I’m no expert on parenting.
So it’s a good thing this post isn’t about parenting.
Rather, I want to address the question, “What makes a Christian family different from another family?”
The primary distinctive of a Christian family (this may be any combination of husband, wife, children, siblings…) is that we’re all working toward clearly expressed shared goals. In theory, before we get to career goals, academic goals, or financial goals, we all share the goal of loving God and living for Him. We all share the goal of giving the Holy Spirit full rein in our lives.
GOAL 1: Make God’s Love a Priority
Christian families have a goal of incorporating God’s love into their family life. 1 John 4 (starting with v7) has a long description of God’s love. In fact, v16 states succinctly that “God is love.” So are we a loving family? Not just between ourselves, but do we encourage each other to love our neighbours? Do we encourage each other to love our enemies? Do we encourage each other to meet our neighbours? Not just because it’s polite, but because we’re all working to be like God.
A Christian family understands that love is more than just a feeling: it’s a decision and a commitment. One of Jesus’ most radical teachings is found in Luke 6 where he tells us to “love our enemies”. I suspect that when we read this we most often think of the Russians, or the Democrats, or the Muslims, or the Republicans… But sometimes the person who hates us, curses us, or mistreats us is closer to home. Sometimes they’re in our home. Because sometimes when we live in close proximity to each other, things are said and done that hurt.
But a family with God at its centre will continue to love and want what’s best for each other. It will work to restore an environment of security and intimacy.
GOAL 2: Pass on Your Faith
In Ephesians 6:4 the apostle Paul gives this direction to parents. He says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
According to Paul, there’s a balance between guiding children into a relationship with God, and turning them away from God because we shove our faith down their throats. If you’re a parent you could go to Barnes and Noble right now and probably buy 15 different books of parenting tactics sure to raise a happier & healthier child. So I’m not going to tell us specific techniques. Rather, Scripture gives us goals, and whatever approaches we choose, we need to walk this path between exasperation and ambivalence.
I recently came across an article titled “40 Lessons We Sought To Teach Our Children”. It’s a list compiled by Dennis and Barbara Rainey who head up a major marriage and family ministry named Family Life. Now 40 is a lot of lessons, but I love the intentionality.
- Most families want their kids to be polite. But Christian families want their children to love their neighbours.
- Most families want to manage their money well. Christian families want to use our money to bring glory to God.
- Most families want their kids to do well in school. Christian families also want their kids to learn about God, and to know God.
- Most families reward good grades in school. Christian families also recognize biblical literacy as important.
- Most families recognize the value of spending time together. Godly families recognize the value of spending time together with God.
Where is God in Your Family? I know families that go on mission trips together rather than vacations. They still spend time together, but they get to live out their faith in tangible ways at the same time. Maybe that’s not feasible, but are there other opportunities to serve others together as a family?
There are so many virtues listed throughout Scripture it can appear overwhelming. There’s the Fruit of the Spirit, The 10 Commandments. The Beatitudes, Spiritual Armour. And they’re just the lists… I suggest you start with one. What’s one Godly attribute your family needs to work on? Write it down, stick it on the fridge, and discuss ways you can grow in that area. You can do this if you have kids, if it’s just you and your spouse, or if you live alone. Pick one, and start there.
It’s my prayer that if we’re asked, “Where’s God in My Family?” that it’s a simple question to answer. Not one that requires us to go scrounging through trashcans looking for evidence.
(Click HERE for some resources to incorporate kindness into your family life.)
Incarnation and Imitation
The incarnation revealed what is possible when a human moves in God’s will, and by God’s power. In Jesus, God acted, but also demonstrated what human action in the name of God looks like. “For I have set you an example, “Jesus says, “that you also should do as I have done to you”. Yes, this line’s context (John 13:15) is somewhat particular to his servant gesture of foot-washing, but the following discourse makes clear that this practice is barely the tip of the iceberg. Everything Jesus does and says is a demonstration of God’s work and will in the world, and the disciples are being invited to share in that way of being in the world. The point of the incarnation is to say, “This is what happens when divine action/being meets human action/being.”
Moments later, Jesus expresses to his disciples that they have perceived God’s will as revealed through Jesus’s words and actions, and have even had their status before God changed because of it: “The servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). Jesus is revealing God’s will and work, and then inviting them to join into that same will and work, becoming fruitful by honoring his command to “love one another as I have loved you.” God is at work among humanity in the human form of Jesus, so that humanity might be able to learn how to work on behalf of God in the world.
