Last week I was hanging out with a ninja and an angel, soliciting candy donations from the neighbors. At one of these homes we were engaging in conversation, but the residents seemed a little nervous. I would be nervous if a ninja was at my door too, so I didn’t think too much of it. Then I noticed the husband of this lovely couple quickly grab something off the table and stealthily slide it into each of my kids’ sacks–I think he may have been a ninja in street clothes. It sure looked like a piece of paper.
When we got home the kids were sorting through their sugary loot when one of them held up a piece of paper and said, what’s this? I only needed a quick glance to determine the answer–it was a tract. It was comic book-style, featuring an arrogant golfer, but even comic books can’t compete with candy on Halloween.
St. Francis saved me during my teenage years. I still remember the feeling the first time someone shared his sage wisdom with me–“Preach the gospel always, if necessary, use words.” (Imagine my shock when years later I found out it is unlikely St. Francis ever said this! Oh well, I’m sure someone said it sometime.) This quippy saying lifted a heavy weight off my shoulders. See, I had been brought up to believe that I actually had to talk to people about my faith. I was given a whole tool belt of evangelistic methods–from the Romans Road to the cross on a napkin illustration. But the truth is, I dreaded the thought of actually engaging someone with one of these. The closest I came in high school was a five second “conversation” on the back of a bus headed for a tennis match.
But once I saw the light of “lifestyle evangelism” the weight lifted. I realized that I didn’t really have to tell anyone about Jesus, I just had to show people the gospel with how I lived. Yeah, I didn’t do such a good job of that either, but whenever a friend or youth pastor said we should share our faith I could quickly retort, “Well, it’s most important we share the gospel by how we live.” Bam!
My kids have experienced gravity from the time they were born. Neither of them emerged from the womb only to float to the ceiling. Sometimes they’ve learned about gravity the hard way–like falling off a bike or being hit by a ball that was tossed into the air. Despite their undeniable indoctrination into the law of gravity, there was a day when we read a book about gravity and then had a conversation about how it worked. They had experienced it, but they didn’t know its name, how it worked, or why it worked. However, when they heard about it they had no problem believing it because they had experienced it in an undeniable way. To really know gravity they needed someone to tell them about it, but if things were floating around the room when they heard they might have thought gravity was a load of crap.
The tract in my kids Halloween bag and my misappropriation of the gospel preached through lifestyle are equally problematic. One assumes the gospel is merely a proposition to be believed without the flesh of relationships and community or the commitment of being a disciple of the King. The gospel of lifestyle assumes the gospel is purely about actions and that there is nothing to be proclaimed or explained. The life and practice of Jesus severely dispute both of these approaches.
There is a time and place to proclaim the gospel when relational engagement is impossible for a variety of reasons. There are times when we need to love people with the love of Jesus without speaking anything of our faith or the name of Jesus. However, neither of these should be our default. Rather, as followers of Jesus we should live our lives individually and collectively in such a way that when we are able to authentically share about our hope in Jesus people respond like my kids did to gravity. They have no trouble believing it because they have undeniably seen and experienced its truth.
Lately I’ve been thinking about bags of gold. Not because I have real ones or because I’m dreaming of getting rich or because I fear the end of the world and the complete devaluation of currency–no, it’s because of a parable of Jesus. The one where he talks about the master who leaves for a long time, but before he does he gives his servants some of his money to invest however they see fit. Two of the servants do a bang-up job and the master praises them when he returns. The third just hides the money and gives it back to the master. The master isn’t so excited about that approach.
The point of the parable is that God entrusts us with things and wants us to be good stewards of them. There is a weight to responsibility. To whom much is given, much is required. I feel I’ve been given much in many ways, but recently I’ve been especially confronted with two, both having to do with kids.
The first is my own kids. I am the father and one of the primary influencers of two actual human beings. I do not control them, but I believe I will be held accountable for how well I love, encourage, support, empower, and at times correct them. I want them to know me as someone who is on their side, not by their side nagging. I want them to see that I am passionate about Jesus, their mom, them, and each moment of life I’m given. I could focus on the ways I fail, and I certainly think about those, but I’m more challenged to take hold of my responsibility by living a life of love, joy, and hope in front of them on a daily basis. You can’t fake that.
