Church Leadership

How to minister to god-fearers in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, pluralistic society

Photo by fortune cookie via Flickr (Creative Commons)

We all know the church in America is in trouble…

  • More than 50% of Americans, if given a box to check, would label themselves as Christian while less than 10% affiliate with an actual church.
  • While the dominant suburban white church ignores this reality, we are becoming a multi-ethnic nation. (again)
  • While the church is typically racially/ethnically homogenous, our society has embraced multi-culturalism.
  • While church leaders have lacked a thoughtful, tactical response our society has rapidly embraced the philosophical framework of pluralism.

In other words– society is doing things that the church has no clue how to respond to. In any given community in our country on any given Sunday less than 10% of the community is actively involved with a church. (Any church)

The only place the church is seeing growth? Circling the wagons. Big churches are getting bigger, little churches are getting littler, and medium-sized churches are squeezed.

In the last decade we’ve seen three general concepts rise and ultimately fail to reach more people:

  • Political involvement. The early part of the 2000s was marked by the rise of power of the Evangelical politically. This completely backfired. Society was repulsed by our Scarlet Letter-like tactics to try to change society.
  • Church planting movement. The last 10 years has seen a massive mobilization of younger leaders to plant churches. Unfortunately, these church plants are ineffective because they are just re-dressing the same pig. While it’s true that lots and lots of churches have closed in the last 20 years and church plants are supposedly out to replace them, the people aren’t fooled. Putting a nice marketing edge on the same old tactics won’t ever work.
  • Christian hipsters. Also popular in the 2000s was a desire for Christians to quietly embed themselves in pop culture industries like movies, television, and music. The idea seemed to be that if Christians could embed themselves in things seen to create culture we could reach people by interweaving redemptive analogies into our culture. That backfired because it just became a marketing ploy by those industries. (A very successful one at that.)

What does this have to do with the book of Acts? EVERYTHING. The parallels between the first Century synagogue and the 21st century church are shockingly similar. The Jewish people, many of whom had dispersed to other parts of the modern world, struggled to maintain their numbers. Many congregations had shrunk to the point where they couldn’t even hold services because they couldn’t get 10 men there. (Which Jewish law requires for worship.) While they were strictly monotheistic and moralistically concrete, scattered in the Greco-Roman world they struggled to survive.

Several times in the book of Acts you see Luke mention a group of people called, the god-fearers. (Greek derivatives of the word, “theophobes”) These were people who hung out around the synagogue, worshipped with Jews, identified and sympathized with the Jews… but weren’t actually pursuing conversion. This wasn’t a rare thing. This was actually a subculture of people who hung out around the synagogue and in some contexts likely out-numbered the Jews in a community.

They were fans of God, worshippers of God, but they didn’t know God and certainly weren’t on His team.

They just kind of hung around. And the rabbi’s probably seemingly had no idea what to do with them. Maybe they even had conferences to talk about what to do with them? I’m just saying….

Does this sound familiar? 

The American church is full of these people. And I think the second half of Acts gives us a few ways to minister to them. Let’s look at a few.

  1. Present the facts and call them to repent, invite them to join God’s team. (Acts 13:38-43)
  2. Raise the bar and demand painful obedience. Look at how Paul dealt with Timothy. (Acts 16:1-4)
  3. Call them to not only hear from God, but respond to him. (Acts 10)
  4. Ask them to examine the Scriptures for themselves and then ASK them to believe. (Acts 17:10-15)
  5. Stop wasting your time and move on. There’s no time for people who are merely looking for intellectual debate. Move on. (Acts 18:4-7)

Call me crazy on this but it’s all over Acts. Stop calling them Christians. Luke was careful to label them what they were and there was likely a community of god-fearers in every synagogue. They knew who they were and they knew what they needed to do to identify with God.

If we keep telling them they are a duck. And they keep acting like a duck. They are going to think that they are ducks. 


Christian Living

Fire is Free

Photo by Harsha K R via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I was listening to a message by Rob Bell a few years ago and someone posed the question to him, “Why do people drive for hours to be a part of Mars Hill.” His answer was profound and simple: “People will drive from miles around to see what’s on fire.

Very true, isn’t it?

When I read the book of Acts I am sucked into the story of both the fire God started and the massive attention that fire drew wherever the Apostles traveled. Sure, there was spectacle on the day of Pentecost where God dropped tongues of fire on believers as they were indwelled with the Holy Spirit.

Yet they only grew by a few thousand that day.