What’s Faith Got to Do with It?
This is all well and good as a bunch of theological talk, but is still missing a critical piece: faith. This all occurs in its context in a crisis moment, and the disciples will forget their loyalty to Jesus before we can scarcely turn the page on the conversation. However, before their abandonment, we get a preview of what will come to pass after the resurrection. It is yet to be tested by the crucible, but we get a taste of the faith that will be solidified when the disciples witness his defeat of death. In John 16:30 we read the climatic confession, “we believe that you came from God”. That curiously-worded affirmation of faith is more central to John’s gospel than is easily recognized.
“We believe that you came from God” sounds like a basic thing to affirm about Jesus, but for John’s gospel it is the critical point. Everything up until chapter 12 has been constructed to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the one sent from God. It’s a theme hiding in plain sight, captured in language like being “from God” or “from heaven”, or in Jesus’s talk about being “sent”. The fascinating turn of the fourth gospel is that it takes this basic affirmation of Jesus’s origin and uses it to launch the mission of the disciples. Just as the father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends his disciples (20:21), and when they are doing the will of God, they have access to the same divine power that Jesus put on display. What’s the connection between what Jesus did and what the sent disciples will do? Their faith.
In coming to believe that Jesus is from God, the disciples also come to believe his invitation to share in his divinely originating power and mission. They too become “from God” because now they are “from Jesus”. John tipped his hand early on that this was God’s work in Jesus: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13) In the wake of the resurrection, the disciples can truly become brothers of Jesus, sharing the same Father and God (20:17).
The Victory of Faith
There’s an old church song, “Faith is the Victory” which draws its language from 1 John 5:4-5, “…this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” The song implies that the victory is one that we, Christ’s disciples win over our enemies. However, the greater truth is that it is Jesus who becomes victorious over his enemies because of our faith. See, we may not have noticed the connection between this text (1 John 5) and John 16:33, where Jesus says to his disciples: “Take courage; I have conquered the world!”. Notice how the announcement is peculiarly located—Jesus proclaims his victory before the events of either the cross or the empty tomb. What has happened at this point that evokes this claim? It is the confession of faith from the disciples—this constitutes Jesus’s victory over the world!
Now that they believe—or perhaps better, now that they are coming to believe—Jesus has won a foothold in the world. God’s work will continue. The gospel embodied in him will be embodied in his disciples who now participate in his mission. Jesus, the Sent One, will become the sender, and the faith of his disciples will become a gateway for the power of God to work goodness in the world.
Our faith is much more powerful than we know. It is not just a vehicle for our comfort or empowerment. It is a vehicle for divine action. It is the connection point at which God’s people become partners by God’s Spirit, agents of God’s creative agenda in the world. Faith is the engine translating God’s will into human action and the restoration of God’s creation.
It is easy to underestimate our faith. I often perceive mine to be quite a weak thing—apparently much smaller than even a mustard seed. But in the hands of Jesus, even our broken faith creates enormous possibilities, and becomes a tool in God’s mission.
(If you would like to walk through a study of the “Sent” theme in John, consider the following texts in their context: 1:12-13, 3:2, 3:13, 3:17, 3:31-34, 4:34, 5:23-24, 5:36-38, 6:33, 6:46, 6:57, 7:27-29, 8:14-16, 8:23-26, 8:42, 9:4, 9:29-33, 10:36, 11:27, 12:44-45, 13:3, 14:24, 15:21, 16:27-30, 17:8, 18:36-37, 19:9, 20:21. This list is not exhaustive, and perhaps the better approach is to simply take a highlighter to a fresh copy of the gospel and mark each time the theme shows up. I assure you, you will not have to travel long between occurrences! I would love to say that the theme is plainly stated in literally every chapter of John, but alas, chapter 2 only yields 2:9, which I hold to be playful language on the theme—but I’ll let you decide for yourself.)
Steven Hovater: Four kids. One wife. Seventeen hobbies. A coach’s whistle. Lots of thoughts about God and food. The spiritual gift of volume. Blogs at stevenhovater.com, and preaches in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
My husband, Mike walked down Maiden Alley toward the Ohio River with his young friend. As he walked with his arm around twelve-year old DeShawn he asked, “DeShawn, when Jesus was on trial, Pilate kept asking if he was a King? Jesus told him, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, but finally admitted he is the King. That’s what I’m going to ask you. Do you believe Jesus is the King?” DeShawn answered, “Yes, Mr. Mike. I do.” They continued to walk down to the bank of the Ohio River. About 40 people from The Rivers Church followed them.
