You will do greater works than Jesus.

street preacher

Sometimes Jesus said things that just rock my world.  If we are honest with ourselves, we probably tend to live with a semi-comfortable understanding of His teaching, going about our day-to-day and turning to Him when we feel as though we need Him – occasionally feeling challenged by those more dynamic or radical statements.  We justify ourselves – Jesus didn’t really mean that we are supposed to love our enemies, make disciples of all nations, and hate our mothers/fathers for His sake, right?  We can be functional pacifists and turn the other cheek and talk about our faith when someone else brings up the topic.  Surely that’s good enough.

But then Jesus makes crazy statements that throw us for a loop when we read them.  Like this:

“Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works.  Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves.  Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.  Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.”

– John 14.10-14

Everyone who believes in Jesus will do the same works as Jesus
and greater works as well.  

Wait, what?!  This is not written only about the apostles.  This is not written in the abstract.  This is not written about just those super-Christians who become pastors, missionaries and the extra-spiritual.  Jesus says everyone who believes in Him will do greater works than Him.

What, however, are those works about which Jesus is speaking?  Up until this point in the book of John Jesus has turned water into wine, healed a man who has been lame for thirty-eight years, walked on water, given sight to a man who was born blind, and even raised Lazarus after being dead for four days – just to name a few.  Is Jesus saying that everyone who believes in Him will do these kinds of miracles?  Because if so, probably none of us believes in Him.  I’ve never raised a dead man or walked on water.

It is extremely important to remember that Scripture will never contradict Scripture.  Jesus will never contradict Himself, God, or other Biblical writers.  And we see very clearly in the book of 1 Corinthians that not everyone will be given the gift of healing and miracles:

And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues.  All are not apostles, are they?  All are not prophets, are they?  All are not teachers, are they?  All are not workers of miracles, are they?  All do not have gifts of healings, do they?  All do not speak with tongues, do they?  All do not interpret, do they?

– 1 Cor 12.28-30

So not everyone will be an apostle, not everyone will be a teacher, not everyone will preform miracles and not everyone will have the gift of healing, let alone helps or administration!  Jesus perfectly and fully did all of those things.  What, then, are the works about which Jesus is speaking?

The verses leading up to this unfathomable statement help give us a little clarity.  Jesus claims that the words He speaks and the things He does are actually the Father working in and through Him – and they are all done/said to the end that people would believe.  “Otherwise believe because of the works themselves” (John 10.11).  The works are those things that are leading people to faith in Jesus – giving them grounds on which to believe in Him.

So if we cannot define the works of Jesus – the type of which we will do “greater” – we know at least it is those things that lead people to faith in Jesus.  How, then, can the words we say and the things we do be greater in leading people to faith in Jesus than what He Himself said and did?  We get a clue in the second half of the sentence:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.”

Jesus was the transition point of history.  From the fall of mankind with Adam and Eve in the Garden, humanity was enslaved in sin and looking forward to a savior who would free humanity from sin, break the curse and crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3.15).  The entire Old Testament and Old Covenant between God and Israel was built upon a sacrifice system that looked forward to one final and perfect sacrifice:  Jesus Christ Himself.

Jesus’ ministry was extremely unique, thus, because He was the embodiment of that transition and was teaching truth that would applied in the New Covenant, the new era and the new relationship of God to His people but yet He was still living under the Law.  It was His death and resurrection that caused the transition from one to the other.  This is why Jesus said that everyone who believes in Him will do greater works because He is going to the Father.  Once Jesus’ work was completed on the Earth, the Father sent the Holy Spirit to empower every single believer to do the work of the ministry based on the new hope that we have of purification from sins.  Up until this point, people were awaiting the purification from their sins, but with His return to the Father we can now be pardoned while still in our flesh.  We are not yet perfect, and we are continually confessing our sins and repenting, but we have been justified and can therefore enter into God’s presence personally.

We are not preforming greater works than Jesus because of any merit of our own.  We are not preforming greater works than Jesus because His works were lacking.  In fact, most of the works and deeds He preformed far outweigh any that we will preform in magnitude, in the miraculous or in dependence on God, but they will be greater by nature of having the transformative power of the Holy Spirit in them to bring about new birth and eternal life.  Jesus was not giving people new birth because He had not yet died to pay the punishment for their sins, and thus people were not yet offered eternal life through confession and repentance.  They were still exemplifying faith by looking forward to salvation.

None of us is greater than Jesus.  In fact, it is by His power alone that we can do these works of which He spoke.  But we have been given the unique gift of proclaiming the Gospel – of preaching the forgiveness of sins by the work of Jesus – which brings about new life through faith.  Any work preformed and any word proclaimed that leads to faith and new life is the greatest work possible, and distinct from even the ministry that Jesus had.

