Month: June 2010

When Church is a Mistress

It’s become hip to rip on the church. People like to blame their problems on “the church.” You can hear these criticisms in popular culture. Take, for instance, Arcade Fire’s song “Intervention”:

Working for the Church while your family dies
You take what they give you and you keep it inside
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home
Hear the solider groan, “We’ll go at it alone””

The song paints the church as a militant institution, driven by discipline and an over-bearing work ethic. The central character sacrifices his family on the altar of “church” or ministry. This is often true. Churches all too often have more in common with Wall Street than they do Scripture. They enforce a merciless work ethic in the name of “mercy” or “gospel” ministry. All work no play.

There’s a Mistress in the House

My first year of church planting I started a new, full-time job, a new city, a new daughter, and a new church. Guess which one got the least attention? Family. As all these new things filled our lives, they began to crowd conversation with my wife. What was once natural—inquiring about my wife’s hopes, fears, and joys—became unnatural, even absent from our conversation. She patiently continued to ask how I was doing, but I was “working for the church while my family died.”

As my wife began to wither without the invigorating love of her husband, she revealed the affair. I’ll never forget her crushing comment: “I feel like there’s a mistress in the house.” I was alarmed and frustrated. How dare she make such a comparison! After all, I made a point of being home by 5:30 and on weekends. I made sure we had good family rhythms—breakfast and devotions, dinner and downtime. How could she say there was a “mistress” in our home? Then it dawned on me—you can be home without being home. I was present but absent. My thoughts, emotions, and concerns were with another Bride while I was home, not with my bride.

I had felt the gradual distance growing between us, but chalked it up to two kids under two and the important demands of church. I was wrong and Arcade Fire was right. The spark of love cannot live without a home. A house isn’t sufficient. Being present doesn’t cut it. What our relationships need is a home, a place where families can laugh, play, cry, and talk deeply together.

Recovering Your First Love

What was once natural became a discipline. I began to discipline myself to turn conversations away from church, work, and ministry and towards her and our children. I began to love her by asking about her hopes, dreams, fears, to encourage her hobbies and friendships. I relearned how to empathize and suffer, rejoice and laugh with her. Slowly the spark of love began to kindle. The warmth of friendship began to return in our resurrected home. My thought was that discipline could give way to desire. But discipline wasn’t enough.

What my wife wants, what every wife wants, is not a disciplined, duty-driven husband, but a loving, desire-driven husband. A husband whom, when thanked for a weekend get-away without the kids, says to his wife: “It’s my pleasure” not “It’s my duty”! Our wives want to be desired, cherished, valued. In fact, all people want to be cherished, but until we clear the shelf of our hearts of subtle idolatries, discipline will not give way to desire. We must put away our “mistresses.”

Repentance is Good News

In order to put away our sinful lovers, we need a power outside of ourselves. We need the power of repentance and faith. In Revelation 2-3, Jesus calls the seven churches to repentance. For example, he writes to the church at Laodicea: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” In love, Jesus calls us to zealously repent.

I repented from loving the worth I received from my work, the significance I gained from serving my church. To repent is to turn. When we turn, we turn away from one direction toward another. The proof of repentance is not in our confession or resolve but in turning from our lovers and turning to our Savior. Where do we get the power of repentance? How do we conquer these lesser loves? By Spirit-empowered faith in the promises of God.

Jesus continues: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. ​If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, ​I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (3:19). The call to repentance is followed by the promise of satisfaction in Christ. Leave your lovers and turn to your one, true Love. Open the door and Christ will come to you, not only that, he will dine with you. Repentance is a call away from the famine of idolatry to the feast of table fellowship with Christ. Repentance is always good news.

All who over-work and under-love need to repent. We need to confess the idolatries of worth-by-work, of significance-by-service, and turn to face the loving, all-accepting, never-ending significance offered to us in the arms of our Savior’s embrace. Through Spirit-empowered trust in the promises of God, we can draw near to Christ and receive his perfect love, acceptance, and grace. It is from this position alone that we can truly love our wives and families. When we are satisfied in Christ, we can satisfy our wives. When we cherished by Christ, we can freely cherish others.

We don’t have to work for the church, the corporation, or the business while our families die. Every spark of friendship and love does not have to die. We can build a home that is filled with love, if Christ takes center place. When we embrace the practice of repentance and faith in Jesus, the idolatries of work can be cleared away with Christ at the center of our affections. Then and only then are we free to truly love others. When we do this, we will adorn the gospel of Christ and restore the reputation of the Church, revealing the glories of the gospel in gift of marriage.

