Grace and action are NOT mutually exclusive

"This February 27th, join us and other Freedom Fighters from around the world as we SHINE A LIGHT ON SLAVERY. Draw a RED X on your hand. Tell your world that slavery still exists and YOU WON’T STAND FOR IT. Just use your influence any way you can to help us carry the message of FREEDOM so even more people know. Let’s make this SHINE A LIGHT ON SLAVERY DAY even brighter than ever."

This is the premise behind the End It Movement, a group dedicated to highlighting the reality of modern day slavery and the need for our world leaders to wake up to an issue that is largely being ignored and needs to be shut down. Right now, 27 million men, women, and children around the world are trapped in slavery ranging anywhere from sex trafficking to forced labor. Because of that reality, I happily drew a red X on my hand and even sent my kids to school with X's on their hands. No, awareness alone is not enough to stop slavery, but without awareness  the issue of slavery will never even be addressed.

The catalysts behind the End It Movement are Christians, men and women who believe that grace means more than just saying that "I'm saved." But if you look at the End It Movement website, there is no mention of Jesus or the gospel on it. Instead, you find a whole bunch of like-minded people and organizations who are united in their desire to see a gross injustice rectified. The End it Movement and others like it understand that the gospel is the undercurrent to every act of grace that there is. Grace is to be extended to the least of these in our world even if they choose not to respond to the gospel of Jesus or the gospel is not even uttered. You see, grace and action are not mutually exclusive; they are not separate entities.

Throughout the gospels we see Jesus in and out of towns and villages healing the sick, casting out demons, meeting real physical needs. We also read of Him proclaiming the good news of the kingdom (the gospel) in those same towns and villages. Sometimes we read a story of Jesus just teaching, while at other times we read of His incredible miracles of healing without there being any mention of His proclaiming the gospel. Now this doesn't mean that Jesus did not mix the two at every location, just that it is not always recorded that way.

Which brings us to a very important question: Is it okay to only preach the gospel but not physically help people?

If you are a Christian, that question probably seems pretty ludicrous to you. I mean, who actually thinks it's okay to preach to people but not help them in the midst of their needs at the same time? Who thinks like that? Christians, that's who, and we do it all the time. 

We sit in worship services and learn about the needs of people around the world. Many of us gather in small groups to discuss gospel issues and the plight of the poor and needy inevitably comes to our minds. You drive down the road and see the man on the corner holding up a sign pleading for help. The national news shows yet another story of a country boiling with unrest under the strain from a godless dictator. Your heart aches for those in need and you hold out hope that those people in need would find help and most importantly would enter into a relationship with Jesus. 

That's usually when you think to yourself, "I can't help everyone who has a need and no matter how vocal I become about social injustices, my solitary voice will rarely be heard by those who can actually enact change." Therefore, many of us throw our hands up and assume that here will be others who have more influence with the world's change-agents who can actually get the job done. We'll just wait for them to step up and do what we know they are capable of doing while we continue to go to church and study our Bibles together and remember to pray for those around the world who are struggling. Where is Bono when we need him?

Here's the problem with that line of thinking: Its completely un-Jesus-like. Jesus never separated grace from action because to Him they are not mutually exclusive. Grace is not about works - never has been, never will be - yet grace without works is hardly grace at all (James 2:14-26, "Faith without works is dead."). No, you probably can't change the world by yourself, but you can do something. So do it. 

That leads us to another relevant question in our conversation:  Is it okay to help people in need without preaching the gospel to them?

In order to address that question, let's highlight one example from Jesus' life in Mark's gospel. At the beginning of Mark 8 we know that Jesus has previously fed 5,000 people from just a few pieces of bread and a couple of fish, and now He and His disciples find themselves in a similar situation with a large hungry crowd in front of them (Mark 8:1-10). In this example, it does not say that Jesus had been teaching the crowd, although we assume He probably had been since the crowd had been with Him for three days. Instead, Jesus' focus is on their physical needs:
I have compassion on the crowd, because they've already stayed with Me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home famished, they will collapse on the way, and some of them have come a long distance. (Mark 8:2-3)
Jesus saw people in need and instantly His heart went out to them. He had to do something. And we are given no indication at all that the action of feeding these people in any way was conditional on whether or not they had sat down to hear a gospel presentation. The compassion that Jesus felt was born out of the reality of the grace of the gospel that He came to live out among us.

It must be the same for us. Our desire to help others in need must be born from the reality of what grace has done in our lives and not whether we are able to successfully promote an agenda. Yes, it would be fantastic if every person that we helped would surrender his or her life to Christ; if every mission trip that we undertook to help those in poverty resulted in tremendous harvests for the kingdom of God; if this campaign to end slavery and human trafficking resulted in countless men and women falling in love with Jesus. Oh how I pray that his happens!

