A writer I know asked me a question for a piece she was writing: “What is your secret to having such an outward-focused church? Seriously, most Lutheran churches are all about maintenance. Most churches, period, are all about ME. What is your secret?”
Here is my answer to her question:
Turns out that Jesus was right. You can’t put new wine in old wine skins. The old skins whine. And most churches are full of old wine skins. They whine that they want new wine and new skins, if for no other reason than to continue the church. But they expect the new wine to mature quickly and become just like them. They expect the new skins to accommodate the old wine. But Jesus says it doesn’t work like that. They expect people who have no experience with church to value the same things they do, behave as they do, know and follow the rules as they do. In short, they expect people new to Jesus and new to the church to be just like them. But they aren’t just like them. In order to welcome in new people, by which I mean people new to faith in Jesus Christ and not just recycled members from other churches, we who are already in the church must die to ourselves and our favorite ways of doing things for the sake of welcoming new brothers and sisters. We know how to make church members. We don’t know how to make disciples. Even many life long church members have never been discipled and don’t understand that that word is the significance of the church. They don’t understand that being a disciple isn’t about simply knowing the Bible stories, it’s about whether or not you can live what the stories teach. They don’t understand that we are on the mission of God together, as a church, to love as Jesus loves and to make disciples of him. Plus, many long time church members expect that as pastor you can continue to offer them the same level of customer service they have come to expect and that you can still have time to go out and bring in more people to help pay the bills and replace those who have died. Teaching our people to die to themselves helps them to mature into Christ-likeness together. It's hard, but it's necessary.
I think the entire Church in North America must undergo a mission shift. By this I mean that we must enter into the mission of God to bring his light and love and salvation and grace and mercy and his Word made flesh to the world. To do this we must become the enfleshment of the gospel ourselves.
Here are some thoughts about what is necessary for this mission shift to occur:
- This isn’t about methods. It’s about attitude. Will we act as if we trust God or not? If all things are possible for him who believes, then we need to take the proverbial bull by the horns and act as if what we believe is going to happen.
- You need to be desperate for the kingdom in order to attempt this. You have to hunger and thirst for an experience like that church back in Acts 2. Then you have to cry out to the Lord for a vision. You have to be really, really desperate to start this - I mean, afraid that things will just continue as normal has to be your nightmare.
- Become obedient to the WHOLE WORD of God. Not just the thou shalt nots, but the thou shalts. God talks way more about caring for the widow and orphan than he spends on gay marriage and pre-marital sex.
- Live out the parables of Jesus. Take Luke 14, for example. Go put on a banquet for people who can’t bless you back.
- Follow Jesus into everything. Become radically obedient. When he says, “Love your enemies,” go round up some enemies to love and set about intentionally loving them without the expectation that they will love you back in any way.
- Preach the WHOLE Gospel. You are saved by grace through faith - in order to do good works God positioned for you in advance. You were saved for a purpose. We forget that part.
- Put obedience to the teachings of Jesus as the highest priority.
- Start making decisions as if you really did believe Jesus was coming back tomorrow. It adds an urgency to your ministry and keeps you from worrying about committing too many resources. I mean, if Jesus were coming back tomorrow, you’d want all your resources, people/money/buildings/vehicles/etc. deployed in his work, right?
- Seek the praise of God and not men or women. Forget about making people happy. You can’t. Focus only on doing something beautiful for Jesus. Please him and you will please the Father. And, according to Jesus, the world will see what you do and praise your Father in heaven.
- Understand that you are Moses and you have been chosen by God to lead his people out of slavery and death in Egypt. And understand that they will be stiffed necked and complain continuously, be disobedient and plot your demise. Lead them any way to the very best of your ability. Be sure to keep following the Presence of God in fire and cloud, or however he chooses to show you his presence.
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The future of the Church in North America is so bleak that it’s better to try and fail then not to try at all.
- Action is better than inaction. We are so far into the ditch of inaction we simply don’t need to worry about over doing yet.
- Stop treating church members like customers, consumers or share holders. Treat them as if they were soldiers of the cross and followers of Jesus. Say things like, “Jesus tells us we are to feed the poor. Therefore, we will gather this week and do so. I know you all will be there because it’s what Jesus wants.” Expect your people to follow Jesus and treat them as if they will.
- Remind people the church isn’t a cruise ship - it’s a warship. Our Master and King is at war. We are too. Now get to your action station.
- Ask forgiveness rather than permission. Step out boldly if it's the right thing to do. Remember, act as if Jesus is coming tomorrow. This is the only way to get started. Too many churches have been making big plans for too long and they will never be enacted because there is always an excuse for delay.
- Pray as much as you possibly can. Then go out and do. If it’s the wrong thing, he’ll show you and put you on the right track.