Organic Religious Growth

You will observe that I am not merely exhorting you “to go to church.” “Going to church” is in any case good. But what I am exhorting you to do is go to your own church—to give your presence and active religious participation to every stated meeting for worship of the institution as an institution. Thus you will do your part to give to the institution an organic religious life, and you will draw out from the organic religious life of the institution a support and inspiration for your own personal religious life which you can get nowhere else, and which you can cannot afford to miss—if, that is, you have a care to your religious quickening and growth. To be an active member of a living religious body is the condition of healthy religious functioning.

~ B. B. Warfield, The Religious Life of Theological Students

My Book Excerpt: Churchless Christianity

The American landscape is dotted with churchless Christianity. Church has been reduced to a weekly event, even a religious institution. Instead of being the church, we have fallen into merely doing church, and far too often our doing is disconnected from being. Church has devolved from Gospel-centered community into man-centered institutions or events that look more like: shopping malls, fortresses, and cemeteries. These aberrations contribute to the confusion regarding “church” in America. In order to better understand Gospel community, it is important that we first understand its abberations.

Shopping Mall Churches

Shopping mall churches dress up the gospel in cultural clothing, dress down the message of Jesus, and try to lure consumers in with their spiritual package—a Sunday “experience.” Every time I drive to Dallas, Texas I pass a church that boldly advertises their Sunday package at the low price of thirty minutes. Their banner reads: “30 Minute Worship.  This innovative service is for anybody who is tired of the way traditional church has been done, has limited time, or has to work Sundays. The high energy, focused package will creatively engage you to personally connect with God.”

How creative and personally connected can you get to God in thirty minutes? We’ve all had a conversation with the person who watches the clock closely. They constantly check their phone during the conversation. Towards the end of the meeting they flinch, shake, or tap some part of their body repeatedly. You feel unwanted, not “personally connected.” Consumer church cuts the relationship with God and one another right out of Christianity replacing it with a spiritual product. It can’t even get its one-third of the gospel right, never mind the other two-thirds, which include community and mission!

Fortress Churches

Fortress churches also distort the gospel. They build their doctrinal towers nice and high, hide behind the walls that separate them from the city, and launch grenades of truth into “the culture”, hoping to scare a few pagans into the safety of their walls. Sometimes the walls these churches erect aren’t doctrinal but moral. They insist on certain level of perceptible morality before allowing the outsiders inside the church. One of my favorite examples of the fortress mentality comes from the church sign down the street from my house. Marking each season with a “gospel message”, they greet the city in the Spring by posting: “Spring is God’s greeting card.” Fine enough. But in Texas, Spring is quickly followed by a long, hot summer, to which they respond: “You think it’s hot out there?” Comforting. Fortress churches cut grace right out of the gospel by insisting we get our morality or doctrine straight before joining the church or we will end up in hell.

Cemetery Churches

Then there are the cemetery churches. The ones that have died. Well, they are alive but they aren’t. It’s difficult to find a pulse. A wandering soul walks into the Sunday service of cemetery church only to be confronted with lifeless, joyless Christianity, a kind of dried up religious community that simply goes through the motions. Church growth isn’t even on the radar. Mission has been reduced to church survival. It’s hard to believe in the Jesus who promised “life abundantly” when you encounter a church that has more in common with zombies than with disciples of Jesus. The fortress church cuts the heart right out of Christianity and replaces it with dead, lifeless religion.

Shopping mall, fortress, and cemetery churches are consumerist, doctrinaire, lifeless institutions that lack Jesus-centered missional community. Why this gross distortion of the church? There are far too many reasons to discuss here, but a fundamental reason is that a one-third Gospel characterizes Christianity in America. This one-third gospel is hardly the Gospel of Christ at all. It focuses on Jesus’ death and resurrection as a product to be sold, a doctrine to be believed, or a religion to be practiced. This one-third gospel is not only incomplete but also contaminated, polluted with the garbage of consumerism, individualism, and religion. Before we can press into the other “two-thirds” of the gospel, we need to get the “one-third” right.

*This is an excerpt from my forthcoming booklet: Gospel-centered Missional Community.

