How People Grow

Churches want to help people grow. I can’t think of any church that would overtly say they want people to attend their services, hear their sermons, participate in their programs, and walk away unchanged. This is one thing most churches are united in—their desire to see their people transformed.

The real question is how to facilitate transformation. When I asked about the stereotypical “churchy” ways that churches try to get people to change, the immediate answer was guilt, followed by fear and a few other negative ideas. Unfortunately, that is often what churches are known for. And while Jesus was in the business of seeing people transformed, he certainly didn’t seem to use guilt as a primary tool.

Take, for example, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. Though this famously short man was a chief tax collector and wealthy (read in our day, an accomplished swindler and oppressor), Jesus invites himself over to his house for dinner—a gesture of friendship and acceptance. Without guilting him, manipulating him, or threatening him, Zacchaeus experiences a sudden transformation in the way he related to him money. He went from greedy to generous in (seemingly) 6.7 seconds—without any of those "churchy" techniques of manipulation.

There are three shifts we need to make in the way we approach growth:

1.    From Guilt to Grace

Though Jesus wasn’t “soft on sin,” (after all, he called sinners sick and in need of a doctor), he did not lead with guilt or make his main message “you’re not good enough.” His friendship with sinners created an atmosphere in which real transformation could take place. This is true not only at the beginning of our relationship with God, but throughout our lives. Grace is a better motivator for change than guilt. That does not mean that it is unhealthy to feel guilt (or conviction) when we’ve done something wrong. Nor does it mean that there is never a time to confront each other on bad behaviour (see Galatians 6:1). But guilt should not be the primary message or motivator the church uses to help people grow.

2.    From Legalism to Love

When asked what the most important commandments were, Jesus famously replied that they were to love God and love others (see Matthew 22:36-40). God’s desire is (and always has been) for people to love him freely, and to demonstrate that love in their relationships with others (and themselves). The “rules” of Christianity are not the point—they are simply a way to express our love for God. A gardener provides a trellis in order to give a path for the growth of a vine. A trellis does not cause growth, it is not the essence of the plant, it simply shapes it. In the same way, rules are not the essence of what God wants from us, and knowing them certainly does not cause us to grow. However, as love for God and others grows inside of us, the “rules” give clear path on which transformation may grow. Of course, sometimes love pushes us beyond the rules, just like it did with Zacchaeus (who, while legally required only to add 20% to his restitution, offers 400% voluntarily).

3.    From Human Effort to the Holy Spirit

The Bible is not a self-help manual, and the Christian faith is not meant to be undertaken alone. The presence, guidance, and empowerment of the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to transformation in our lives. The Scriptures promise that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on until completion” (Philippians 1:6). Our temptation is to trust less in God’s work inside of us, and more in our own ability to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Paul scolds the Galatian church for slipping into legalism and human effort: “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). He goes on to describe a life of keeping in step (cooperating) with the Spirit, a life that will naturally produce “fruit” like love, joy, patience, peace, etc. We must not forget that the Holy Spirit is in charge of the renovation of our life, and he supplies the plans, the agenda, and the tools to make us into the people he wants us to be. Our job is simply to show up and do the work when and where he asks us to contribute.

You can check out my sermon on this topic here.

Are there other changes churches should make in their approach to helping people transform?

Us vs. Them

A few weeks ago we started a teaching series called “Church Without the Curchiness.” Perhaps not surprisingly, people readily understood what was meant by “churchy”—and it wasn’t good. Most of the words we came up with (such as hypocritical, judgmental, boring, holier-than-thou, etc.) were not words anyone would use to describe Jesus—and they shouldn’t describe his followers, either.

Our first topic in this series had to do with the church’s attitude toward the world around it. “Churchy” postures toward outsiders often fall into one of three categories: hostile, indifferent, or appeasing. Each of these may be rooted in a desire to please God, but they can become distortions that are far from the kind of relationship Jesus had with “outsiders.”

In order to be the kind of church he intended, we need turn away from these “churchy” ways of relating to the world, and toward a more Christ-like posture. We need to shift:

1.     From Hostility to Servanthood

Too often the church views the people in the world around it as the enemy and takes on a posture of hostility toward them. While the New Testament often uses harsh language to describe our relationship with the world (e.g. 1 John 2:15), it is referring to the world’s values and systems, not its people. Jesus’ posture toward the world (people) was not one of enmity, but servanthood. He came to serve (Mark 10:45), which means he came to meet real needs—to benefit others. Of course, the ultimate act of servanthood was giving his life on the cross, but this was not the only way he served. He spent a lot of time working as a carpenter/builder, training disciples, and healing the sick. He earned a reputation as someone who “went around doing good” (Acts 10:38). Far from just a way to kill time until he could get to the real business of dying, servanthood was a way of life that demonstrated the love of God in tangible ways. The church should likewise find ways to “do good,” and benefit the community it finds itself in.