Let us not take for granted this blessing and honor.  Let us get busy about living lives that proclaim the Gospel and lead people to faith in Jesus.  That is the reason He has left us here on the Earth, and that is all that will matter in eternity.

To Grow Wide, We Must Grow Deep

crowd

Church growth.  The topic is a healthy topic that all church leaders discuss, pray over and evaluate regularly.  There are two major ways to evaluate it, and churches tend to fall into one of two errors:  (1) evaluating church growth by numbers or (2) evaluating church growth by maturity of the members.  These are two sides of the same coin which a healthy, Biblical church must exemplify.  Mature believers will be reaching out to the lost and bringing in new believers, and in order for a church to reach out to a lost world the believers must be mature and capable of witness.  Finding the balance is extremely difficult, however, and without intentional prayer and planning, one or both of these __ will be overlooked and neglected.

Growth by Maturity.

Jesus came to the Earth and spent three intentional years with eleven guys who would spearhead the entire movement we now know as Christianity.  He taught them truths, He shaped their worldviews, He exemplified love, servanthood, righteousness, and every fruit of the Spirit.  He taught them, He prayed for them, and He bore with them when they just didn’t get it.  He invested Himself and loved them, teaching them the deep things of God and helping them learn how to walk obediently.  In short, He made disciples out of them.  He made “Christians” or mini-Christs.  He replicated Himself in them.  His final words as He was leaving the world and commissioning them were,

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

 – Matt 28.18-20

Jesus sent the eleven (plus Paul) out to do exactly what He had done for the past three years:  make disciples.  He told them to go to every single people group, to baptize new believers, and to teach those new believers everything that He Himself had taught them.  How were they supposed to do that?  They were supposed to go about it just like He had.  Live life together, teach them, preach boldly, allow the Holy Spirit to preform signs, instruct, rebuke, discipline, pray over them.  Jesus showed them how to do what to do by doing it Himself.

It took Jesus about three years to make disciples who were trained, well versed in the Scriptures and capable to go out in the power of the Holy Spirit and to make their own disciples.  He utilized those three years to send them out practicing and utilized their successes and failures as teaching points, such that they were fully equipped and prepared to do the work of the ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit and without the physical presence of Jesus.

They were mature.  They were trained.  They were prepared.  They knew what to do.

Growth by Numbers.

We would be remiss to neglect the fact that after Jesus returned to Heaven, we are regularly given account of the actual numbers by which the young church was growing.

“So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.”

 – Acts 2.41

“But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.”

 – Acts 4.4

Should we measure our success by numbers?  Yes and no.  There is no target range; there is no magic number by which we should be growing.  It is healthy and wise, however, to keep track of our members and what is happening in our congregations.  Are people coming and leaving after a short while?  Are people stagnant?  Are we bringing in believers who are just transferring from other churches?  Or are we actually reaching the lost, seeing them baptized and discipled?

We are commanded to preach the Gospel.  To plant seeds.  To sow broadly.  To tell everyone.  Beyond that, it is God’s responsibility to cause the growth.  We should be ready, willing and excited to jump in and be a part of the disciple-making process whenever possible, but it is God alone who changes hearts and we cannot force someone to submit to, know and love God.  Only He can do that.  We plant, God causes the growth.

“So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.”

 – 1 Cor 3.7

We see from example and from the teaching of Jesus, however, that it is God’s plan to make disciples of all nations and when we share the Gospel, He will cause growth in some.  Yes, some of the Gospel seed will fall on bad soil and produce nothing or false growth, but there will always be some who respond.  God has already prepared the hearts of many.  He has promised us that the harvest is plentiful and ready, all we need to do is get out there and join Him in the reaping.

And [Jesus] was saying to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”

 – Luke 10.2

In short, if we are not reaping a harvest it is because we are not sharing.

Now, we might begin to protest:  Our culture is post-Christian, people don’t want to hear it, I don’t know how to share, I don’t know where to meet people, blah blah blah…

Here’s the deal folks.  The New Testament Church was a hated, discriminated and murdered group of people.  The Jews were against them.  The Romans were against them.  The pagans were against them.  And not just in the, “I don’t want what you are selling” type of way, but in the “I’m going to throw you in jail, rape your wife, murder you” kind of way.  It was so bad, in fact, that much of the New Testament was written to people who were chased out of their towns simply because of what they believe.  Much of the New testament was written from jail.  Much of the New Testament was written to encourage people who were in jail or taking care of other believers who were in jail.  These believers read the promises of the New Testament about persecution as literal, not just the possibility that someone might mock or laugh at them or hurt their feelings.