Yes, we must continue to preach the gospel to those in need because the gospel is ultimately the only thing that can satisfy. At the same time, let us seek to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and free the captives with all of our efforts, even if it means that we are not able to proclaim the gospel message as we would hope to do. We do so because our actions are driven by grace, the grace that has transformed us and given us hearts to love as Jesus loves, and because grace and action are not mutually exclusive. As we strive to be grace givers and grace livers, the power of God in and through our actions will not return void. Needs will be met. Hurts will be healed. And the gospel of grace will be proclaimed.

Sometimes staying in the boat requires more faith

If you've only listened to Christian radio for 15 minutes in your entire life, you have undoubtedly heard the song by Casting Crowns entitle The voice of Truth:
 Oh what I would do to have the kind of faith it takes to climb out of this boat I'm in, onto the crashing waves.
It is one of an encyclopedic number of songs that laud the faith that it must have taken for Peter to step out of the boat and walk on water toward Jesus when a storm was raging all around him. Sure, when he took his eyes off of Jesus, Peter began to sink but it was Jesus who gripped him by the hand and allowed him to stand in the midst of the storm. (Matthew 14:22-33)

Not only is this story recounted in music but I've also heard it preach countless times in sermons. If we could just have enough faith to get out of the boat and trust Jesus, our faith would be stronger and our lives would be richer.

So what about the other 11 guys that stayed in the boat? Were they just a bunch of weak dudes who could not trust Jesus enough? These guys really don't get a bad rap - they don't get much further treatment at all in Matthew's account. But in defense of them, I want to make a bold statement:
The 11 guys who stayed in the boat actually demonstrated more faith than Peter.
In order to show you why this is so, let's walk through the story together (Matthew 14:22-33). As our story begins, we see that Jesus sends His disciples ahead in the boat while He stays behind to send the crowds that He has just been teaching home. After some time in prayer, Jesus decides to go catch up with the guys by walking on the water. Sounds crazy to you and me but not for Jesus. At the same time, they were fighting a pretty big storm and the boat was being battered by the waves. Suddenly, they see someone walking on the water and they all freak out. I probably would too. They cry out in fear, "It's a ghost!" and I can imagine them trying their hardest to steer the boat in the other direction. 

What happens next is that Jesus steps in. He responds to their fearful cries with, "Have courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." Jesus immediately identifies Himself to His disciples in the midst of the storm. You can relate to that, right? Right in the middle of all of the chaos that is your life, God reminds you that He is there and that you don't have to be afraid. This is really where the story should end but it's actually where Peter decides to veer a little off course.

You see, Peter's response wasn't, "Whew! I'm glad it was you, Jesus. You had me scared half to death!" Instead, here is what Peter said: "Lord, if it's You, command me to come to You on the water." In other words, Peter shouted back to Jesus the equivalent of "Prove it!"  What happens next is the substance for all of the songs that we sing and sermons that are written. Jesus invites Peter to walk on the water toward Him, which he does until he becomes scared again and begins to sink, only to have Jesus reach out to him to save him from drowning.

Do you see what has gone on thus far? We have Peter doubting Jesus not once but twice. Not only did he ask Jesus to prove that it was him but then he took his eyes off of Him while on the water and almost went under. 

And do you know where the other guys were? They were still in the boat. And they were there not because of a lack of faith but rather because of an abundance of it. They took Jesus at His word when He told them that is was Him and not a ghost. These 11 did not ask Jesus to prove anything. They took Him at His word.

Jesus' next words to Peter firm up this perspective. "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" Jesus says these words not to all 12 disciples but to Peter alone. That's because Peter was the one who demonstrated a lack of faith for not trusting to begin with.

Granted, Peter did show courage by walking on the water and trusting that He could just because Jesus had invited him to do so. That makes for better songs than singing about 11 guys just sitting in a boat. And I'm sure that some of the other 11 would have loved to have been able to do that as well. But what kept them in the boat was the same thing that took Peter lacked and cause him to step of out of the boat and almost under water: Faith. 

Kudos to Peter for walking on water. In that we have an amazing example of how God reaches down to rescue us in the midst of our mess. But mad props to the other 11 disciples for not having to test the waters to begin with because they took Jesus as His word. Sometimes it takes more faith to stay in the boat and trust that God has got you secure in the midst of the storm.