The second place I’ve been feeling the weight of responsibility is at our church. One of the great parts of Trailhead is that over half of our church is under the age of 18. There are a lot of kids running around! As a pastor I feel the weight of responsibility for helping those kids experience the love of Jesus, discover how to follow him, and to empower them as full participants in the community of faith. It is a joy to work at this alongside a bunch of talented, godly adults. It is something I so desperately want to do well. There is so much on the line.
I wouldn’t give up either of these responsibilities. There is weight to them but there is also so much joy. I love the purpose and challenge that come from each of them. Both of these responsibilities push me to continue growing as a person and follower of Jesus and to think creatively about how to steward these gifts well.
God has given us all responsibilities. These are gifts and opportunities. Like the first two servants in Jesus’ parable, I hope we meet them with intention, creativity, and joy on a daily basis.
Last night at soccer practice we were working on passing the ball to someone instead of whatever direction they happened to be facing. These are the kind of demanding practices you have to run with first and second graders. One of the boys was having an especially hard time. Each time they missed the target with a pass they had to take a short run to the fence that encircles the field and back. This boy missed four times in a row, and none of them were close. His eyes began to well up with tears of frustration. So we stopped the drill and I took a couple minutes to work just with him on some mechanics. On his next pass he knocked it right through the cones. He did that a few times in a row before finally missing again. We celebrated his improvement (which brought a huge smile to his face) but still made him run to the fence when he missed. After the encouragement it’s amazing how quickly he ran and how great his attitude was.
I’ve had the nagging sense for a while now that the Christian community as a whole is like a coach who watches his players during practice in a couple ways.
First, we often expect people to live a faith far beyond their understanding or ability. Imagine if I told the first and second graders they needed to juggle the ball fifty times before they could leave. After all, good soccer players can do that. So many Christian books, sermons, and small groups are focused on fantastic acts and sacrifices we are called to as followers of Jesus. We should stay up all night to pray. We should go serve in the poorest places in the world. We should at least teach a class.
Now I affirm that the call to follow Jesus is deep and costly. Jesus even said we should count the cost to make sure we can follow through before committing to follow him. And I agree that we often lower the bar so much on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus that it doesn’t resemble the biblical witness. However, I don’t see much out there that promotes a deep and faithful presence in the life people are living. It’s either “hope to see you at church once a month” or “you need to get a radical faith and fast for 40 days!” People can do amazing things in the strength of God. Sometimes those amazing things look like a first grader finally getting the ball between the cones.
The Christian community is also at times like a coach who never affirms the improvement of his players. We teach, guide, and challenge people to put their faith into practice. They step out and try and then we question why they aren’t doing something more. In failing to affirm the growth and transformation that’s happening, especially when it is slow, we discourage people from continuing the race. The boy on our soccer team needed to have his success pointed out. The people in our churches need that too. They need to know we see more patience, compassion, and love in them than we used to. They need to know that serving meals to the homeless was a good first step. Too often we focus on the fact that these things are not a sufficient end. We do need to encourage people to greater depths of faithfulness and service, but we need to celebrate the growth that is happening too.
Our faith is one that calls for radical obedience. It is also a faith that walks faithfully with people in the process–encouraging and admonishing.
In his book, The Seven Faith Tribes, George Barna identified the largest group of self-identified Christians in the United States as “casual Christians.” After the recent Pew Forum study on religion found the number of people saying they have no religious affiliation rising, Ed Stetzer said the number of “cultural Christians” in the United States is declining. I think the decrease in casual or cultural Christians is a good thing, those monikers don’t even really make sense.
I love golfing. I enjoy the stillness, the relaxed pace, and taking out any lingering frustration on a golf ball. But no one would mistake me for a serious golfer. I only go a couple times a year. Recently a friend gave me a pair of golf shoes, but before that I wore tennis shoes. I swing fifteen-year-old clubs I got used. My dad bought the putter I wield at a garage sale for two dollars, when I was seven. I don’t mind if people talk while I’m hitting a shot, and I don’t spend much time lining up my putts. In every way my approach to the game of golf is casual.
When we’re casual about something we don’t expend much energy on it. Casual walks don’t wear anyone out. Casual afternoons don’t include doing your taxes. It’s good to have casual times in life. Without them you’d be so high-strung you’d end up talking like Hulk Hogan. But there are consequences to being casual about something.
You don’t master things you take casually. No casual cook has ever been hired as a chef at a five-star restaurant. I’ve yet to hear anyone referred to as an elite casual athlete. Being casual leads to mediocrity at best.