They had thick skin, they had experienced real persecution, and yet they continued to share the Gospel and their numbers continued to grow.  By the multitudes.  Why?  Because Jesus had truly transformed their lives and they could not help but talk about Him.  We know the reality:  when something amazing happens, we can’t help but talk about it.  Did you meet the girl of your dreams?  You let everyone know.  Did you get into your favorite college or find a job after months of searching?  You post it on facebook, instagram and call your mom.  Did you get in a car accident and yet were miraculously saved?  You take pictures of the mangled wreck and show it to strangers.  We talk about the things that rock us, shape us, and the things that we know.  If Jesus has rocked your world, you will talk about Him.  If church is just something you do, then it may or may not come up in conversation.  Like that TV show you watch when nothing else is on, or that chore your mom asked you to do.

The disciples’ world had been rocked, their lives transformed, and even though it cost 11 of the twelve their very lives, they kept on talking about it.  The New Testament Church was scattered across the known world, running for their lives, but they kept talking about Jesus because He transformed their lives and they loved Him and could not help but talk about Him.  This is maturity, folks.  Not being able to recite the entire Bible.  It is knowing, abiding in and loving Jesus.  Yes, people will be impressed if you can recite huge chunks of Scripture and they will value your knowledge if you can explain intricate doctrines and history, but the whole game changes when the focus is Jesus and what He has done in your life and on the cross.

Numerical growth must be all about Jesus.  We can draw a crowd for a while with entertaining speaking, good music, community events and lots of singles for others singles to meet, but those things will fade.  If Jesus does not come in and transform these lives, then we have done them no service.  In fact, we have probably done them a great disservice and will bring judgment upon ourselves for placating a sinful world and helping them to believe that they are eternally secure when in fact they are not.  Yes, we should engage the world, and yes at times facilitating events like sports or family outings will enable us to have those real conversations.  But let us always be purposeful to have those real conversations.  Lives are only transformed by the Gospel.

Has Jesus transformed your life?  Is He working in your life today?  Are you telling people about it?  Are you sharing the Gospel with the lost and helping younger believers grow in knowledge and obedience?  Are you growing in depth and in numbers?  We must go deep before we can go wide.  If we go deep we will naturally go wide.  If we go wide without going deep we will dry up.  If we go deep without going wide, we are disobedient and have not truly gone deep, because going wide is a natural byproduct of going deep.  Let us therefore get busy about going deep and let it pour out into our daily lives so that we naturally go wide.

Heaven is not the goal.

Heaven

Are you an evangelist?  Do you feel the conviction to share the Gospel with those around you, and long to see your friends and family members “saved”?  Are you afraid of eternity – both for yourself and for your community?  Do you want to go to Heaven?

It would be a very disturbed person who truly longs in his heart to not go to Heaven.  Almost every culture and worldview has some form of paradise as a goal destination in the afterlife and they utilize this as a reward for moral or ethical living during their lifetime on Earth.  As the old bluegrass hymn states, “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die”.

Often times when we share the Gospel and when we think of our own personal fear of eternity, we are driven to tell people how to not go to Hell, or how to get to Heaven.  God becomes merely the guard of eternal bliss and we need to do whatever it takes to make Him happy and appease Him so that we can get through the gate.  Jesus, however, teaches us that He came to the Earth so that we might know and love God and spend eternity with God.  Yes, He spoke often and terrifyingly about Hell, but when He discussed His mission and purpose, He said,

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

– John 10.10

“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

– Luke 19.10

Consider the story of Lazarus.  It might seem a strange choice in discussing this topic, but read carefully (I recommend reading the entire narrative of John 11):

“Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha…Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was…So Jesus then said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.’  So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days…When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’  The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’.”

– John 11.1-45

Jesus had some friends whom He loved and who were all siblings:  Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  He received word that Lazarus was sick, but Jesus knew that it was the will and plan of God to exemplify His glory by raising him from the dead.  Thus we see in verse 6 the conjunction “so” or “therefore”.  Verse four states that the sickness is intentional for the glory of God, so when Jesus heard Lazarus was sick he remained where he was – in order that Lazarus would die.  By the time Jesus finally arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days.  There was no doubt he was dead.  But Jesus had a plan and He raised Lazarus from the dead.

Notice here that absolutely nothing is said about Heaven, Hell or the afterlife.  Not one thing.  We are infatuated with the afterlife, and anytime someone dies momentarily and is resuscitated we immediately ask them what they saw and experienced.  People have written books and made millions of dollars by declaring that they have been to Heaven and seen loved ones.  Doctors tell horror stories of people who have died and come back talking about spiders and demons and dark places.  But in the Bible, the man who was dead and buried for four days is offered no platform for testimony about his experience.

SAY WHAT?!

Are you not so curious about his experience?  I am too.  I want to know where he went, who he saw, if he interacted with God the Father, all of it.  But Jesus’ intention was to prove  His love for the family, His power to raise even the dead, and His identity as the final resurrection.  Everyone eventually will rise again at the end of the age – just like Lazarus, and therefore his resurrection was so insignificant that no mention is made of Lazarus’ experience.  Jesus wants us to look at God and His glory, not at the experience of a man.

