Monday, January 17, 2011

Country Club Christianity

Let's play a game called "Where Am I?" (And I'm going to warn you up front that there may be hints of sarcasm throughout this blog entry... but it's not because I mean to offend anyone - it's that when I'm passionate about something I tend to lose control a little. I'm working on that.)

So here's how we play the game: I describe a place to you, and you guess where I am. Easy? Ok, good, here we go. I'm walking into a polished white building. There on the announcement board in front of me is a notice about the monthly ladies gathering for crafts. Then below that is another announcement for the upcoming men's biking trip. A calendar is also hanging on the wall that schedules the regular pot-lucks and "Community BBQ/Pic-nics". There's an aerobics class on Tuesday mornings, and childcare on Fridays for "Mother's Morning Out". A baby shower is being planned for Susie, and I can sign up to bring a lunch item if I wish. As I walk a little further I see a board with the names of perspective members listed along with their pictures. And the new member directories are out on the table for anyone to take. I walk into the ladies bathroom and hear a few girls chatting quietly about how they heard that Janie's husband cheated on her and has moved out of the house. As I leave, I put my name on the sign-up sheet for the ladies craft event and I jot down the name of the person I need to call to sign up to volunteer for next week's river clean up.

Where am I? Well, someone might say, "Oh I know... that's my local country club." Another might say, "No, no, I know where she is... it's my local church." Which one is it? My heart breaks at the thought that, for some, it may actually be hard to differentiate between the two. I'm not trying to pick on anyone's particular church here, but I do think we need to take a serious look at our mission as church-goers and evaluate how that mission is being carried out. And if we can't tell the difference between a church and a country club, then something has gone astray since the first church began back in the day of Acts.

I want to say that I've been to many excellent churches that don't look anything like this example I gave, and I am impressed by the growing number of ministries that are right on target with the true mission of Jesus for His church. However, I've also seen some that sadly look more like an exclusive social club than anything Jesus ever implemented. Why is that? How did we get so off track that we got the idea that church is supposed to be a place for meeting social needs and learning how to knit? I run the risk of offending with my sarcasm here, but I just can't imagine the early church - or the church Jesus went to - having a craft night for ladies. Is that what some people's Christianity has been reduced to? I just can't help but wonder how the point is being missed.

In some countries, Christianity is illegal and people cannot worship God freely and openly without fear of persecution or death. They go to underground churches and risk their lives to open a Bible and tell others about the saving grace of Christ. As those Christians sneak into dark apartments to meet in secret to pray and read their Bibles by candlelight, I just can't imagine them breaking out the crafts or enjoying a game of Bingo. They have serious work to do, and they can't afford to waste any time on frivolous social gatherings.

I'm not suggesting that we can't have fun and be social at church, or that every time we get together it has to be all serious work and no play. The fact is, we are free to worship and we don't face persecution, so we don't have to act like we do. But let's not take that so for granted that we neglect to do God's business either. Church is a family - after all, we're brothers and sisters in Christ. And we all have an automatic bond based on that truth. It's perfectly fine to enjoy that bond by having fun together - I've had some of the best times of my life hanging out with my church family. But we can't get so focused on ourselves that we forget what we're there to do. We have a mission, and Jesus should be the forefront of everything we do. He should always be the reason we gather. If we're not making disciples - either by growing in discipleship ourselves or contributing to the discipleship of someone else - we shouldn't call it church.

If the ladies are going to gather every month - great. But open a Bible and talk about God's plan for being a godly wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, employee, etc. Spend some time praying for one another's burdens and strengthening/encouraging one another as you run the race together. Then others can look on at your life and your character and hunger for what you have, which is the spirit of the living God dwelling within you. You learn to live out the gospel by wearing it as a display for the world to notice. My life was changed on a women's retreat (vacation) with my church when I was in my early 20s. That was because we spent just as much time (or more) as we did lounging on the beach, intensely studying God's word, learning from the experience of other wise women, worshiping without distraction, and evoking the power of the Holy Spirit through prayer and laying on hands. There was shopping, and tanning, and it was a lot of fun. But more discipleship happened than anything else. Jesus was the focus, and my life is different today because of it.

I remember when I worked at my church years ago, someone called the church to see if we offered aerobics classes. I thought, "Oh you're looking for the gym - this is a church." It seemed silly to me that anyone would expect the church to be the gym. I know of another church who does have a work-out class for women, but they spend half the time in Bible study (building their spirit) and half the time working out (building their physical bodies). After all, the Bible does say, "Bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, holding promise for both the present life AND the life to come" (1 Timothy 4:8). I think the Bible makes the point that the things that benefit us in this life are fine, but not nearly as important as those which benefit us eternally.