We’re not passionate about the casual things in our lives. One of the things I care about most in life is my family. I am deeply committed to being the best husband and father I can be. I spend casual time with my family, but I’m not casual about them. I am fully invested in making sure my family feels loved, cared for, and supported.
When Christianity is casual for someone there’s a problem.
“Are you going to church this Sunday?”
“I don’t know. I’ll see if I feel like it. I might be up late Saturday night.”
“What about prayer meeting?”
“Oh, I don’t think so. It’s so early in the morning, and besides, there are only three or four there so it feels a bit awkward.”
“Well how is your personal time with God?”
“It’s fine, we have an understanding. I don’t expect too much of him and he doesn’t expect too much of me.”
I know that being a follower of Jesus is not about going to a church service, or a prayer meeting, or reading the Bible, or any other singular activity. At the same time, the lives of so many who call themselves Christians are marked by an absolute lack of anything that looks like serious commitment. In what other area of life can you claim to be committed to something with no evidence to back it up? When someone joins the military they have to show up at boot camp, get a new haircut, and structure their life around a new schedule. A person who says they are committed to living healthy and never exercises is a liar. Life as a disciple of Jesus is not about attendance at any program or gathering, but life as a disciple of Jesus is one of high commitment and that should show up somewhere. It isn’t casual.
Men and women in other parts of the world risk their lives to meet together in the name of Jesus, pray, and study the Scriptures. Doing those activities is not the point any more than it is in the United States, but they know they can’t grow in their faith without being intentional. Their lives reflect their commitment to be disciples of Jesus. They are willing to give up their lives if it comes to that. Many American Christians aren’t willing to give up their favorite television shows to meet together, pray, and study the Scriptures. People don’t think it’s odd to approach new life in Jesus Christ like golf on the weekend.
Can you imagine Jesus being okay with casual Christianity? “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and chill out together, or on your own if you don’t feel like being around people. When you get a couple free minutes remember what I taught you. But don’t go out of your way.”
We serve a God who has triumphed over sin and death. He is with us by his Spirit every minute of every day, ready to empower us to live out the new life he has given us. So if casual Christianity is declining, I’m all for it.
One of the jobs we give our kids is dusting. They are surprisingly willing to do it, but not surprisingly it’s not usually done well the first time. They take their dusting cloths and go over the obvious surfaces, getting everything that’s easy. But the nooks and crannies of the furniture seldom get touched on the first run. We need to “encourage” them to go back and get the hard to reach places.
Discipleship is about every nook and crannie of your life. God doesn’t want to transform fifty percent of you and leave the other fifty percent alone. Being a disciple means learning to live your entire life as a disciple of Jesus—work, family, alone time, friendships, recreation, volunteering, finances, and the list goes on.
Most people who identify themselves as Christians offer at least a few obvious places to God—a couple hours on Sunday morning, a yearly retreat, maybe a few minutes each morning for devotions. However, many people never consider how being a disciple of Jesus affects their job, weekend activities, or how they spend money. And even fewer get into the real nooks and crannies like how being a disciple of Jesus impacts their purpose in life, goals they hope to achieve, or what things serve as invisible idols.
Being a disciple of Jesus means opening your whole life to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. You don’t get to follow Jesus at church and with your family while following the American dream in your career and when deciding on purshaces. As Jesus said, you can’t serve both God and money.
We tend to hide things in the nooks and crannies—things we don’t want anyone else to see—even things we want to keep hidden from ourselves. But being a disciple requires bringing it all into the light of Jesus to be revealed and refined. Disciples of Jesus work at bringing one-hundred percent of their lives under his authority.
I have a confession to make. During the Vice-Presidential debate I broke a promise I made to myself. I had firmly decided to use all my self-control to avoid responding to the political drivel posted on twitter and Facebook. I don’t mean that it’s all drivel. In fact, I enjoy some of the commenting that happens during the debates. I don’t agree with some of my friends who think commenting on politics via social media is inherently inflammatory. I appreciate the thoughtful comments–and the funny ones. What I can’t stand is the same thing I can’t stand in the debates and the campaigns in general–derogatory statements coming from people so partisan they wouldn’t vote for the other party if Jesus was running (this is a critique of our allegiance to political parties, not an insult aimed at tearing down a person or people).
So as we head into the second debate and the last few weeks of the campaign, I am asking–no begging–those of you who call yourselves followers of Jesus to do a few things as you post about politics.