It is extremely dangerous to build a theology on the silence of Scripture, but it is right and good to build our doctrines and beliefs on what the Scripture actually says.  Jesus did  come to save us from Hell, but He came so that we might have abundant life and a relationship with God and saving us from Hell is merely a consequence of being right with God.  You can read more about the new birth here.  He is primarily concerned that we know and love God:

“One of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question, testing Him, ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’  And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul’.”

– Matt 22.35-37

This is the foundation on which the Old Testament Law is written and on which the New Testament covenant of grace is established.  Loving God with everything we have.  God gives us Spiritual life through the salvation experience so that we can love Him.  Sin is the barrier between us and God, not us and Heaven.

This is why Jesus prays for the disciples and for the Church that we would be united with Him the same way that Jesus and God are united:

“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.  The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.  Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.  O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”

– John 17.19-25

It has been said that we can test our hearts and our salvation by asking the simple question:  Would you want to go to Heaven if God (or Jesus) were not there?  It is, in part, a trick question because when paired up against the other option – of course no one wants to go to Hell.  However.  If your end goal is Heaven, if your desire is to see deceased relatives, if you just want to get to that place where there is no more sorrow and pain, then you have missed the boat and probably do not know God.  You desire only His benefits and not Him.  You love His blessings, but not Him.  And the greatest commandment and foundation for our salvation is loving God.

What is your end goal?  Do you love God?  Or are you just looking for a pain-free and comfortable eternity?

Your “Mission Trips” are doing more harm than good.

colonialists
The work of the missionary has been a developing endeavor since the moment Jesus returned to Heaven.  His parting words were,

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

– Matt 28.18-20

These are pretty direct and intense final words.  Jesus came to the Earth to make disciples, and He has sent us out to be his mouthpieces in making more disciples.  The second half of the New Testament documents the disciples’ ministry and Paul’s missionary efforts taking the Gospel to the world.  The early Church grew organically as Christians were persecuted and forced to flee to new regions.  Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 AD, and organized Christianity  began to flourish.

The modern missionary movement was sparked by William Carey around the turn of the 19th century and Christians began to develop a heart and conviction to take the Gospel to the world.  Having no experience or predecessors to learn from, there was little understanding of cultural adaptation and early missions functioned by what we understand as “colonial missions”.  White western missionaries sought to make the heathen civilized and westernized as they were converted.  Steepled churches were built, hymns translated, coats, ties and shoes required for worship – even in cultures which had never worn shoes indoors or seen a tie.  The intention was good, but the execution of taking Jesus to the world suffered by our institutions.

The world has dramatically changed with the development of technology and transportation.  It was commonplace for early missionaries to pack their belongings into a coffin as they headed out on a ship for their host country.  Now we can be almost anywhere in the world in two days or less – and at a relatively affordable cost.  Because of this fact, we now consider a “career” missionary as someone who signs up for a three or four year term and then returns home for a year to reconnect, rest, and recharge.  We also have developed a new phenomenon:  the short-term mission trip.  You can go “change the world” in two weeks.

But can I tell you a little secret?  We are not changing the world in two week stints.  Truth be told, most career missionaries are not seeing dramatic results in three or four years.  Tragically, in fact, most of our short-term trips are causing more harm than good.  Research is beginning to emerge about the impact of these mission trips that is startling at best.  We send youth and adults to love on children in an orphanage in Africa for a few weeks – maybe even an entire summer for the really committed.  How beautiful, we think!  We will show these children the love of Jesus, run a VBS, and give lots of hugs.  And then we come home with instagram pictures and facebook updates snuggling those poor children, but they are left in an orphanage with yet another source of love having abandoned them.  Each new wave of love that comes through hugs them, brings a new set of clothing, and seems to care for them and then walks away.  We are damaging these children.  Not only that, but governments are seeing the benefit of having foreigners come in and thus they keep children in poverty and in orphanages when they could potentially be adopted.

Or how about building houses or schools?  Let’s send our youth and unskilled to build a structure in a needy land!  People who have no construction experience.  People who know nothing about the host culture and actual needs on the ground.  We will raise thousands upon thousands of dollars to put unskilled westerners on a plane, fly to the remote world, and build a structure of which they have no expertise.  All the while there are perfectly skilled people who regularly build buildings in this foreign land.  They know the construction style, they know where and how to buy supplies, and more importantly – most of them are looking for work!  We are taking work away from people who want to work, developing a mindset of entitlement and laziness, and leaving the recipients with a sub-par structure.

Ok, ok, so we will be intentional about going and witnessing.  True missions is sharing the Gospel with people, right?  Yes!  Absolutely!  Jesus said,

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

– Matt 16.26

If we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, build homes for the homeless, but ignore the Gospel – we have profited them nothing.  Yes, we should seek the best way to meet physical needs, but only as we boldly and clearly proclaim the Gospel.