Hiding behind yourself -or- Jesus isn't into making lists

"Everything is permissible for me," but not everything is helpful. "Everything is permissible for me," but I will not be brought under the control of anything...
Do you not know that your bodies are the members of Christ?...
 Do you not know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought at a price; therefore, glorify God in your body.
(1 Corinthians 6:12, 15, 19-20)

Do you have a few minutes for me to list for you all of the things that you should not be taking into your body as a Christian? Let's start with pornography. No one that I know would doubt that pornography is incredibly harmful and that it has no benefit at all to the human heart or mind. I know of not one marriage that has benefited from pornography. Oddly enough, I don't hear these words very often from pulpits across America. Instead, we prefer to pick and choose which sexual sins offend us the most - like homosexuality - while we shy away from the more obvious and pervasive issues of adultery and pornography. 

From there, let's talk about drinking. It's evil, the devil's juice, and nothing good can come from it. At least that's what many believer's claim. It is more subject to opinion and semantics, yet we can all agree that drunkenness is a sin and alcohol abuse leads to misery, disease, and death. But let's err on the side of the "stumbling brother" and declare all of its use abhorrent to God - unless of course you are baking a rum cake, at which point it is entirely acceptable.

And then let's discuss tobacco use and over-eating. Wait, you don't want to talk about those things? I mean come on, most of us are well aware of the dangers of smoking and tobacco use, aren't we? And surely you know the onslaught of disease that obesity brings - diabetes, heart disease, blood pressure problems, and so on and so forth. Aren't these things just as deadly and sinful when they are abused?

Here's the deal. Christians are quite crafty at taking Scriptures they like and applying them only to areas that personally offend them. When an obese pastor rails from the pulpit against homosexuality to a congregation filled with straight men struggling with pornography who just grabbed that last puff from their cigarettes prior to the service, then we have missed something here.

The oft-repeated phrase that "Christianity is not about rules, but rather about a relationship" bears much truth, but you couldn't tell it these days. Endless blog posts tackling the tough areas of alcohol and pornography are mostly helpful but entirely incomplete when they fail to address other areas of abuse. And I also don't find Jesus stressing endless lists in the Bible.

So let's look at what at least one portion of Scripture tells us. 1 Corinthians 6 (some of which is quoted above) records Paul's words to the church in Corinth. These Christians are struggling with all sorts of issues and they have also bought into much of the popular philosophy of the day. They have reasoned within themselves that "everything is permissible." In other words, as long as we act in moderation then we are okay. Paul corrects their thinking by telling them that "not everything is helpful." This truth is what most Christians latch on to when addressing questionable areas such as drinking. Am I allowed to? Yes. Should I? Not if it controls you or proves to be unhelpful. 

Unfortunately this application is often limited to only a few areas of concern and struggle, which is why overweight, smoking, mean-spirited gossips who claim to be Christians can sit in their ivory towers and cast stones at the men and women who drink a glass of wine. What this allows us to do is to hide behind ourselves so that we do not have to address our own issues of struggle. As long as I am engaged in the fight for your purity and holiness, I can overlook the battle for my own.

Look, I've been around long enough to know that we will probably all never agree on whether or not social drinking is okay or whether enjoying tobacco is a total offense to God. And I realize that the masses would probably storm the church gates once they finished their third round at Golden Corral if pastors regularly spoke out against obesity. So is there a solution, a common ground that we can camp out on?

Yes there is.

Do you not know that your bodies are the members of Christ?... Do you not know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? God indwells you. Whatever you bring in - be it food or drink or pornography or whatever pleasures - you share these with the Spirit. Think about the next time you choose to indulge.

You are not your own, for you were bought at a price. While you are justly defending the right of the unborn against those who believe that they can do whatever they want with their bodies, let these words sink in to you. Yes, you value and fight to protect life, but do you just as vigorously strive to care for the body that God paid the highest price to give to you? You also cannot do whatever you want to your body because it is not your own.

Therefore, glorify God in your body. That pretty much sums it up. If you can't bring glory to God in some way in and with your body, then don't engage in whatever it is that you are contemplating. This is a huge argument used to dissuade Christians from drinking, but when applied to eating it becomes the elephant in the room. So let's be honest, it's not as ambiguous or grey as we want to believe. Live to bring glory to God and leave the list-making to the religious ones.

Deep-fried worship

The Dixie Classic Fair used to be the one event that I anxiously anticipated every year. It's not nearly as big as the State Fair in Raleigh, NC, but when the Dixie Classic rolled into Winston-Salem every fall, I made sure that I had saved up a little bit of cash and had purged my system with a semi-fast so that I could indulge in as much fried decadence as my body could take. No one had to tell me to go the fair - I knew it was coming and it was where I wanted to be.

When the fair came to town, one thing I did not expect to see was the fair workers at my front door. I mean, they were busy getting the rides ready and their tents and booths set up. Why would they come to my house to see me? I knew where the big show was going to be so it was up to me to make the time to go. They were the attraction, I was the spectator.

Oh my, did I just describe many churches today?