By the end of Acts there were tens of thousands of believers. (Maybe more?) They had unleashed a virus of forgiveness of sins and restoration of relationship that the Roman army couldn’t stamp out. By Acts 28, what started as a small fire in Jerusalem was spreading. God had captured hearts whereas other gods and kingdoms tried to capture their bodies– and the Romans simply couldn’t shut down a virus that spread with love.

Because of the division between Luke-Acts we lose sight of the resolution of the story of Jesus’ ministry. While the credits roll and Easter is celebrated at the empty tomb, the story isn’t over!

The story is really just beginning.

It was a virus so strong that within three centuries it would topple the most powerful and dominant empire the world has ever seen.

The empty tomb is the climax. But the unleashing of God’s people by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are the resolution.

Why did Jesus come to earth? Surely, to seek and save the lost. Surely, to make a way for salvation of all who seek him. Of course those are reasons He came to earth.

But it was also to unleash a fire through his believers that can’t be stopped.

For 2,000+ years the fire has burned as the only hope of the planet spreads. While evil has appeared from every direction over millennia the fire has spread. Even as martyrs were literally burned at the stake they passed the flames on with their love. The fire is shared from father to son, neighbor to neighbor, classmate to classmate, and homeless man to executive.

A lot of people I know are disappointed in God today. A new year has dawned and they look at the resources they have available, they scratch their heads, they look at the agenda God has laid on their heart, and they cry silently– God, there is no way I can do this with the resources I have.

Unfortunately, too many of my friends in ministry woke up this morning wondering if God has still called them to a life in ministry.

To both, I have this simple reminder from Acts: Fire is free.

The great Hope of the world flows from the pores of our weakness. While we may be depressed by a lack of resources or even a lack of a job– be encouraged the your greatest calling spreads fastest through people with no resources, no stock piles, and nothing left but a flickering flame.

Christian Living Church Leadership

Giving and Receiving at Church

Photo by Vintage Collective via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Confession: There are times when I am frustrated with my church.

  • To the point of not wanting to go.
  • To the point of wanting to give up on organized church.
  • To the point where I think the action of attending church may actually be hindering my ability to live out the Gospel in my life.
  • To the point of wanting to withhold myself, my money, my children, my thoughts, and even my prayers.

This causes me to search myself, my motivations for the action of going to a church, and even what Scripture does or does not say about what goes on at church.

Lately, at the bottom of that barrel I am left with this thought:

Going to church is about giving and receiving simultaneously like the heart pumping blood in both directions. When I’m dissatisfied I am either unwilling to give of myself or I’m unwilling to receive ministry created for me (as part of the congregation). Conversely, I will be most satisfied with the corporate worship experience when I go with my heart pumping a desire to both give an receive.

In other words, I think too much and I must be more simplistic in this exchange with the church. I need to discipline myself to give what I can (in its various forms, not exclusive to money) and receive what I can. (in its various forms, not exclusive to teaching)

It’s a two-fold relationship. When I go more needy to receive I don’t go with a heart to give of myself. When I go needy to give of myself I don’t go with a heart to receive.

Questions for Reflection

I’m not accusing anyone of ever being dissatisfied with their church. I’m only confessing that sometimes I am. But if you find yourself discontent, here are some questions for reflection that have helped me.

  • What is the thing that drives you nuts, that has become a block between you “truly coming to worship God?
  • What category would you place that thing in? Personal preference? Desire for excellence? Biblical accuracy? Effectiveness? Something else?
  • Is that really a big deal or do you just have an attitude problem?
  • Could you chose contentedness with that issue if it never changes?
  • Where areas are you contributing to your church?
  • If a leader thinks about you, would they label you as someone who contributes significantly to the vision and mission of the church? (Not just money, but your actions and heart for the congregation.)
  • Are  you comparing what you want with what you’ve seen at another church? Is that a fair comparison?
  • Is the root of your dissatisfaction a personal sin issue that is manifesting itself as dissatisfaction with something at church?
  • Are you seeking out relationships with people in your congregation or are you waiting for those relationships to pursue you?
  • Are you just being a jerk?

This is what I know

I know that Jesus expects us to live inter-dependently with a community of other believers. As I read the New Testament I never read about the early church being a place of comfort, cushy chairs, mono-cultural, or without tension. Instead, I see a church which gave of itself fully, which recognized that some people were mature while others were immature, was as functional and dysfunctional as a family, and was all about giving and receiving fully of themselves.