However, consider this:  how long does it take to make a disciple?  Jesus never instructed us to go out and preach the Gospel.  He instructed us to go out and make disciples.  Step one of making disciples is preaching the Gospel, but then we must invest blood, sweat and tears in discipleship.  People in the third world or on the mission field do not magically or instantaneously know Scripture, how to fight sin, and how to apply the teachings of Jesus.  They do not miraculously understand corporate worship, evangelism or differentiating between their previous religion/witchcraft and a God-honoring lifestyle.  In fact, many of them do not even have the Bible in their language!  Jesus Himself spent three years making his eleven disciples.  Dare we think we can do so in two weeks?

I once was out in a Muslim country, and was in a relatively remote city.  Everyone you met there was Muslim and they had pride in it, saying “To be from this city is to be Muslim”.  There was a Chinese couple who had immigrated a few generations before and at some point in their life a short-term group of missionaries had come through this town, shared the Gospel with them and they “got saved”.  Then the missionaries were gone.  A few years later, some Jehovah’s Witnesses came through and found these flailing Christians and converted them.  Deceived them.  Led them to believe that yes, they do believe in Jesus…but that is not enough.  There is “more”.  Jesus warns us:

“Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it.  Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order.  Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.”

– Matt 12.43-45

It is infinitely more dangerous for someone to be deceived and trust in a false salvation, in a false version of Jesus, than to be practicing sorcery or following a false religion or atheism.  False prophets and those who twist the Gospel are of all to be pitied most for their eternal state.  And when we go in with no discipleship plan in place for someone who would believe, we are opening people up to have their houses swept and put in order only for a worse fate to become them.

On a much smaller note, let us consider the practicality and logistics of a preaching/teaching trip.  How will you communicate?  Do you speak the language?  I can guarantee that if you do not speak the language, you do not speak the culture.  What does that mean?  It means that Christianity in China looks infinitely different than Christianity in Alabama.  Scripture teaches us clearly about sin, but gives very little instruction about corporate worship.  Is it Biblical to have Sunday School in small groups and then corporate worship in a big group?  Or is that our tradition and habit?  Is it Biblical to sing a few songs, then have preaching, then have a response time?  Or is that cultural?  Is it Biblical to go to a church building, dress up, wear shoes, and sit in chairs?  Or is that what is comfortable for us?

Even more importantly, however, is our daily devotion to God.  Are your personal spiritual disciplines at a level that would establish strong churches around the world?  In countries where their current religion encompasses their entire lives, and Christians will be persecuted?  Will a few seconds of prayer over meals, a once a week worship service and quiet times when we feel like it be an adequate replacement for the Muslim who goes to the mosque to pray five times a day?  Are you a mature enough disciple to disciple someone like that?

The great-white-missionary, by in large, is enjoying traveling the world on other people’s dollar, and making himself look good by staying in uncomfortable situations.  He is not fighting the causes of injustice and poverty.  He is not investing the time and energy to learn the culture, preach the Gospel in a culturally understandable way, or help apply Scripture and Jesus to the culture to make disciples.  He is making himself feel better by actually encouraging the cycles of poverty and damaging cultures by developing entitlement mentalities and not empowering nationals to thrive in their situations.  And He is teasing people with an offer of eternal hope and leaving them without instruction or help to grow Spiritually and learn how to make disciples on their own.

I, personally, am almost embarrassed by the number of countries I have visited on so-called mission trips.  Don’t ask me, it grieves me to remember.  I was the great white missionary who hugged orphans and “built” homes.  I was the well-meaning evangelist who preformed dramas about Jesus, sang on the street corner and preached the Gospel through a translator.  But we can and must learn from these situations.  Jesus has commanded us to go and make disciples.  So the answer is not to give up or stop trying.  The answer is to grow and do it well.

First of all, in order to make disciples, we must be disciples ourselves.  If we have no personal spiritual disciples, we cannot teach others to have them.  If we are not committed to Jesus and to the Church, we cannot teach others to be.  If we are not fighting sin and growing Spiritually, we cannot encourage and instruct others how to do so either.  In short:  we need to understand discipleship in our own lives first.

Secondly, we must evaluate our Christianity and understand what is Biblical and what is cultural.  We should never set food on a foreign land or engage in cross-cultural work until we understand that Jesus is about the ministry of redeeming cultures, not making everyone look the same.  Asians do not have to wear shoes in their church buildings.  Africans do not have to wear ties.  The entire world does not have to sing European hymns.  And most cultures do not function within strict time frames like westerners:  their prayer meetings probably will go for many hours, people probably will show up late, and they might eat a full meal as the Lord’s Supper.