2.     From Indifference to Love

Many churches act as if the outside world doesn’t exist. They rarely engage with secular culture, fail to build relationships with non-Christians, and insulate themselves in the Christian bubble. They schedule their lives so full of “church stuff” that they have no time or emotional energy to interact in any meaningful way with their neighbours, coworkers, or those who live in their town or city. The opposite of love is not hate (which at least carries a sense of passion with it), but apathy. One of the most famous verses in the Bible says that God “loved the world” (John 3:16). Churches are called to emulate that love in a way that is not willing to sit back and watch it “go to hell in a handbasket,” as if it had nothing to do with us. Ignoring the world around us is just not an option.

3.     From appeasing culture to counterculture.

Sometimes churches are tempted to give into the world around them, to take on its, values, morals, worldview, and every whim of society. Sometimes this is a sort of peer pressure (we want to be like everyone else so we can fit in), and sometimes it is an outreach strategy (we want to seem like everyone else so they can hear our message). Either way, the last thing the world around us needs are Christians who live exactly the same lifestyle as everyone else. We are called to be countercultural, to offer an alternative to “the empty way of life handed down from our ancestors” (1 Peter 1:18).

Jesus calls us to be “the light of the world,” (Matt 5:14-16), but too often churches have hidden under a basket—either because they saw the outside world as the enemy, or they were simply content to light up their own little space. To be the kind of bright light Jesus intended, we need to take our place on the lamp stand, and allow our light to be a gift to those around us. We need to “let [our] light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

ADVENT REFLECTIONS 2016: WEEK ONE

God With Us – To Make Himself Known

The following readings are designed help you slow down, reflect on the meaning of Christmas, and continue to interact with Sunday's message which can be found here.


DAY 1:
Read Isaiah 9:1-7, a prophesy from about 700 years before the birth of Jesus.
What does the passage have to say about the identity of the child that would someday be born?
Reflect on the four descriptive terms: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. How did Jesus fulfill each of these titles?
What were to be the results of this child’s birth? What would change because of him?

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DAY 2:
Read John 5:16-30, a piece of a conversation Jesus is having with religious leaders about his rights to heal on the Sabbath day (when work was forbidden).
What does Jesus say about his relationship with the Father?
Jesus talks about two implications of his divine identity: the ability to give life, and the responsibility to judge. How did his subsequent death on the cross add further meaning to what he says here?
Verse 19 describes something like “Simon says” taking place between Jesus and his Father. How closely are you following what God wants you to do? What would happen in your life, our church, and our world if we could do a better job as imitating God’s movements?  


DAY 3:
Read Colossians 1:15-20, part of a letter the apostle Paul wrote to an early church.
What specific things does this passage say about the identity of Jesus? 
What does this passage say about what Jesus came to accomplish? How were his identity & purpose connected?
Think about the tiny newborn lying in the manger 2000 year ago, and read the passage again, reflecting on the miracle of the incarnation.


DAY 4:
Read John 14:5-21, part of Jesus’ farewell speech to his twelve disciples.
What can we learn from this passage about the relationship of Jesus to the Father and to the Spirit?
What do you think Jesus meant when he said those who believed in him would do the works he did, and even greater things? 
Reflect on the last verse in this passage. Has Jesus showed himself to you?


DAY 5:
Read Philippians 2:1-8, in which Paul encourages early Christian’s to imitate the humility of Jesus.
The phrase in v. 7 “he made himself nothing” could also be rendered “he emptied himself.” What do you think this entailed? What did Jesus have to give up in order to become human?
Why is it significant to us that Jesus took on the nature of a servant? How did he demonstrate this?
What have you given up in order to follow Jesus? What have you gained? How might God be calling you to follow in Jesus’ footsteps?

Submitting to God in Prayer (and Life)

Submission is an essential aspect of a healthy relationship with God, but it can seem foreign in today’s culture.