Mike and DeShawn stood right at the edge of the river and Mike asked the young man if he was ready for Jesus to be King of his life? This is a kid that only a year and a half before was so rude and disrespectful that he would often be sent home from our Tuesday night outreach ministry and here he stood in the Ohio River ready to put on Christ. DeShawn came up out of that water to applause and tears from a church family that is a glimpse of what heaven is going to look like.
The Rivers Church began on Sunday, December 18th at 10:02 a.m. at Maiden Alley Cinema in Paducah, Kentucky, a half block from where the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers converge. From its outset, it has been our goal to be racially integrated, ethnically diverse, and outreach focused. Nones, Dones, and the next generation are our targets. Our ministry team spent time praying, talking, studying, and then praying some more about the vision for a church that could open doors for all people to hear the gospel in a post Christian culture.
Why 10:02 a.m.? Our gathering time is based on Luke 10:2- “…The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers.” At The Rivers Church, we’ve based our lives on the truth of the gospel — we know that the gospel is the best message in town that everyone needs to hear but Christians have made it harder and harder for people to hear the message because we’ve often lost our focus. We are convinced that if we go to where the people are, like Jesus said, and if we love them and love each other, then the gospel will do the rest.
Only God could have assembled the ministry team at The Rivers Church. This is what we’ve got- My husband Mike Moore is a trial attorney and was an elder for 5 years at an old established wealthy church. He also is a fantastic preacher. (I know I’m a little biased.)
Tyrell Grant is a former rap producer drug dealer who became a Christian and quickly decided he wanted to be an evangelist. He went to school and got a preaching degree. His wife, Marquita is a preacher’s kid with an early childhood degree who leads our children’s ministry.
Cornelius Edwards is a wonderfully gifted worship minister. Before he joined our work he traveled from his home base in Atlanta all over the country to lead worship at special events. Check out his music on iTunes and YouTube. His wife Soyini has an awesome voice as well and was willing to leave her job at CNN because she believed in this vision of what church could be. She has an innate sense as to what people need and ministers to many already!
Lyle Sinkey is a former meth addict who is an outdoorsman and preacher. He just finished up a contract with Duck Commander where he was a videographer. He and his wife Kelly joined our team to minister in the areas of addiction recovery and marriage.
Finally, there’s me, Ginger. I’m a former homeschooling mom and wife who was raised going to church. I lead our women’s ministry and make some pretty delicious communion bread.
The Rivers Church is a group of believers that are trying to live with our faith unshackled. Only Cornelius is a paid staff member. Soyini recently started her own business. Lyle and Kelly are raising their support like U.S. missionaries. Mike maintains a full law practice and I’m his office manager. Tyrell and Marquita run a daycare and Tyrell is also a blogger/tech guy.
We don’t have a building and it is our intention to never have one. Our rent at the theatre annually is the equivalent of one month’s utility bills at our former church. We’re trying to keep it simple. We use Mike’s Law office for small group Bible studies offered to the community. Tyrell and Marquita lead a small group in their home weekly. We have an outreach ministry that ministers to low income at risk children that meets at a shelter at the park. All of our gatherings are intergenerational. Families serve together. We’ve worshipped at the Farmer’s Market pavilion and will have worship this fall right at the river.
Martin Luther King Jr. said this in Letter From Birmingham Jail, “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”
Mr. King spoke truth in 1963 and it is even more true in 2017. Young people don’t care what you know about Jesus until they see how you love like Jesus. My teenaged daughters invited their seventeen year old friend to worship with us. When worship was over, I asked her what she thought. Her answer let me know that we are headed in the right direction. She said with lots of excitement, “I love this! At the end, I just felt like I needed to go around the room and hug everyone. You can feel the love.”
I think we’re on the right path.
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Ginger Moore is a 47 year old reluctant church planter, who just celebrated her 25th wedding anniversary. She’s the mom of a 17 year old daughter and an 18 year old daughter who are so proud and excited to be a part of the work. Her theme verse for the year has been 2 Timothy 2:13- “When we are faithless, he is faithful for he can not deny himself.” God has been so very good and faithful as we have planted this church and he has brought the increase.