Thirdly, we must fully invest.  Disciple-making is not a short-term project.  There are many places and cultures in the world where there are still no Christians.  Missionaries unanimously vote the most difficult work to be “from zero to one”.  Why?  Because we are outsiders trying to convince someone of something completely counter-cultural and foreign.  Would you listen to a Nepalese immigrant who is trying to convince you to to convert to Hinduism through broken English?  We Americans tend to find the novelty factor of foreign beliefs intriguing, so they would actually have a higher success rate than an American entering a completely Hindu society with no exposure to the outside world – one that considers their culture their identity.

Once that first convert has been made, or if you are engaging a culture that has any known believers, we must focus our energies on mobilizing the nationals to be the missionaries.  An insider will always have more foundation on which to stand – if for no other reason than they fully understand their own culture and language.  You will have infinitely more sway with your friends than a foreigner, and the same is true around the world.  The more foreigners remain in the background, the more the church can be indigenous and take hold.  This is why Paul refused to baptize people in Corinth.  He had an excellent reputation, and in order to keep himself humble and to keep people from boasting or believing there to be an extra blessing by being baptized by an apostle, he taught the local believers to baptize their own (1 Cor 1.14ff).

Full investment means time.  We must go and stay.  Not everyone will go and stay.  But those who do not go and stay should only go and assist those who can stay.  Those people who are staying will be the ones who do the discipleship and follow up.  They will have needs of short-termers.  They may need English teachers to establish a VISA, they may need travel buddies for nationals to get out into remote areas (some countries do not allow free travel, but we can “hire” national Christians to be our “tour guides” – so we essentially get them into areas they cannot reach on their own).  They may need encouragement because they have no teammates and are still looking for the first believer.  The long-term missionaries will be able to tell you how they can utilize you and your group to further the ongoing ministry on the ground, and going out just to hang out with them and encourage them is absolutely a legitimate use of your time.  Have you ever felt drained when you miss church one week?  Imagine having no community, church or corporate Bible study for years on end.

Lastly, we must remember that missions is not about us.  Ever.  Period.  If you are packing your bags for the “discipleship experience”, unpack them and send the money to a missionary on the field.  Orphans, needy, and the un-reached are not tourist destinations.  They are not there to facilitate your Spiritual growth and development.  Their poverty does not exist to make you more thankful for your materialism and excess.  Yes, going on any mission trip will forever change you.  It will open your eyes, it will hopefully enhance your worldview and understanding of God, and it should give you a burden for lostness.  But those are beautiful and secondary effects.  To go out on mission is, by definition, to focus on serving God by serving and reaching out to others.  It is being mindful of the fact that the people we encounter have no hope and we are seeking their salvation.  It is about making disciples of others.  Not ourselves.

There is a lost and dying world all around us, and Jesus has commanded us to make disciples of all of the nations.  Let’s get busy about understanding what that means, and being obedient.

The most unlikely candidate

shame

When Jesus was living on the Earth, he came to Judea to be baptized by John the Baptist and to begin His ministry.  In order to continue His purpose and to give space to John, Jesus left Judea and went to Galilee early in His ministry.  Scripture tells us that he “had” to pass through Samaria on the way (John 4.4).  Now, geographically we know that there were certainly other routes He could have chosen, and because of the tension between Jews and Samaritans (think blacks and whites pre-Civil Rights Movement), many Jews did in fact choose to go the long way when making that trip.

Jesus, however, “had” to go through Samaria because He had an appointment there:  with a woman.  At a well.  Who was an outcast.

Jesus sat down on the edge of Jacob’s well and sent all twelve disciples into the city to buy food.  He clearly wanted to be alone for this encounter, it does not take twelve people to buy lunch.  Then a woman approached to draw water for herself, and Jesus asked her to share a drink of water.  At first she was shocked that He spoke to her, and even more shocked that He asked her for a drink.  The nationalities hated and segregated themselves from one another – imagine a white man sitting at an ice cream shop in the 50’s, a black woman fills up her water bottle from the “blacks only” water fountain, and he asks her for a drink.

Jesus then brings up the topic of living water.  He tells her that He can give her all satisfying water, and she asks for a drink so that she will never have to come back to the well.  She clearly did not understand that He was speaking on a Spiritual level.  Thus He changed the topic:  He told her to go and get her husband.  Perhaps for a drink?  So she answered, “I have no husband”.

It is extremely interesting that while she answered truthfully, “I have no husband”, she was covering up her sin – which Jesus revealed.  She had been married five times and was now living with a man to whom she was not married.  Jesus affirms that she spoke “truthfully”, albeit deceptively.

So what does she do?  She immediately changes the subject.  No one likes to be confronted in their sin, especially by a stranger, so she goes on the defensive:  “I perceive that you are a prophet”, therefore let’s debate religion (John 4.19-20).  Jesus graciously followed her in conversation, however, and spoke truth to her and silenced her question.  He then, ultimately, revealed Himself to be the Messiah – the one for whom both the Jews and Samaritans were waiting.  Therefore she ran and got everyone from town.