So if you want to do crafts or go camping, great. Go and have a blast. But don't call it church. Call it what it is - hanging out with friends. And make church look less like a country club and more like what Jesus built His church to be: a hospital for the hurting, a refuge for the outcast, a school for those hungry for wisdom, a house of prayer for those needing healing, a place of counsel for the sinner, a temple for those who want to worship with their whole hearts, and a place of love for the unlovable. A place where the Spirit of God leads in everything that is done there. A place where disciples are made. A place where life transformation is the main event. In our society, we don't suffer from too little time to socialize. We suffer from too little time to worship. So why do we go to church to do more socializing and less worshipping? It's time we get back on track. Time is short, and we have a mission before us: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19).

If I've offended you with my sarcasm, I am sincerely sorry to have hurt you. But the Bible (and Jesus) is an equal-opportunity offender. At some point, everyone who reads it will have their toes stepped on a little. And that's a good thing. I hope my passionate exhortation of truth has pushed you a little further out of your comfort zone, and you respond by evaluating your current mission as a Christian. I am passionate about the things of God, and for that I do not apologize. Now let's go and get some work done!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Life Is a Roller Coaster

You know the song, "Life is a highway, I want to drive it all night long..."? Well, I've never found that to be true. Life, in my eyes, is more like a roller coaster than a highway. Highways are usually long and straight and mundane. My life has never resembled that. I think life is more like a short, crazy ride full of ups, downs, twists, turns, fun and fear. So I think the song should have said, "Life is a roller coaster, I want to ride it all night long."

A few years ago, when my oldest son Jonah was five years old, we went to Disney World. He was just starting to enjoy "grown up" rides, and he still had some reservations about some of the scarier ones. It was a fear of the unknown - he didn't know what to expect. He was walking into something that he had never been through before and he honestly wasn't sure what would happen to him. It was dark inside the "Pirates of the Carribbean" and there was fire. He didn't understand that the fire wasn't real and the entire ride was being controlled. He didn't quite understand that it was meant for our enjoyment and there was no real risk of getting hurt. His concerns were very real to his childish mind. What if he got captured by the pirates? What if the fire burned him? What if the boat sunk? He didn't quite understand the concept of "rides", and he was genuinely worried for his safety and well-being.

I, on the other hand, was not afriad at all. Why? What was the difference between his fear and my ability to enjoy the ride without any fear at all? It was our understanding of the situation. I knew that I was not going to die. I knew the ride wasn't going to hurt me in any way. I knew it was carefully crafted and orchestrated by experts who planned every little detail of the ride. I also knew it was short and would be all over in a matter of minutes. And when it ended, I would walk away, unharmed. It was just a ride. My son, on the other hand, didn't understand that the designers and engineers made the ride in such a way that it was completely controlled and harmless. He didn't realize that nothing in the ride was actually as it seemed. That there were workers sitting at computers controlling every operation. I had been on the ride several times - I knew exactly what to expect. It was all new to him, so he didn't know what was around every dark corner. I not only had no fear, but I was able to enjoy the ride - even the parts that seemd momentarilly scarey. My son and I went on the exact same ride, but we had completely different experiences. Mine was relaxed, easy, and fun. His was feardul and stressful, and he couldn't wait for it to be over.

Life with God is much the same. We have a maker - an engineer - who is at the controls and carefully orchestrates every operation. He knows exactly what is going to happen to us and when. When we're going through a trial or a situation that seems scarey and turbulent, we're actually still on the ride and He is still very much in control. He knows it's just a short ride and we'll be off it soon. He also knows we're not really going to be harmed. But so often we walk through it in fear and stressed out about what's around every next corner.

Just like me and my son on the ride at Disney World, two people can go through the same situation in life and have completely differnet experiences. The Christian who knows that God is in control and keeping him safe will ride through a trial or struggle with no fear. He will simply take in the scenery along the way with a comforting realization that he'll be out of it soon enough and he's not going to die (at least not spiritually, since a physical death would only result in everlasting life with God in heaven). That person may expereince discomfort, but not terror. he may even be able to enjoy God's presence along the way, knowing that it's just a ride. Another person, however, who doesn't have the same perspective will be consumed with fear and worry with every twist and turn.

My son is eight years old now, and he's learned to love amusement park rides. In fact, the scarier the better for him. I, too, have been walking with God long enough to have learned to like the ride too - even if at times it's scary. I've learned to be confident in the ride Operator and the fact that He upholds the entire universe in His hands. "I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord; plans to prosper you and not harm you; plans to give you a future and a hope." If we really believe Him, we can sit back and enjoy the ride, even when the 200-foot drop causes our stomaches to rise up into our throats. I can almost hear Him saying, "it will be over soon - you will walk away unscathed - I am in control."