In Titus 2:1-14 Paul writes to tell his apprentice, Titus, how to go about establishing new churches in Crete. In this particular passage he lists specific instructions for training four different demographic groups within the church.Consider for a moment which virtue would you most emphasise to young Christians in fledgling churches?
Paul tells Titus four times to teach these different groups self-control. Older men, be self-controlled. Older women urge younger women to practice self-control. Young men, be self-controlled.
If only telling someone to be self-controlled brought the desired results. I think we all know it’s not that simple.
Let’s remember where this topic comes from… This series on Faith Unshackled spent two weeks looking at things we believe. Then over the last two weeks we looked at things God wants his people to be doing. Those things are important, but they don’t amount to much if they don’t change who we become.
While churches often refuse to fellowship with other churches over beliefs and practices I’ve never heard a congregation criticised because the church doesn’t exhibit God’s patience or self control. Yet one of the great consequences of the cross is that is that God transforms us into his image. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [unshackled faith] And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
What we believe, and what we practice are important, because they influence who we become. But don’t lose sight that God is working in our lives, not only helping us to do or think better, but to become like Him. We shouldn’t set goals to adjust who we’re becoming if we’re unwilling to change what we believe, what we practice, and how we let God work in our lives.
Bringing this specifically back to self-control…I do want to make a couple of points about Titus 2.
- The key verse in this passage is v12. Verse 12 splits neatly into two halves. The first is what to avoid. The second tells what to become. Throughout this passage, Paul’s primary concern isn’t whether or not you had donuts for breakfast. (Although that may well be a secondary application.) Rather, when Paul talks about self-control, his focus is upon sin.
Say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions. Resisting the temptation of sin is important. It takes self-control because sin is attractive.
- Is Paul then saying then that teaching self-control means that he expects perfection from everyone? I don’t think so. It’s the grace of God that teaches us to say No….. It’s the grace of God that’s working in our lives to mold us into the image of God. So here’s how I understand this whole thing to be working…
The pictures above show a couple of common perceptions about self-control. Many of us get fooled by the word “self” in self-control. We take all the responsibility upon ourselves. But that’s not God’s use of the term.
When God talks of self-control, He encourages us to let the Holy Spirit control us. As we think about the person God wants us to become, it’s not just coincidence that Paul includes self-control in his list of the Fruit of the Spirit over in Galatians 5:23.
When we face temptations, rather than struggling with that temptation ourselves, God wants us to pray, to trust Him, to ask Him to take control of our lives and guide our choices. When we take the virtue ‘self-control’ too literally we deny God a place in our lives.
Christian self-control means knowing when to concede greater control of our life to God.
Finally, self-control involves more than avoiding sin. Godly self-control will also motivate us to live in a manner that brings him glory. Self-control means loving my neighbour more than my television. Self-control helps me attend worship services regularly and invest in the lives of other believers. Self-control helps me listen when my impulse is to react. Because self-control means knowing when to concede greater control of my life to God.
One author I read summarised this perspective with this comment. Self-control is not only about the discipline to stop doing things that destroy us, but also about the discipline to do the things that build us up. When we develop a healthy discipline to engage in the spiritual practices, we speed up our growth rate.
As Paul told Titus, regardless of our age or gender, we all need self-control to recognise our need for God’s Spirit to empower us as we put aside sin and live within the kingdom of heaven. This is a crucial step in our journey toward spiritual maturity.
This week’s sermon is available HERE.
Last Sunday I talked about the need for all Christians to pursue spiritual maturity. In the process I presented some research results from the REVEAL study of spiritual growth. As the researchers collated their results, they grouped healthy spiritual practices into 4 groups:
- Beliefs and Attitudes;
- Organized Church Activities;
- Personal Spiritual Practices; and
- Spiritual Activities with Others.
It seems to me that those first three groups are the ones we emphasise the most. We do a lot of teaching to establish Biblical beliefs. We encourage participation in church activities, particularly Bible Classes and worship. We also encourage people to pray and read Scripture for themselves. But perhaps when we look at that list we’re not even sure what “Spiritual Activities with Others” means. So here’s another list for you.
Of these four, I’ll focus today on the top two: Spiritual Friendships and Spiritual Mentors. It seems to me that we often value Christian friendships among teens as we pour many resources into ministries for teens. However, we don’t make the same emphasis among general church members.