So what do we see here?  Jesus chose the most unlikely of people:  a Samaritan (hated by the Jews), woman (at the time still considered property of men), who had 5 failed marriages (divorce in that day was extremely taboo, and she had been divorced 5 times!), and was currently living with a man (fornication and adultery were punishable by death under the Mosaic Law).  To say she was of ill repute was an understatement.

Yes Jesus chose her, and lovingly pursued her through a mangled conversation during which she tried to cover up the expanse of her sin and quickly changed the subject when it was laid bare.  Jesus, however, did not shy away from the fact that in order for one to be saved and to drink living water, his sin must be confronted and confessed.  And He masterfully turned every topic back to the Truth so that she ultimately came to an understanding.

Have you ever felt that you were unusable or worthless before God?  Have you ever considered someone you encountered on the street as a lost cause?  Have you shared with that family member so many times and they continually shut you down or divert the conversation?  Jesus shows us by example that no one is beyond His use and no one is beyond His purpose, and we should not give up just because our “evangelism tool” failed.

Did you start down the Roman’s Road with someone, and he took an exit?  Did you start to draw the bridge illustration and your listener used the napkin to wipe his mouth?  Did you ask a leading question and he wouldn’t go deep on that topic?  That’s ok!  There are always bridges back to the Gospel, regardless of the topic or conversation!  And just because someone has committed a major sin, or perhaps many major sins, they are not disqualified from the love or service of God.  Jesus chose this woman to be the entry point to her entire community – a woman who had a bad reputation in her community!

Sometimes we get a little too comfortable in our demographic.  Sometimes we get a little too complacent in our strategies.  Sometimes we expect God to do one thing, so we stop looking for the opportunities all around us.  But if God intends to reach and entire city or people group, there will necessarily be varied demographics reached – and it might just start with someone who has the worst reputation.  Perhaps you are the Samaritan woman today, ashamed and defensive.  Stop diverting and start listening, Jesus has paid the punishment for your sins.  Perhaps you need to become more like Jesus:  seeing everyone around you as worthwhile and usable by Jesus.  Let’s broaden our horizons.  Let’s take off our blinders and be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

They are not coming to us.

empty church

Did you know that church attendance is waning nationwide?  Did you know that even though the Baby Boomers still consider it the cultural norm, by in large, to go to church every week, but Gen Xers and Millennials may have not been raised in the church, and even if they were they see it as optional.  Even the most devout of us skip church for a myriad of reasons:  I’m too tired, it’s pretty outside, it’s raining outside, I want to go to brunch instead…

And while we are constantly encouraged as people to know ourselves, to verbalize our feelings, to go to therapy and counseling to get help and grow spiritually and emotionally, we are also encouraged to believe that we find strength and ability within ourselves and the control is ourselves.  We also keep those conversations to ourselves and rarely bring up those deep topics outside of assigned times where we pay someone to listen.

What this means, at least in part, is that the Church is no longer consider a place people go for emotional or spiritual help.  We still have a reputation for helping the poor, and those who need money or food will still call around looking for handouts.  But it is a rare occurrence that someone will be hurting, struggling or searching for truth and therefore choose to find a local church and go.

Many traditional churches, however, are still functioning with the mindset that people will wander in off the streets.  We update our buildings, we get fancy sound systems, we assign greeters at the doors and make pretty signs all with the hopes that the great un-reached masses will miraculously flood in our doors.  I personally know of a church that spent over a year updating their building and praying for people to come in the doors and utilized the motto “Company Is Coming” in order to pump up the congregation.

Guess what?

Company never came.

Why not?  Because humanity does not seek after God.  We are unrighteous, we are selfish, we are sinners and we are enemies of God, and fundamentally we are Spiritually dead:

“There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.”

– Rom 3.10-12

“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”

– Rom 5.10

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.”

– Eph 2.1-2

Spiritually dead people, unrighteous people, and people who are enemies of God do not come to the conclusion on their own that they need Spiritual life, that they need to repent and that God might be the answer.  It is possible that they would consider religion as an answer – as one of Satan’s greatest tactics is to assure people that they are ethically and morally upstanding and headed to Heaven in eternity.  But Satan’s tactic in false religions is to blind people to the Gospel and convince them that they can be good enough by their own efforts, leaving them still Spiritually dead and without hope.

Therefore, if your church boldly claims the Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, Satan will not draw crowds into your sanctuary.  And Spiritually dead people – those people we want and need to reach will not be drawn to our buildings.

But you know what?  That is OK!

