away from our church’s building.  They were both bookworms and very heady thinkers.  They grew up religious but had since walked away.  Now they were feeling called back so they did what bookworms do, which was a survey of all religious sects ranging from atheism to Islamic fundamentalism.  Somehow the Church of the Nazarene won and they now wanted to meet a Nazarene.  She had read everything on Nazarene.org!  I haven’t even gone to Nazarene.org in the last year.

Then last week I received a phone call from a woman who had just moved to town.  She was young and had been an addict for the last decade.  She met a pastor who introduced her to Jesus, after which she moved here to start a new life.  She needed a church.  She had moved in with some friends who were also former addicts starting a new life and now the group of friends wanted to make church a go, something about a higher power who wanted to freely give to them the self control they needed to live better lives.

So suddenly I am an evangelist, talking to people about Jesus who know nothing about him, or at the very least are very suspect of him and his followers.  Here I am explaining elementary truths of our faith to the unlearned and trying to defend our faith to the unsure and this twice weekly!

But I don’t feel like an evangelist.  Only one of those above groups are in anyway a product of my church’s ministry.  There was no program, no sermon, no outreach event, no bible study that drew these people in.  Instead I did something far more profound.  I answered my phone and replied to emails.

So too, I found that I have not done much of the talking with these four brand new Christians.  Instead I have tried to listen.  That is not always easy for me but it has come more natural in these times.  They all have incredibly different stories and backgrounds but all of them need a listener.  They needed someone to listen while they tried to figure out this new thing called, “faith” and what it meant for their families and lives.  In one conversation, I spent an hour just nodding my head, only saying the occasional, “oh interesting.”

I have walked away from these four groups thinking about ministry programs and practices.  I have all kinds of ideas about how to help their fledgling faith.  There are bible studies we could plug them into.  There is money we could give.  There are programs and outreach events and even church plants that will help connect them and their family members and friends to the work of the Nazarenes.

And yet, whenever I play those ideas out in my head they all end bad.  There is a certain powerlessness to my daydreaming, like imagining nightmares.  After all, I have been in this game long enough to know that church programs are most often the worst thing for a young faith.  In fact I worry that introducing them to more church people would destroy what little faith they had.  Good church people are just not understanding or compassionate enough to new Christians.

But deeper than that is the reality that people don’t need programs.  They don’t need events and they certainly don’t need to be a church’s, or even a Pastor’s, project.  In fact as I have entered hospital rooms and shared a meal with these people, I am all the more convicted that they just need presence.  They need someone who will show up in their hospital room, someone who will drive 50 miles to honestly try to tackle their questions, someone who will invite them over for dinner and games and tell jokes and laugh with them.

When I do that I think I am evangelizing.  I think I am representing the good news that “God is here!”  By showing up I am a parable of Jesus, who himself showed up to tax collectors and sinners.  I stole that idea I stole from Brian Hansen, by the way.

And the good news I share by showing up is, as John Wesley put it, “Best of all, God is with us!”

God is with us in our hospital beds.

God is with us in the depths of the despair of addiction.

God is with us when we start new business ventures.

God is with us when we ask tough and hard and deep questions.

God is with us when we sit around a campfire and make s’mores.

God is with us when we sit around a table and eat dinner together.

God is with us wherever we go and I hope that by showing up I can at least preach that great news.

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Why I Like Paul More Than Jesus (And Why That Might Not Be Good)

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I have been reading and studying the book of Acts since right before Easter.  Other than Revelation, Acts stands alone in its uniqueness compared to other New Testament books.  If Revelation is the blond headed step child of the New Testament, than Acts is the tall, dark and handsome eldest child who seems to do everything well.  What I mean by that is Acts isn’t really one genre but it does all the genres.  If you want epistles, you will find them in Acts.  If you want crazy gospel miracle stories you will find them in Acts.  If you wants sermons, Acts has them in plenty.  And if you want apocalyptic visions, Acts even throws a few in there for you.