We settle for people showing up on Sunday and don’t impose the expectation that they spend time with other Christians outside of Sunday worship service. We know that Christians need one another to experience the fullness of Christ, but perhaps we often think that Bible studies fulfill all the “one another” instructions in Scripture.
I expect that some of my readers will think the church already values spiritual friendships. You may be right. But let me pose a scenario and gauge your response…
You hear of a church down the road that cancels their Wednesday night Bible Class because they decide that they study the Bible as a group sufficiently on Sunday. Instead, they now meet in homes and play board games, and cards. Sometimes they watch movies together, while some of the groups bake together or discussing books they’re reading together.
What you may not have heard is that each of these groups close their time together with 20-30 minutes of prayer. But still, all that play time in place of Bible Study!
Perhaps we feel uncomfortable toward this church because while we acknowledge the theory regarding the importance of spiritual friendships, we don’t actually value them all that highly. We may not have thought of it in these terms, but we would prefer for people who aren’t friends to study the Bible together, than to not study the Bible and work on building friendships.
Perhaps we feel uncomfortable praising spiritual friendships, because we don’t have any ourselves.
- Do your friends encourage your faith?
- Do your friends pray for, and with, you?
- Do you pray for, and with, your friends?
- Can you ask your friends about Scriptures you’ve been reading?
- Do your friends get excited about sharing God’s love with others?
- Do your friends help you date, or parent, in a God-honor way?
I believe that many of Christians will acknowledge the importance of spiritual friendships to their walk with Christ. We’ll acknowledge that God has placed us in His church and made us part of his body which belongs and works together. But I suspect that many Christians fail to prioritize spiritual friendships or allow their personal spiritual practices to bleed over into our relationships with others.
It’s true, that many Christians can say that their best friends also attend church with them, but that by itself doesn’t make the friendship spiritual. Spiritual friendships intentionally include spiritual conversations, spiritual checkups, and spiritual practices.
The sermon on this topic is available HERE.
Most Christians recognise that God makes a claim upon our lives that nothing else in our lives be more important that our commitment to Him. He’s our #1.
But what does that look like?
When I hear talk like that I picture street corner preachers proclaiming the need for repentance and breathing damnation all at the same time.
I picture my chiropractor who greets each crack of my back with a “Hallelujah” or “Thank-you Jesus”.
I imagine people in the workplace who are most known for the disapproval of the latest social trend for the last twenty years who also tell everyone that they should be in church on on Sunday.
As I think a little more deeply, I recognise that making God #1 will look different for everyone. So how can we tell if others are making God their priority? More importantly, how can we tell if we have idols in our own lives?
One helpful way of addressing these questions, is to change the question. Making God our life’s priority covers a lot of ground. It also indicates that it’s something we do, and then it stays that way. If we’re honest, we’ll concede that giving God priority is a growth process that takes years, and we probably never master it completely.
So here’s a bite size question that I find more helpful.
Am I committed to spiritual growth?
All of us want to say “Yes” to that question, but how are we pursuing spiritual growth. I find that most Christians have few tangible steps they can take toward spiritual maturity beyond the big three of: Pray, Read the Bible, and Attend Church.
I doubt that spiritual growth is a “one size fits all” process, but in recent years I’ve stumbled across material from Willow Creek Community Church and Real Life Ministries that I’ve found helpful.
The Willow Creek REVEAL survey identified four stages of spiritual maturity. You can see them in the picture below along with an indicative saying from each stage.
While it’s interesting to consider we might currently stand on this continuum. More important for our question “Am I committed to Spiritual Growth?” is understanding how a person moves from one stage to another. The REVEAL survey provides some ideas there also.
The survey results can be broken down into 4 areas of spiritual life. A spiritually mature Christian will seek to grow in all four areas, but the temptation is to ignore those which feel less comfortable to us. The four areas are:
- Spiritual beliefs and attitudes
- Organized church activities
- Personal spiritual practices
- Spiritual activities with others
I can’t list all the catalysts for movement without this post becoming ridiculously long. You can get all the survey results and discussion in a recent book titled MOVE. But here are the Top 5 catalysts for each area of movement:
Moving From Exploring Christ to Growing in Christ
- Belief in Salvation by Grace
- Belief in the Trinity
- Church Activity Serve in a church ministry 1-2 times a month
- Spiritual Practice Prayer for Guidance
- Spiritual Practice Reflection on Scripture
Moving From Growing in Christ to Close to Christ
- Belief in a Personal God
- Spiritual Practice Prayer for Guidance
- Spiritual Practice Reflection on Scripture
- Spiritual Practice Solitude
- Spiritual Activity with Others Evangelism
Moving From Close to Christ to Christ-Centered
- Belief Giving Away My Life (“I am willing to surrender everything that is important in my life to Jesus Christ.”)
