Tear Down the Walls

President Reagan delivers one of his most famous speeches punctuated with one of his most remembered lines.

On June 12, 1987, in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Germany, U.S. President Ronald Reagan called out the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, and challenged him to remove the barrier which had divided West and East Berlin for over 25 years. Reagan very pointedly said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” It’s time for Christian leaders to look around our churches (and maybe in the mirror), examine the religious culture we’ve created and say, “Pastor, sisters and brothers, let us tear down these walls!”
Now I’m not talking about the actual structures! Let me explain. I recently shared a devotional on Luke 15:1-7 for a clergy “Day Apart” with my colleagues from the northwest corner of Arkansas. One component of our discussion had to do with how we see “the lost” in our communities. In my own life and ministry I have often been looking over an institutional wall at non-believers while I reinforce both blatant and hidden requirements for one to become a part of the faith community. Religious institutions often have some peculiarities and rituals that do not favor the outsider. In fact religion (in its most negative sense) acts as a barrier. It repeats the mantra, “That’s not how we do it,” or “You must be new here,” or “Come back when you ______.”
There is a concept in the social sciences that compares two perspectives on seeing the outsider, the other, or in the language from this parable, the lost. It is the Bounded Set and the Centered Set.

When we should be joyfully guiding people closer to Jesus, discipling them to be all that God wants them to be (as a good shepherd would), churches have often been building walls, piling on burdens and requirements and systematically culling the folks who don’t fit in. Jesus shows us the danger of ritualistic religion and dogmatic attitudes in Matthew 15 and 23. He shows grace to a Gentile/Canaanite woman and praises her faith. Jesus calls the religious leaders “Hypocrites… What sorrow awaits you!” There’s some contrast and comparison too!
I have been going through a real learning and refining season as a pastor and one of the things that I see as most important in my role is to be one who removes barriers, breaks down walls and destroys any impediment to people finding the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Every now and then I fail and fall back into my old way of seeing things, but praise the Lord for His grace! He gives everyone an opportunity, “to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep His love is” (Ephesians 3:18). Faith in Jesus is a game changer that we should share with all humankind, not a secret recipe to be locked up for the chosen few.
If you are already a part of a local congregation, how do you and your church reinforce the Bounded Set perspective of seeing the lost? What religious barriers do you see that need to be torn down? How can you encourage those who might be a long way off but heading in the right direction? One thing I love about being a United Methodist Pastor is the privilege of saying “Welcome! There is a place at the (Lord’s) Table for you.” That’s the invitation no matter how far away you are. After all, we were all outsiders until, by grace through faith, Jesus joyfully guided us home.

The Numbers Game

MegaChurchAuditoriumOne of the greatest challenges for today’s churches is to monitor and evaluate the spiritual health of our congregants. This is especially difficult for churches with an weekly attendance over 150.

See! I did it already! I started talking about numbers. Accurate numbers can tell part of the story of what is happening in a congregation, but Spiritual health isn’t really about numbers.

Now don’t get me wrong, the numbers in my checking account say a lot about my priorities. The number of times when I missed church or a  chapel service during seminary says something. The number of hours I have spent sharing God’s love with others or reading His word should indicate… something, right?

In my previous ministry role, I was a part of the organization’s primary leadership team. As the department leaders sat around a big table and attempted to evaluate where we were needing to improve and where we saw success, the debate always came back around to measuring spiritual growth. “It can’t be done. It depends on the individual. That’s really private information and I don’t think we should be asking that…” It’s an honest, real dilemma.

However I don’t agree that spiritual growth and discipleship can’t be measured. John Wesley looked at discipleship (being a disciple who will make more disciples) by asking “How does your soul prosper?” Today, we might say, “How is your spiritual life?” Those are words to be spoken in love.

Me and J-Dub (John Wesley) hanging out on the Asbury Theo. Sem. campus.
Me and J-Dub (John Wesley) hanging out on the Asbury Theo. Sem. campus.

In Philippians 3 Paul talks about pressing on toward the goal, “I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (Phil. 3:12, NLT). John Wesley would call this perfection “holy love.” While we pursue God’s plan for our lives and await our entire sanctification (when we stand face to face with our Creator), we should see less and less sin and more and more love filling our heart and motivating our actions. That’s the true measure of our spiritual health.

So what is your spiritual goal? Sure, it’s great to try to be at worship for 26 consecutive weeks, or to read through 17 books of the Bible. But remember that the goal is “holy love.” Let’s work together to give everything we have to pursue Christ and the love that first loved us. As you do keep looking above and loving beyond.SignJRGBlack300

The Both/And of Growing Up in Church

My family after church, probably Easter '84 or '85.
My family after church, probably Easter ’84 or ’85.

Did you grow up in the church? Was Sunday worship attendance expected when you were a child? In our house, we were so involved and invested in the children’s ministry that we were often one of the first families to get to church and the last to leave. My parents served the children in our church and community for over three decades. Sunday morning mattered! But Sunday morning was not the only faith-forming part of my childhood.

I remember riding in our van with a caravan of friends going visit people in prison. I heard stories from my dad about sharing the love of Jesus with a man at the local doughnut shop who had fallen asleep on his hamburger. I sang songs that my mother wrote for Vacation Bible School and children’s outreach. I would sit on the steps and listen in on the Bible studies that the grown ups had in our finished basement.

One Sunday my parents volunteered to help a man move from St. Louis down to a place out in the country in Jefferson County. I didn’t hear all the details, so I was surprised when we pulled up and parked our van under an interstate bridge. We helped the stranger load up his belongings (even though they smelled like they needed to stay under the bridge!), fed him and took him to a rehabilitation center far away from the concrete jungle that had been his home.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Being connected and invested in the Body of Christ every Sunday as I was growing up was only part of the equation. Being the Church Monday through Saturday as a kid is what has really shaped my ministry and now drives my faith as an adult. It is a both/and mentality of parenting that should mirror the balance in the church between evangelism and discipleship.

What kind of balance do you have in your home between discipleship and outreach?
What kind of balance do you have in your home between discipleship and outreach?

Today I had a great time working through this with a colleague in our local church. The tendency is to gradually move from a pie chart that is close to 50/50 – a balance between reaching out to the lost and building up the people in the congregation – to a pie chart that is in the 80/20 neighborhood… 80% serving the needs of the congregation. I have to constantly evaluate my own ministry and my own parenting, otherwise I will suddenly find myself in maintenance mode rather than taking steps of faith into the unknown. What a great opportunity to show my kids that God is there, alive and by our side as we learn to love others more than ourselves.

So what excites you about sharing Sunday morning with your kids? Is there something you can share Monday through Saturday ministry that is making a lasting difference in people’s lives? Is that a part of the equation in your household? Honestly ask yourself what your pie chart percentages look like. You might have already established the fact that Sunday morning matters, but be encouraged and remember the power of serving others Monday through Saturday. As you look above and love beyond, make that a part of what matters in your life and in your family.SignJRGBlack300