- Remember that all people are created in the image of the God you worship. When you defame, hurl insults, and demean them it is an offense against God. All people have immeasurable value, regardless of their political party.
- Be fair. I know that politics is an important arena of society and I don’t think Christians should ignore it. But before you post something consider whether it is a fair characterization of the side you disagree with.
- Be honest about the places where your candidate/party doesn’t line up very well with the way of Jesus. No one will think less of you for it.
- Think the best of those who disagree with you. Just as neither Barack or Mitt is trying to ruin our country, neither are those who want to vote for them.
- Keep perspective. The election is important but neither candidate will save or damn us. We have only one Savior and our hope should be in him, not a man running for office.
- Post things that are helpful. That’s a surefire way to set yourself apart!
For more on faith and politics check out my political platform.
Friday night we were studying and discussing Acts 2:42-47 in our Community Group. This is a passage I’ve read at least 100 times–it’s a passage that has shaped my thinking and the life of our family (don’t read that as saying we practice it perfectly, only that we strive in that direction). But this time the phrase that stuck out to me was “Everyday they continued to meet together…”.
American church culture often runs the opposite direction of this passage. We pride ourselves on not being so rigid as to expect any more than connection with the church body once or twice a month (and here I am not just or even primarily talking about church services!). We get excited when someone goes to a small group meeting and a service project in the same month. We downplay the importance of consistency in connecting with a community of faith. We joke that “regular attenders” are people who show up to something once a month.
I think we do this because our hearts aren’t right. We have somehow learned to use the number of times we gather as a test of legalism rather than passion. Those early Christians didn’t gather everyday–to worship, share meals, pray–because they wanted to get perfect attendance. They did it because they knew their young faith relied on their connection to each other and to God. They wanted to be together. They wanted to worship. They wanted to pray. We often see these things as obligations to be avoided or things we fit in when our busy schedules allow for it.
The point here is not what our times together look like. It could be a church service, a shared dinner, a small group, or birthday party, or whatever (it would be best if it meant all these things). The point is to ask the question–do we view being with other believers in the context of worship, growing relationships, and mission as essential or optional?
This hit me in regard to the way I lead as a pastor. I realized that I often say things like, “just make it when you can,” or “Christianity isn’t about church services.” While my intentions are to paint a faith that is active and growing everyday, not just once a week, and to not guilt people into gathering, what it communicates is that gathering isn’t important. But gathering is important. We need to be together on a regular basis. We need to share meals, to do service projects, to have Bible studies, to worship together, and more. Our commitment to being together regularly–even as much as possible–is essential to our growth as disciples of Jesus and our love for one another and the world. So personally I’m going to work hard on holding up the value of gathering together–whatever form that takes–rather than downplaying it.
A commitment to gathering together will require the sacrifice of other good things. It might mean going to the mountains Saturday afternoon instead of Sunday morning. It might mean inviting others over to watch the football game with me instead of just hanging out alone. It might mean getting together with people to pray even though it makes me feel uncomfortable. It certainly will mean laying down our busyness, individualism, and desire to do what’s easy. It means discovering what it means to live life together as the body of Christ for His glory and the sake of the world.
As we woke up to snow this morning my wife jumped into action assembling the kids’ snow gear so they could head outside when they woke up to enjoy it before it melted. She had most of it together but couldn’t find my daughter’s coat. After ten minutes of searching I asked if it was possible that she had left it outside the night before. We glanced out the window into the backyard and sure enough, there it was, covered in snow. Knowing our daughter this wasn’t a big surprise. She constantly leaves things laying around when she tires of them. There are four pairs of random shoes in the backyard, one pair of sandals in the front, mermaid dolls in the living room, shoes and coats strewn about by the doors, and a bedroom light that is almost never off. After sharing all of this with her mom who is staying with us, my wife said, “There’s just always a huge trail of Ayla.”
Great description. You can tell where Ayla’s been because of the trail of clothes, toys, and lights stuck in the on position. My wife’s comment stuck with me because I thought it was funny. Later this morning for some reason I began thinking about this idea in my own life. What kind of trail am I leaving behind? Not so much with things laying around the house (though I am guilty of that at times) but in life as a whole. Is the trail I leave one of compassion, joy, hope, laughter and love or one of angst, fear, sadness, and hurt. I’m going to think about that this week as I interact with people–to see what kind of trail I’m leaving behind.