- Belief Christ is First
- Belief Identity in Christ
- Belief Authority of the Bible
- Spiritual Practice Reflection on Scripture
In his book “Real -Life Discipleship“, Jim Putman, describes the stages of spiritual maturity in terms of stages of life: Infant, Child, Young Adult, and Parent.
I love his vision of a mature Christian as a parent. A Christian is not mature because they know Bible details. A Christian is not mature because they’re always talking about Jesus. A person is mature because they’re investing in the lives of people around them. Sometimes they’re leading people into relationship with Jesus. Other times they’re helping younger Christians grow.
A christian who regards themselves as mature but isn’t passing on their faith to another generation of believers through personal effort (not by paying the preacher) is deceiving themselves.
There’s a lot to consider here and each of these ideas have thick books behind them. My primary goal is to encourage each of us to continue our quest to grow in Christ: To grow toward spiritual maturity. As we do this we’ll discover that Christ is #1 in our lives.
Over the next couple of months this blog will be hosting a series of posts by guest bloggers as we again participate in our annual Summer Blog Tour. I hope you follow along, check out each author’s personal blog, and find ways to unshackle your faith. You can download previous blog tours here.
In 2017 my church has adopted the theme “Faith Unshackled”. Intentionally ambiguous, this theme could be interpreted and applied in different ways. Inherent to the concept is the possibility that our faith may be shackled, restricted or limited.
Before I can decide if my faith languishes below God’s intention for me, I must understand the possibilities.
The word faith simply means to trust someone else. When that someone else is God, then the things we trust him with can be big things. But sometimes the things God wants us to trust him with are bigger than we’re ready to risk.
Jesus understood the dynamic nature of our faith in God. Our faith grows over time. As we establish a track record with God, our capacity to trust him with bigger areas and issues in our lives grows. Because faith does not grow along a straight line, the fragility of our faith means that some days we gladly trust God with everything, and then at other days we wonder if we can trust him with anything.
I know Jesus understands this phenomena because he witnessed it in his closest disciples.
In Matthew 17 a group of disciples attempted to cast out a demon… and failed. They approach Jesus seeking insight into why their efforts failed. Jesus responds with a well-known statement that I’m not sure encourages his disciples that they only need a little faith, or scolds them for not having even the smallest amount of faith.
“Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20
In the chapter prior, Jesus had given his disciples a big, enormous, radical faith challenge:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25
Both of these challenges from Jesus describe faith leading to radical outcomes. Yet so often we limit our faith to praying that Sister Jones’ kidney stone will pass quickly. In this process we reduce faith that was intended to be bold, radical and world-changing, and we domesticate it. We reduce faith to something manageable. Rather than inspiring courage, innovation and adventures for God, we transform it into a safety net in case of emergencies and kidney stones. Of course God cares about kidney stones and the suffering of his children, but the possibilities of faith extend much further.
In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus sends his disciples to the ends of the earth. He reminds them of his supreme power and promises his presence wherever they go. Then he watches to see their faith in action.
Today, I write about this moment that took place 2000 years ago on the shores of Galilee, from a time and country never imagined all those years ago. My existence and love for Christ demonstrate the power of those disciples’ faith.
As my church explores what it means for us to live with Unshackled Faith, I have encouraged us not to leave our faith chained to the pew. We must demonstrate our faith in God to those around us.
This may mean involving oneself in church ministries such as our community garden, or apartment cookouts. Unshackled Faith could also mean hosting a cookout and inviting church members we’ve never eaten with before, just because we’re committed to following Christ together. Or maybe we’re finding ways to bring unchurched and churched friends together in non-threatening social settings. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is prompting us to launch a new ministry or add our energy to an existing one.
We all have our comfort zones. The thing is, comfort zones don’t require faith.
I have no regrets about my faith upbringing. My family and small church nurtured and encouraged my faith. They gave me opportunities to ask questions, exercise gifts, and participate in the mission of God.
However, somewhere along the line I began to assume the idea that there was one correct answer to every faith question. If my answer was “I don’t know”, that was acceptable, but it meant that I didn’t know the correct answer.
