Monday, February 11, 2019 -
I spent well over an hour yesterday evening with my brother and fellow disciple, “C.” He’d spent a fair amount of time studying Ephesians on Sunday and had lots of questions he wanted to ask me. This gives me more joy than anything else here in prison, and I can spend hours at a time answering questions and talking about God’s Word!
The conversation took many twists and turns, and we ended up talking a lot about “C’s” childhood, upbringing, family, and the very different culture, or environment, he came out of. This always ends up very educational for me, and the questions are battled back and forth. For example, when I asked if “C” felt his life would have been different if at age 15 he’d chosen to stay with his foster parents and allowed them to adopt him as they desired, he said, “Yes, totally different. I probably would have never set foot in prison, but I know it wasn’t God’s plan for me. Because if I hadn’t come to prison, I’d have never become a Christian, and I believe this is a new beginning for both you and me, a new direction for our lives.”
Neither one of us have a clue what that new path is that God is choosing for us, but we must be open no matter, and we are!
Somehow the conversation turned to youth who are today in the same predicament he was. He told me stories of encountering kids he’d befriended who were being tormented by mothers who were drug addicts, none of whom had a manly role model in their lives. Yet no one, no church, no Christian, no Christian group, did anything to help rescue the mother or the child. Nobody ever told them about Jesus. Any money gotten was poured into the mother’s drug habit, and the children were left to suffer in sheer poverty.
So where is the church? Christ is the only answer for a drug addict and their families. Yet we, as comfortable Christians, sitting in our comfortable pews or padded chairs, more often than not neglect these who are unable to help themselves. You and I have the only answer for a growing crisis that is taking 72,000 American lives a year, including that of “C’s” sisters and the mother of one of his six children, who both died of a heroin overdose.
After leaving “C’s” cell, rather heartbroken over this dichotomy that I’d never really focused on, I picked up the February 2, 2019 issue of WORLD Magazine, which featured an article about the Recovery House of Worship (RHOW) in Brooklyn and its growing number of church plants. The article shows what churches can accomplish purely through relationships and discipleship, without much of an official recovery program. One of the ex-addicts explains, “It takes a lot of time…God’s grace and mercy are amazing. Regular rehab – it’s just groups. But here, the love is here.”
I was awakened at 4:35 am by the commanding officer in our unit telling me to get up and report to work in the dining room. I had 15 minutes to brush my teeth and get dressed and get out the unit door into the cold rain. Because I miss on average two out of four days of work in the dining room due to visits or medical callouts, the guard in charge of the dining room switched me from lunch to breakfast. So now I have to be in the dining room at 5 am Sunday through Wednesday.
The actual work part of my job only lasts 20-30 minutes maybe, and the rest of the two hours is merely spent waiting around. So I’m really glad I grabbed the book I’m reading, “Unfinished” by Richard Stearns. It’s a book about how everyone is called to be a part of God’s great mission to the world, but how so few make themselves available and willing to fulfill that “Great Commission,” leaving a hole in our lives and a sense of emptiness or lack of fulfillment – because we refuse to forsake all and follow our Savior.
But the chapter I read so early this morning continued this natural train of thought about how, in a significant degree, the church in the West is missing out, not only in neglecting its role to be the salt (preserver) and light in our communities, society, and around the world, but missing out on the many, many blessings that come with it for churches like RHOW, and those involved with it. Folks and church communities who could have reached out to those like “C,” and his mother when he was young. “C” soon became a “gangbanger” and a drug dealer, involved in things that have sent him to prison for 20 years.
Stearns provides a five-point checkup for churches to make certain they are realizing their full potential to change the world for Christ. These are listed as five traps that most churches can fall into:
Valuing belief above behavior - For many churches, having the right belief is everything. And while beliefs are very, very important, “without right behavior it is little more than hypocrisy. James challenges us most directly with this: ‘Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder’ (James 2:18-19). I would argue that it is not what we believe that counts the most to God, but, rather, what we do with those beliefs…Jesus said time and again that it was our fruit that would define us and mark us as His. John sets a high bar when he speaks to this very issue: ‘Whoever claims to live in Him must live as Jesus did; (John 2:6). The mark of the one who ‘knows Him’ is their obedience, not their doctrine. The essence of becoming disciples is to turn our right beliefs into right behavior.” This does not mean we ignore sound doctrine nor should we fail to preach it. But “faith without works is dead,” (James 2:17).
Replacing exhortation with explanation – Many sermons bat around theological ideas, but never challenge the congregation to change anything in their lives. “The job of the church is not merely to explain the truth, but, rather, to use the truth to bring about life change…Some pastors seem afraid to confront or offend their congregations by challenging them with the considerable demands the Lord makes upon those who choose to follow Him. They rarely talk about the dangers of affluence, the importance of integrity, the suffering of the poor around the world, the sin of apathy, or the demands the Scripture makes upon our behavior and lifestyle. They speak to the privileges of faith but not often the price. Perhaps the least preached sermon in America is the one that instructs us to tithe our incomes and be generous with our resources. As evidence of this, in the wealthiest nation of Christians in history, our churches give just 2.4% of their incomes to the work of the kingdom – 76% less than the biblical tithe. Yet pastors seem reluctant to challenge people directly about this even though Jesus spoke more about money than prayer and faith combined. The great commandments of the Scripture have now become just great suggestions, offered like fortune cookies, to take with us or leave in the pews. Jesus said, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me’ (Luke 9:23). If churches are going to lead a revolution to change the world, then our pastors need to act and speak less like spiritual cheerleaders and more like drill sergeants.”