This is because we live in a society that values (or is trying to value) equality. Though some are still hungry for power, for the most part our culture believes that one person is not better than another. We have come a long way toward viewing one another as brothers and sisters. With this rise of equality, the concepts of submission and authority are waning. As teachers and retail managers can confirm, the impulse to submit is fading fast.

So I am aware that when I talk about submission in our relationship with God, it may ruffle a few feathers. People may associate that word with the injustices and imbalances of patriarchy. And yet, how else could we approach the eternal Creator of the universe but in a posture of humble submission? Anything else would not only be arrogant, but ludicrous. When a human being approaches God, it is not a relationship of equals. Submission is necessary and proper.

The Greek word for submit used in the New Testament means “to arrange under,” and was used to describe the way that soldiers were “arranged under” a military commander. To submit to God is to arrange our lives in such a way that they are “under” God—under his leadership, under his authority, under his rule. To submit means to allow his will to become our top priority. This is what Jesus is teaching when he instructs his disciples to pray, “may your kingdom come, may your will be done.” To pray in this way is to arrange our own wills and kingdoms under God’s.

How can we incorporate submission into a balanced prayer life? First, it is important to note that the intention to submit is as different from actual submission as wedding vows are from an actual marriage. No matter how many times you submit your life to God in prayer, if it doesn’t come out in your actions, your words are meaningless.

Submission needs to be lived out in real time as we go about our day. In the same way that a labourer on a construction site will keep returning to the boss to ask what he or she should do next, we should constantly be asking what God wants us to do next. Regularly asking God, “what now?” is a short, simple way to incorporate submission into your prayer life.

Much of the time when we ask God what he wants us to do, we intuitively know the answer. Even without a voice from heaven we can do whatever is loving, humble, pure, obedient, helpful, selfless, and healthy—with some confidence that we are doing his will.

But when it is unclear, it’s important to listen for God’s voice nudging us in the right direction. God does this in many ways. He speaks through the Scriptures, whether it is general teachings or a “just-in-time” verse that pops out at you. God may use other people to speak, whether the wisdom of a friend, a sermon or book, or a miraculous message from God. God can speak through circumstances, by closing or opening doors, or sending an unmistakable coincidence. Or he may speak directly to our hearts, through a word or phrase that enters our thoughts seemingly from the outside, or an unexplainable sense of peace (or anxiety) about a certain course of action. It can be frustrating to try to learn how to hear God’s voice, but it is essential to remember that our job is to ask and listen—it’s God’s job to answer, which he will do in his own time, using his own method.

Submission really is that simple. It’s arranging our lives under God by regularly asking him what he wants us to do, and doing it. Three words capture the gist, words we should incorporate into our relationship with God moment by moment:

“What now?”

“Okay.”

Please and Thank You

More than simple manners, to say “please” is to ask without demanding, to recognize that a positive response relies on the good graces of the one who is addressed. And to say “thank you” is to formally acknowledge that someone has given you something beyond what you deserved (unless you are just being polite).

For most of us, these are among the first words we learn when we are toddlers. It is especially important for children to know these words because they live in a state of continually dependency. They are completely reliant on their parents and caregivers for all they receive, and so "please" and "thank you" must be an early and regular part of their vocabulary.

But as children grow into adults, they naturally find fewer occasions to use these words (though hopefully they don’t forget them altogether!). Healthy people learn to rely on themselves and become more independent. Maturity is becoming less and less dependent on parents and other authority figures, and learning self-reliance and establishing give and take relationships with equals.

However, the opposite is true in our relationship with God. To grow in our relationship with God, we must learn to rely more and more on his grace and love. We begin to understand that there is nothing we can offer him that he truly needs, and so everything is to be received as an undeserved gift from his hand. We move away from independence, and toward greater dependence.

This is why saying please and thank you are so essential to a healthy prayer life (the technical terms are supplication and thanksgiving). And they’re not reserved for desperate situations and holidays. The Scriptures make it clear we’re to present our requests to God “in every situation,” (Phil 4:6) and that we’re to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess 5:18).
That sounds like a day shouldn’t go by where we don’t ask God for something and thank him for something. Probably not even an hour.

Jesus said that this lifestyle of asking and receiving would lead to full joy (John 16:24). The apostle Paul said it would lead to a peace beyond understanding (Phil 4:7). But the essence of a daily pattern of saying please and thank you is that it develops our sense of dependence on God, and moves us away from the independence that we naturally gravitate to.

Try it. Ask and receive.

Say please and thank you every every day, and see how your relationship with God grows.

For more, listen to last Sunday’s sermon.