As my faith has grown I’ve come to appreciate that the bigness of God often means that limiting ourselves to just one correct answer sells God short.
One example of narrowing an answer too much concerns our salvation. Why did I become a disciple of Jesus? My standard answer sounds something like, “I became a Christian because I didn’t want to spend eternity in Hell and I wanted my sins forgiven.”
I’m confident millions of other Christians through the years have responded to the Gospel for similar reasons.
While in an ideal world people would respond to the Gospel as a loving response to the love of God our motives are usually much more self-centred than that. But we don’t need stay that way.
In Ephesians 3:1 Paul describes himself as “the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles.” Most scholars agree that Paul probably wrote this letter from a Roman prison. They also agree that he was imprisoned as a consequence of his ministry. However, it’s notable that Paul doesn’t describe himself as “the prisoner of Rome…“, but as the prisoner of Christ Jesus.
As a prisoner of Christ Jesus, Paul was committed to the person and mission of Jesus. In Romans 6:19 Paul describes how we’re all captive slaves to something,
“ Forgive me for using casual language to compensate for your natural weakness of human understanding. I want to be perfectly clear. In the same way you gave your bodily members away as slaves to corrupt and lawless living and found yourselves deeper in your unruly lives, now devote your members as slaves to right and reconciled lives so you will find yourselves deeper in holy living.” (VOICE)
By calling himself a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” Paul references his status as a disciple of Christ. With that in mind the next phrase challenges our generally accepted understanding of salvation.
Paul is a prisoner of Christ, a disciple of Christ, a follower of Jesus, for the sake of you Gentiles.
We might not describe ourselves as followers of Jesus for the sake of ME. But when escaping hell is our primary reason for accepting God’s salvation, then it really is all about me.
The problem here is not that I need forgiveness. There’s nothing wrong with preferring to spend eternity with God than without God. The difficulty arises when our primary reason for relationship with God revolves around my well-being.
This naturally brings us to the vital question, “For whose sake are you a prisoner of Christ Jesus?” “Who benefits from you being a Christian?
Jesus lived his life for the benefit of others. Paul lived his life for the benefit of others.
- Who do we live to benefit?
- Who does our church exist to bless?
- Who notices our faith?
- Who would miss God’s presence if we weren’t present?
Too often it seems Christians feel like prisoners of Christ, trapped in a list of wrongs and right. How that picture changes when we’re prisoners of Christ Jesus for the sake of our neighbors.
No other New Testament passage addresses race relations in the church as directly as Ephesians 2. In verses 11-22 Paul addresses both Jewish and Gentile Christians urging them to adopt an attitude of humility. Both groups depend upon Christ for their salvation and in that truth both groups should find unity.
The key verse found in this passage is verse 15b-16,
His desire was to create in His body one new humanity from the two opposing groups, thus creating peace. Effectively the cross becomes God’s means to kill off the hostility once and for all so that He is able to reconcile them both to God in this one new body. (VOICE)
For most of my life I have focused upon the role Jesus’ death on the cross plays in allowing God to forgive our sins. Forgiveness and restored relationship with God epitomise the cross.
So when I read these verses in Ephesians 2 I’m forced to expand my understanding of the cross. We’re told here that Jesus died to break down walls between Jews and Gentiles. To welcome them both in to the kingdom of God.
This is where the Bible gets tough for us. If Jesus died to remove barriers and dividing walls. If Jesus came to preach peace. Then this is an element of the Gospel that we must proclaim also. If God could make one new humanity out of Jews and Gentiles, what can he do with us?
The church doesn’t have the luxury of preaching oneness in Christ and peace with God while having nothing practical to say to our society caught up in racial tension in cities across the country. However, the church has a credibility problem. We want to tell Charlotte, Baton Rouge, Ferguson, San Diego, etc that Jesus brings peace and removes the “dividing wall of hostility”, but in too many cases the church is as segregated, or more so, as our communities.
If Jesus died to remove barriers between people so that people could be reconciled to God, then what are we doing about that?
As a first baby step we challenged the church to make October a “Month of Hospitality”. Over the next 30 days we propose to remove some barriers by having each member enjoy a meal (or coffee, etc) with another member on the other side of a common dividing barrier:
- Racial divisions;
- Age divisions;
- Education divisions;
- Income divisions;
- Political divisions;
- Marital status divisions; and
Why only apply this challenge to members in the church? Because, if we can’t overcome the barriers that exist within the church, we have no credibility to tell the world that we bring a message of God’s peace and reconciliation.