Gospel Renewal Among the Homeless

It is impossible to avoid homelessness in Austin, where it is estimated that on any given night up to 6,000 people sleep without a home. In January, at Austin City Life, we talked about renewing our beloved city by moving people from a place of mercy to a place of justice, from temporary hand-outs to permanent transformation. As one City Group discussed the call of the gospel to advocate for justice, they began to ask questions about what it would look like to do this with Austin’s homeless. In a matter of months, a vibrant, viral gospel ministry has begun among Austin’s homeless, moving them from mercy to justice. Here are some stories of transformation among our homeless friends (by Nate Schlueter, a mission leader in one of our City Groups).

In a matter of months, a vibrant, viral gospel ministry has begun among Austin’s homeless, moving them from mercy to justice.

Reflecting Christ in Relationship with the Homeless

We decided that to effectively engage the homeless we would not be able to judge our success based on tangible help. There are plenty of excellent organizations in our city that can feed or clothe homeless people with way more resources than a small group like ours could ever expect to have. Instead, success in our mission is based only on two things: 1) What kind of friends we are to the homeless and 2) How well we reflect Christ’s love to them. Simply said our mission is: To Reflect Christ through genuine relationships with homeless people. We treat them with the same love, dignity, and respect that we would our closest friends. As we began to build these relationships, it became very clear to us that our new friends were in fact very talented and interested in working, especially in the idea of micro-enterprise.

Micro-enterprise Among the Homeless

We worked with them to discover their skills and develop a plan for them to create art, crafts, and contemporary home furnishings to sell at Austin’s weekly art shows. We create all of the items from recycled or renewed material. Our slogan is RENEW: Recycle, Restore, Repurpose- this is what we do when making the items and what we fully expect Christ to do in their lives and in ours. The results have been incredible.

We have seen people that were initially scared and skeptical of homeless people loving them, sharing meals with them, opening their homes to them for showers, and sitting in the woods for hours talking to them about Christ and life.

In the first five weeks, through the art shows and part time jobs we facilitated for them, we have been able to build platforms for them to earn over $1600. They are spend it wisely. Many of their lives are beginning to  change dramatically and, maybe even more so, our lives are changing. We have seen people that were initially scared and skeptical of homeless people loving them, sharing meals with them, opening their homes to them for showers, and sitting in the woods for hours talking to them about Christ and life. There are many amazing stories of how God is moving, Here are just a few that I have personally witnessed.

From Bitter Religion to Gospel Dignity

About a month ago I came out to their camp to check up on them and discovered that Dan was the only one there. He seemed like something was on his mind so I asked him what it was. He told me that everyday he wakes up thinking about how his parents got divorced and how angry he still is about it. He told me they got divorced when he was 13, he is now 46. He was raised in a strict Roman Catholic home and does not understand how his parents could break God’s commandments like that. It became apparent that the very religion and legalism that he believed to bind him to God was actually keeping him from forgiving and living in grace. He judges himself with the same standards he judges his parents because he too has broken several commandments. He has woken up every day for 33 years angry about what happened.

We talked, we prayed, we shared life, we cried, and we shared our dreams for over two hours. Dan is now working on operating daily through Christ’s forgiveness and grace instead of through anger. Dan is a very talented craftsman and mechanic and we are currently working with him to get him a job as a mechanics helper or lube technician. We are also helping him open up a savings account so that he can start saving to buy a camper and rent a place to put it at an RV park.

Master Craftsmen Discipling Urban Christians

When we first started hanging out with our friends the subject came up about what I would be doing on that Saturday. I told them that I was going to help some some people from my church replace a very old deck in their backyard that had become unsafe for their children to play on. They immediately said that they wanted to come and to pick them up at 9 that Saturday. I graciously explained that this was volunteer work and nobody had budgeted to pay anyone to help. They looked offended and said they just wanted to help.

It isn’t just a one-way street anymore, people from total opposite ends of society are starting to live life together and everything is changing for all of us.

When we got their they immediately started taking apart the things that we hard started to assemble and began reconstructing and revising our initial plans for the deck. Apparently the deck we were planning on building would not be any safer than the old one and would not be up to code. I watched amused as these homeless craftsmen gently pushed us middle-class urbanites out of the way and built this totally amazing deck for some people they hardly knew. It became apparent that not only did they have amazing skills, but that we were all learning from them. Here were three men with nothing giving there time to people with way more than them. As I watched them give back and minister to us that day, I realized that we were crossing into an area that none of us had ever been before. They truly loved us back and thought of us as their friends and they were just trying to be good friends. It isn’t just a one-way street anymore, people from total opposite ends of society are starting to live life together and everything is changing for all of us.