But it is not just the weird confluence of biblical genres that makes Acts unique.  Also helping Acts stand alone is its main protagonist, the Apostle Paul.   The famous apostle and letter writer is introduced in the 9th chapter, making the previous 8 seem like prologue.  He becomes the main character in the 12th.  From then on out the book is not so much about the Acts of the Apostles or the Acts of the Early Church but the Acts of the Apostle Paul.

With that said up until last month I had not spent much time studying Acts’ portrayal of Paul.  I have read through Paul’s letters hundreds of times.  I have memorized a few of them.  I have led Bible Studies and sermon series through most of them and even claimed some of Paul’s words as my “life verses.”  I absolutely adore the Apostle Paul.  I even thought for some time of becoming a Pauline Scholar.  This dream was undone by a wonderful and blunt mentor who said, “oh, those are a dime a dozen.”

Still I am a Pauline Scholar, just not in the formal academic  sense.

And yet I have never truly read Paul in Acts.

And yet, to no surprise, as I have studied Acts’ Paul this last month I have fallen even more in love.  The Paul in Acts just as attractive as the Paul who wrote to Philipi, Corinth and Ephesus.

Speaking of Ephesus, Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 is beautiful, every bit as beautiful as his letters.  I am planning on preaching on it in a couple weeks and excited for that sermon.  So too is Paul in Athens.  He begins his sermon there with a very typical Pauline sarcastic insult and then weaves it into greater truth.

As far as studying the Bible goes, this has been a great month!

But therein lies the problem.  You see, I stand in the now old Protestant tradition who has placed the words of Paul above the words of Jesus.  At first the Protestants claimed “Sola Scriptura.”  Then they began claiming “Sola Paul” and then “Sola Romans.”  In fact I have spoken and read books by several biblical inerrantists who claim that the rest of the Bible has to be true only so that we know that Romans is true.  None of Scripture is formational except Romans.  It just helps us prove Paul knew what Paul was talking about.

At one point several people have even said that nothing Jesus said was binding for us.  Jesus just preached the sermons to show us how hard earning our justification by works was so that we would listen to Paul in Romans.

Under that thinking we shouldn’t love God or our neighbor or our enemies.  We shouldn’t pray in prayer closets.  We definitely shouldn’t mimic the good Samaritan or the prodigal’s father.  Silly Jesus was just letting us know how hard it is so that we wouldn’t do anything he told us to do.

I was raised in this tradition and so it is of no surprise that when Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:24) I laugh it off as silly Jesus just setting us up for failure.  But when Paul says, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Eph. 2:8) I yell a hearty “amen!”

I am not implying we set up a dichotomy between Paul and Jesus.  Paul words are sacred Scripture and it is because I believe that, that I also truly believe he was following in the very teachings of Jesus and even pleads with his audience to “follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)

If you read Romans 12-15, you find it is nothing but a sermon about the sermon on the mount.  This comes after all the saved by grace stuff in Romans 5-8 which implies that the saved soul follows Jesus’ teachings, and yes it is not the other way around.  We are not saved by following Jesus’ teachings.  To put it perhaps too simplistically we are saved to follow Jesus’ teachings.

Or to put it another way, true Paul scholars should never minimize the teachings of Jesus, only maximize them in their lives.  A good reading of Paul should cause us to stop, reflect and then flip back a few books to the gospels and read Jesus again.

Speaking of reading Jesus, it is only fitting that I close with these very true words of His from Matthew 5:19: “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Christian Fundamentalism Part 3: What is the Harm?

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This post is the third in a four part series based off of my very real interactions with Christian fundamentalists.  You can read posts one and two here and here.

Two days ago I wrote about my real life experiences with fundamentalists and defined them for the purposes of this conversation as those Christians among us who believe in the absolute inerrancy of Scripture and that 1950s America was the perfect expression of God’s kingdom.

The question that inspired these posts was, “what is it about fundamentalists that makes me so eager to hate and judge them?”  As I pondered that question it led to a greater question:  “What actual harm are fundamentalists doing to the world and to Christianity?”  Yesterday I answered the first question by saying, “there is not much that deserves my eager angst.”  Today’s and tomorrow’s posts are the answers I have arrived at to that second question.