What will you do to live out the Gospel that breaks down barriers?
The word “missional” has been terribly abused in its first couple of decades of wide circulation. Theologically, the word simply describes God’s ongoing work in the world—and the church that intentionally participates in that work. There are multiple facets to that work and our participation in it, and perhaps this explains why the word has been stretched around so many different kinds of churches or styles of discipleship. We understand ourselves to be participating in God’s mission as we spread the news of Jesus’s redemptive work in our community and around the globe, as we encourage each other to follow Jesus, and as we pursue the conditions of justice, righteousness and peace. None of these are the full breadth of what God wants for this world, but in each of them we engage with values near to the heart of God!
Our churches pursue each facet collectively, working together for the purposes of evangelization, transformation, and justice—and churches can implement structural shifts to facilitate progress in each cause. We can create systems that create opportunities for faith sharing, venues in which transformation is more likely to occur, and initiatives that push against standing systems of injustice.
Whether we’re the leaders fashioning the new programs or congregants supporting and participating in the moves, we can too easily begin to think that the structural changes mark us as “missional”. However, those structural shifts can only move us so far! Church programming and structure may create the conditions in which we move towards mission, and poor structures can get in the way of such practices or implicitly devalue them. Structure has its place, and should be approached with intentionality. However, creating the structures should not be understood as the heart of the work itself—the work itself is a matter of flesh, blood and spirit.
Flesh, Blood, and Spirit
The missional work of evangelization occurs when flesh and blood humans filled with the Spirit of God reach out to their known and loved neighbors with the good news of Jesus. The missional work of discipleship takes place when people of flesh and blood, acting by the power of God’s Spirit, encourage and teach each other about the way of Jesus, giving testimony of Jesus’s work. Justice progresses as Spirit-driven people stand in solidarity with the oppressed, whom they have come to see and love because of their transformation in Christ.
The heart of missional christianity isn’t a matter of organization, but of embodiment. While the church’s programming might provide the sort of vehicle or venue in which these things happen, the structure itself won’t succeed until it is filled by the right kind of transformed people—the new humanity, formed from the inside out for the purposes of God’s mission in the world. That formation takes places when we, both as communities and as individuals, nurture the sorts of mentalities and habits that encourage people to align with the mission of God and to engage in it.
The inventory of those mentalities and habits is surely diverse and contains some familiar things, like the virtues of faith, hope, and love that the church has long sought to nurture, and the habits of prayer and listening to the word that have been a part of both the gatherings of God’s people and the classical understandings of their individual devotional practices. These are well and good, and contribute to our transformation into people aligned with the mission of God, but I want to suggest a further practice, one that I see both in the life of the early church and in the missional movement of our own time: the nurture of a particular obsession.
Obsessed with the Missio Dei
The Missio Dei is a fancy Latin phrase meaning “the mission of God”. It’s a bit of shorthand meant to point us towards what God is doing in the world—something we train ourselves to discover by drinking deeply of God’s story in the scriptures, and which we prayerfully seek by the Spirit of God in our own time. Becoming obsessed with the Missio Dei means that at every turn in our lives, we are always asking, “What might God want to happen here?” or “How can I join in what God might be working towards by what I say and do in this moment?”.
These are the sorts of questions the early church obsessed over. Missional churches have these questions embedded in their culture, whether or not they ever use the fancy Latin phrase or have super-sophisticated “missional” structures. Missional people can’t help but ask what God wants in the world, and how they can bear witness to God’s desires and God’s work towards fulfilling those intentions.
Each encounter with the word, each gathering with the church, and every moment in the neighborhood is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of God’s mission in the world. That obsession is planted deep within our hearts, and keeps gnawing at our souls. Like a deep mystery, it holds us in vigilant tension, so that every moment we are ready to perceive the clues that might shed light on what God is really at work doing. The seed of that obsession grows from the inside out, until its fruit becomes apparent in the world. It is an internal drive that fuels every external step we take.
Steven Hovater is the preaching and outreach minister at the Church of Christ at Cedar Lane in Tullahoma, Tennessee. He loves walking slow with his wife Kelly and running fast with their four kids. Occasionally, he blogs at stevenhovater.com., and loves interacting with people on twitter (@stevenhovater).
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