- Intentionally bless people who can't bless you back.
- Ask everyone in your community, “How can the church bless you?” We are blessed to be a blessing. But we hardly ever bless anyone. Go to the schools, the businesses, the mall, the hospitals, the restaurants. Everywhere you go ask how you can bless them. Most will laugh at you. Some will tell you what they need and it will be transformative for both of you.
- Don’t expect your people to do anything you haven’t done. If you want them to meet strangers, go meet some yourself first and tell them how to do it. If you ask them to pick up trash at an apartment complex, be sure you’ve done it.
- Don’t be afraid to lose everything and know that everything will come loose.
- Don’t be afraid to be humiliated. People will call you names and tell you that you are doing it wrong. But they’ve never done what you’re doing and they wouldn’t, even if they could. They don’t want you to do it because it means that it can be done and they should be doing it too. When the Church is on mission, it makes lazy Christians look bad.
- Talk is cheap. Live your sermons out in front of God and everyone else. Show everyone what loving Jesus looks like.
- Understand that your family will suffer. People will be out to get you for shaking things up and because they’re out to get you, your family will be in the cross hairs, too. Long time friends will desert you. You will experience financial hardship. You will be in and out of depression. You will have long, tiring meetings that will not end well. But God is faithful and one of the highest callings is to suffer for the name of Jesus and for the gospel. Learn to revel in suffering for dong what God wants.
- Do hard things. Go out and find hard things you can’t do but that need to be done and then go and try to do them. Take risks, putting yourself in situations where only God can save you. You have to learn to live by faith.
- Look for ways to make the gospel real. Look for ways to practice radical forgiveness. Do the unexpected. Practice a radical grace. People have no imagination for the kingdom these days. We need to show them what it looks like. I think that’s why Jesus taught in parables. They stimulate our imagination for what might be.
- Practice generosity. Jesus says give to everyone who asks. It’s hard, but pay other people’s bills before you pay your own.
- Practice collective death to self by giving away the building. Let everyone who needs it use it for free. Go volunteer your building as an emergency shelter with your county emergency management office. Give keys to the local school in case they need a rally point during a disaster. Whatever it is, do it.
- Practice a radical dependance on God, not people. When money is low, stop passing the plate. Put a box in the lobby and tell the people that what they give is between them and God. Then make the elders pray all night for God to send the resources. He responds to challenges like that when we acknowledge that he alone can save us and that our salvation does not come through people.
- Realize that gospel opportunities are totally spontaneous and cannot be engineered. You cannot turn this way of life into a program nor can you budget for it. How much does it cost? Everything and more. Rather, when you see an opportunity, take it. Don’t be afraid to commit to what you cannot do. If it’s an opportunity from God he will miraculously provide. Trust that the opportunity is from him and he’ll provide and do it. We committed to get 35 kids back and forth to school everyday before we had any vans or drivers. God provides.
- Leverage everything you’ve got for the mission. We had no money but we did have a building. So we leveraged it. It is now in use almost 24/7 now. It’s hip in the missional movement to say that buildings are just a huge expense. But we had one so we used it. What do you have? Use it.
- If you’re doing things that aren’t mission, kill them. We cut two staff positions because they only served the membership and the staff members were’n’t open to expanding their roles to embrace the mission shift. The money we saved was immediately absorbed into feeding hungry people, starting an Iraqi community group, and buying beds for families sleeping on the floors of bed-bug infested apartments.
- Ruthlessly fight fear with faith. Speak faith to fear all the time by committing acts of outrageous love. The devil will use all the fear he has to make your people and you turn back and stop following Jesus and stop trusting him. It’s like suddenly you’ll be jarred awake and realize you’re walking on a high wire with no net. The tendency is to panic. Remember that the real war here is in the spiritual realms. Then go back to work. Be courageous and be bold. The devil flees from faith. Sometimes you just have to double down and force people to keep going. You wind up burning every bridge so they can’t retreat. You’re like a gambler doubling down on each bet, trusting God is going to give you the victory.
- Remind people that salvation isn’t about when you’re dead, it’s about how you live right now.
- Above all, maintain unity in Christ. Exalt the kingdom over the congregation and pursue the interests of Christ above your own. Seek unity with other churches. Especially minority churches. Jesus was serious about that whole John 17 thing and we do well to be obedient to his prayer request. People may attack you for trying to reconcile differences for the sake of unity. But if we aren’t reconciling are we really a church? People will attack you for seeking unity but it isn’t really unity they don’t want, they just don’t want Jesus that much. Don’t stop. Love never gives up.
Thanks for reading. You can read the writer, Rebecca Florence Miller’s piece in Patheos at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rebeccaflorencemiller/2015/12/the-blessing-of-serving-refugees/