Let me preface my remarks by saying that I think it is great that we have so many different modes of worship expression in our churches today. Sure, there are many things that are over the top that make me cringe, but no more so than the stale and dead liturgies that plague many of our houses of worship. My concern is not so much with the stylistic methodology of worship but rather with the mission of the church.

When we pride ourselves in our worship services and believe that what we've got going is good enough to fill the seats, we have betrayed the purpose of our assembling together. When Jesus charged His church to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), this was not an invitation to merely come and see. Our worship gatherings are not to be a show or a spectacle - they are the avenue by which the body of Christ assembles for biblical instruction, corporate worship, prayer, fellowship, and mutual giving (Acts 2:41-47). I prefer an energetic and engaging style of worship, yet it is important to remember that our worship services are a means, not the end.

Far too many leave a service on Sunday morning coming off the high of the wow factor. The pastor "brought it", the music was "on point", the atmosphere was "electric", and now it's time to go an take a nap after beating the crowds to Chili's so that we can process what it is that we've just seen and heard. It's almost like we leave on Sundays with a worship hangover, much like that feeling you get when you leave the fair after having one too many deep fried Oreo's. The big question that needs to invade your brain is this: Did you leave changed and challenged by the gospel? If so, then you will do more than process what you have seen and heard - you will be unable to escape the reality of what the gospel compels of you.

The goal of the church is not for others to simply come and see. It is for us to go and live and tell. The gospel does not invite you to gather into special groups once a week so that you can indulge in self-absorbed Christianity. No, the gospel compels us to live out the expression of grace that has transformed us through the cross of Jesus. Most lost people will not come to our church gatherings to see or hear this. The world is unimpressed (and maybe a bit amused) at our flashy church services that cater only to the believer. Thus we are the ones who must show up on their door steps to announce that the kingdom of God is here, that the gospel is life-changing and satisfying.


Not another church blog

Resistance is futile. If you troll social media sites for only 5 minutes a day you will see them. These pithy articles written by well-educated and well-meaning men and women who genuinely are concerned about the church and therefore blog about the church with endless lists of reasons why this generation or that generation is no longer going to church and what the church can do to fix the church. Don't get me wrong - I, too, have a burden for God's church and I see a lot that I find distasteful and counterproductive - but I don't know if I can handle reading another blog post about it. So I guess it's time to write one of my own.

Before I begin, let me preface my remarks this way - I am no expert on the church. My experience in local churches has spanned decades now but in no way am I a guru on all things church. I have not read most of the books written on the church that are out there and I miss out on most of the church growth conference and seminars that come to town. Yet I love the church, the bride of Christ, and I have been called to serve within God's church. And like you, I want to see the church flourish.

Without going into a history lesson on what the church is, I want to begin with a passage of Scripture in the New Testament that I believe serves as the catalyst for beginning the conversation on the church. Acts 2:41-47 describes in great details the actions and attitudes of a group of Christ followers who regularly assembled themselves together in the wake of Jesus' ascension back into heaven. Look at how their gathering was described:
  • They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers (vs.42)
  • All the believers were together and had everything in common (vs.44)
  • They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need (vs.45)
  • Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They at their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all people. (vs.46-47a)
  • And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved. (vs.47b)
That's quite a list! These words are more than a template by which we follow to design our churches - they describe the church itself. There is no outline for style preferences or buildings. Here you find no lists of why Millenials no longer are attending church or how to increase attendance/relevancy/space in an ever-changing culture or the newest evangelism program that meets on Sunday afternoons. What you do find is people who love Jesus living out their love for Him in ways that are so intentional that God is messing up everyone who comes into contact with them.

This church is serious about the word of God and prayer. Fellowship with each other is a priority. They not only sought to meet the physical needs of those within their church but they also were compelled to sacrifice their own belonging so that others could flourish (this is much more than passing a plate or taking up a love offering). They possesses a genuine joy that only comes from God and were content with where they were and with what God had given to them. They were changed by the gospel of Jesus and are now living out that gospel in their everyday lives. As a result, God blessed them and greatly multiplied their numbers.

Honestly, I cannot add anything to that list. Yes, cultural contexts are different from nation to nation, but the truth of these words are timeless. I also cannot give definitive answers as to why certain groups are no longer attending church or why one style of worship is more effective for reaching our world than another. But I do know what I see in Scripture - the church being the church. Absent are all these church strategies that seem to dominate so much of our focus these days.

So what would happen if we simply focused on loving God and loving people (Matthew 22:37-38)? I think we all see what God can and will do when we make our love for Him our single greatest focus and delight and satisfaction - And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved. This is not church growth; this is God's people living out their faith and God naturally expanding His kingdom as a result.

Who's got your back?

As I have gotten older I have grown to truly appreciate history. Not that I didn't enjoy history when I was in school, it's just th...