I believe there is real harm being done by the fundamentalists among us.  As I have interacted with them I find that they are doing harm to the Christian doctrine they claim to defend and to the fellow Christians they try to convert to their thinking.  Today I will talk about the harm to greater Christian doctrine.  Tomorrow I will talk about the practical, personal ways they violate others.

First I want to tell about a conversation I had with one of the most hardcore fundamentalists in town.  Like most of my conversations with fundamentalists it began with me complimenting him and ended with him insulting me and calling me not Christian.  The conversation began by me sharing that I feel like some Christians worship Scripture instead of Jesus.  He was baffled by that comment because, as he explained, “Scripture is the Word of God and Jesus is the Word of God so Scripture is Jesus and we must worship Scripture.”  I was shocked by that statement, not only because Scripture never calls itself the Word of God but always reserves that title for Jesus but also because it proved to me that fundamentalists really believe that the Bible is God.

By contrast, in historical Christianity Jesus has always been the absolute revelation of who God is.  After Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit continued and continues to reveal Jesus in several means.  Scripture over time (a lot of time) became the primary (but not the only) way the Holy Spirit reveals Jesus to us.  And in my tradition, it is a necessary book to keep the church from getting off track.  By metaphor it is the chief tool in our tool belt and we desperately need it because without the Bible a congregation is a carpenter without a hammer or a barber without scissors or a writer without a computer.

But the Bible cannot do for us what Jesus did on the cross and the Bible cannot replace the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth using many means.  Scripture can only remind us about what Jesus did and encourage us to enter into life giving relationship with Jesus through the other means of grace.  Those means are things like prayer, congregational worship, Christian conversation, academic study, and exercise, among many others.  They, along with Scripture, sustain our right relationships with God and others.

But for fundamentalists Scripture is God, particularly King James’ Version of it.  It is God’s arm instead of the church’s hammer or scissors or computer.  They think Scripture is fully God, or at least the only part revealed to us.  Thus Scripture becomes the only work of the Holy Spirit and fundamentalists end up with no room for Jesus or the Holy Spirit.  To them God is just a book and interestingly a book they talk a lot about but seldom ever read (but that is another post for another day).

Then they read Scripture as if it provides correct logic to us.  But logic will not save the world in the way that the very human and very God, Jesus saves the world.  I have not had one honest debate with a fundamentalist that didn’t end with their insistence that if you think the wrong thing about God you are going to hell.  So their evangelism often takes the form of displaying right logic instead of Godly love.  But Scripture, the very Scripture they claim to protect, claims that people will only know Christ by our love.  It is not doctrine or logic that saves us, except the doctrine and logic of right relationship with God and neighbor and enemy.

Therefore Scripture, in their thinking is God itself, a God who is as small as a logical system and cannot do anything but be words on a page.  Put another way, they don’t use Scripture to worship God made flesh.  They worship Scripture as God made paper.

To end with another story that illustrates these points, the Baptist church in town sent out a mailer that invited people to come to their events.  The mailer was a wonderful idea with the church’s calendar of events and mission statement.  It even had a letter from their pastor that spent three paragraphs explaining how their church was all about Scripture:  How Scripture tells us how to be better parents and how to manage our finances and all the right rules and wisdom to live a happy life.  But not once did the pastor or the entire packet mention Jesus.  The church seemingly doesn’t need Jesus because they have the Bible.  For them evangelism isn’t about introducing people to Jesus.  It is about introducing people to Scripture.

But what Christianity has always had to offer is not petty moralisms or God given self helps or divinely revealed logic.  We have always offered the very presence of the resurrected Christ through the Holy Spirit.  But fundamentalists believe they have all they need in the sacred words of Scripture, so they don’t need or want Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

This is how the fundamentalists are killing themselves.  They cut themselves off from the presence of Jesus by choosing to worship the created Scriptures instead of the creator God.  And now they have empty doctrine that cannot sustain itself.

Come back tomorrow to see how this plays out practically.