We have turned inward instead of outward – “Rather that providing bases from which we can effectively launch into the world in missions, too many of our churches have become comfortable bubbles, where we can escape from the world. When our churches become attractive social clubs, our church programs end up focusing too much on our needs and too little on the needs of those outside the church…every church has to draw a line between how much they focus on themselves versus how much they focus on the mission of the church outside of their four walls. Every element of our church programs, from the strobe lights and smoke machines to the buildings and discipleship training programs should be evaluated with one simple criterion: Will these things enhance our ability to complete the mission given to us by Jesus or not? If the answer is no, we ought to refocus our efforts on the things that will. We have bought into a church-growth consumer mentality that compels us to make our churches as appealing as possible to consumers… “Better the church shrink that risk losing its God-given purpose and identity. A community of true disciples, authentically living out the teachings of Scripture, is far more attractive than a latte bar or a Vegas-style music performance. Jesus called the church to be salt and light in our world – salt to literally prevent decay (as in rotting meat) and light to counter the darkness of our culture. Jesus also recognized that when salt loses its unique properties it is no longer good for the purpose it was intended: ‘But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot’ (Mathew 5:13). I believe that churches are in the very serious business of preparing serious people for a serious mission: going into the world to win the hearts and minds of men and women. If I have appropriately described churches as boot camps, from which we are to launch into the world to conquer it for Christ, then the foal for Christ’s church should not be to build nicer boot camps so that we never have to leave them at all. The revolution is being fought outside the walls of our churches. Better to have no walls at all than to stay hidden within them.”
Have we allowed apathy to replace outrage? – In the words of Bob Pierce, “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Stearns goes further, “We should always try to see the world as Christ sees it, to value what Jesus values, treasure was He treasures, love what Jesus loves, and feel outrage at that which outrage Him…Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned outrage?” We seem too often outraged over the wrong things. “Can we not find even a bit of outrage that nineteen thousand children die every day of mainly preventable causes? More than 40% of the people on the planet have never heard the good news of Jesus Christ, and we shrug our shoulders – no big deal. One of the sure signs that we have been co-opted by our culture is that, like frogs in the proverbial kettle, we have grown comfortable with things that should shock and mobilize us to action. We no longer feel the heat of outrage against things that anger God. We have so embraced the American dream that we can no longer see or feel the world’s nightmare of poverty, suffering, and hopelessness. We are Magic Kingdom Christians, too busy pursuing our own careers, planning our vacations, and sitting in the pews on Sunday, staring at our PowerPoint screens and singing songs. In the meanwhile, the urgent mission of God, the vital work of His kingdom, lies unfinished.”
The institution is prioritized over the revolution – “Trap number five is perhaps just the summary of the first four. When we invest all our energies into building and sustaining an institution, it is deceptively easy to lose sight of why the institution exists in the first place. The tyranny of the urgent draws our pastors and leaders away from the critical things and bogs them down into the minutiae of church life. It was broadcaster Paul Harvey who once reportedly said of the church, ‘We have gone from being fishers of men to becoming keepers of the aquarium.’ We can get distracted and diverted in a thousand ways…” “My passion comes out of a conviction that Christ commissioned His church to literally storm the gates of hell in a life-or-death struggle for the hearts and souls of men and women. There is just so much at stake when churches lose their vision and passion for the great mission of Christ in our world. And again, I want to reaffirm that there are so very many churches doing heroic things…The church is God’s plan to change the world and win it for Christ. That’s why it is so very important that we get it right.”
Stearns went on to give the example of an affluent church in Bellevue, Washington. When the elders proposed a large building program, the pastor pushed back, saying, “Over my dead body! Church isn’t supposed to build a church, it is supposed to build the kingdom.” The elders and pastor compromised, eventually, agreeing just to refurbish, and met with a group of school principals to listen and learn. They learned drugs, gangs, teenage pregnancies, broken homes, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and poverty all affected the kids and was spilling into their classrooms. What they found was almost verbatim what “C” was telling me about everyone he knew in inner-city Indianapolis. So the church started with developing a safe place for kids to come before and after school. Their goal – to just “love, listen, and learn.” God did amazing things, and in a few years, five thousand people a month were coming through their doors. Today there are more than 2,000 volunteers from 30 churches. Local businesses have gotten involved, and the churches and volunteers provide furniture, autos, medical, dental, legal, and financial management issues for the kids and families they serve. The school district was so impressed that church organization was invited into the schools to run the entire middle school recreational and sports program – for seven schools with 4,000 students! The school principals say the academic performance of the kids involved skyrocketed!
This just goes to show how one man with a heart for the lost can re-shape an entire community. Imagine what could be accomplished if this was repeated throughout our nation! And think of the blessings and fulfillment being experienced by the thousands of volunteers in this community! What about your community?