Never once did Jesus tell the disciples to sit around and wait for people to come to them.  He commanded them, and us, to go!  Our recent past has deceived us, slightly, in that the 18th to early 20th century culture was at least nominally Christian, there was minimal entertainment and community events were often held in the Church buildings.  Thus, there was a social pressure to attend, people were always there for events, and traveling evangelists drew a crowd for weekend or week long gatherings.  As we continue down the path of a post-Christian culture, we are finding ourselves in a situation much more similar to the early church, however, and we have to go to them.

God used a variety of strategies to get the Gospel out and to make believers.  He sent the disciples out, and they preached on the street corners, started local groups, preached to the governing authorities when they were arrested, and started churches.  He sent Paul and his various counterparts on missionary journeys to travel to the “known world”, where Paul entered religious centers and places of worship as well as city centers where he reasoned with people one-on-one and also preached to the crowds.  He started churches in almost every city he visited thus.  God also used persecution and the threat of death to scatter believers throughout the known world:  Christians were threatened of their lives so they ran for safety.  Wherever they settled, they would share with their new neighbors and friends and people would be saved and churches were established.

In short, God sends people out and it is through their intentional efforts in the streets, in the marketplace, in their relationships, that other people came to know Jesus and salvation.  The Gospel organically spread along natural relational lines.  Often times entire households would believe, and they would share with other households who would believe.  Other times, individuals would hear and believe and take it home with them to their friends and families.

“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

– Matt 28.18-20

It has been researched that most people would attend church if they were invited.  But even still, the onus is squarely on the people of God to share the Gospel with people where they are.  Our Sunday worship services are intentional times for believers to come together to grow, to learn, to meet with and worship God.  Sunday services are not supposed to be evangelical in nature, targeting the non-believer.  A wise pastor always incorporates the Gospel so that those who are not yet saved might believe, but corporate worship is for worshiping God.  Not reaching the lost.  We have six other days of the week for that.

How do we do that?  We talk about Jesus.  We all know that you naturally talk about the things you love and enjoy.  If you love and enjoy Jesus, it will be natural to talk about it.  Practice with fellow believers so that it is more natural when you talk to non believers.  How did you come to faith?  What is God doing in your life today?  How do you fight sin?  What is God teaching you?  What most excites you about eternity?  Be natural.  Be real.  Preach the Gospel.  It does not have to be formal, in a gathering or Bible study.  Just talk about Jesus.  Wherever you all, whatever you are doing.  This is how we will reach the world, not by inviting them in but by going and telling.

“…but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.”

– 1 Peter 3.15-16

“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom:  preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.”

– 1 Tim 4.1-2

They will not come to us.  Let’s go to them.

Did Jesus really hang out with sinners?

truth

Evangelism training has left many well-meaning Christians at a loss.  Should we stand on the street corner and proclaim the Gospel?  Or should we spend years building rapport with people before we ever even breach the topic of faith?  Should we love, welcome and accept everyone regardless of their lifestyles and choices?  Or should we expect people to live in the world, but not act like the world?  Does the Bible really teach us to love the sinner but hate the sin?  How did Jesus really do it?

The United States is quickly becoming a post-Christian culture, as much of Europe already is.  It is no longer expected that people go to Church on Sundays, and there are many amongst us who have never darkened the doors of a Church.  It is trendy and cool to explore the world religions, develop one’s own Spirituality by merging any myriad of teachings, and while there are many who claim to be spiritual and have faith, there are few who truly submit to any one teacher.  We essentially believe that we have the autonomy to create our own belief system and thus make ourselves out to be our own gods.

With this blurring of lines and lack of true adherence to one religion or teacher, it has become a curious reality that many will quote Jesus, claim parts of His teachings and even try to corner more devout followers with attributes of His life.  Most poignantly, Christians and non-Christians alike regularly declare that Jesus never judged anyone, he hung out with sinners, and Jesus is essentially made out to be just one of the guys who happened to preform a lot of miracles and taught a lot of people.

With whom, however, did Jesus really spend His time?  Of his twelve disciples, we know that some were fishermen and Matthew was a tax collector (a government employee).  Mary Magdalene was possessed by 7 demons, but Jesus freed her from those (Luke 8.2).  John the Baptist was a prophet and had taken the Nazarite vow – he was as holy as could be.  Nicodemus was on the Sanhedrin and Joseph of Arimethea (who buried Jesus) was on the religious council – Jewish teachers and leaders.

Scripture teaches us that Jesus was widely regarded as a religious teacher.  He also preformed many miracles.  Most of these miracles were helping people whom the pious considered “sinners” or “dirty”.  Jesus most commonly gets the reputation for having hung out with sinners because of two specific incidents:

“As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man called Matthew, sitting in the tax collector’s booth; and He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’ And he got up and followed Him.  Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, ‘Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?’  But when Jesus heard this, He said, ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.  But go and learn what this means: “I desire compassion and not a sacrifice,” for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

– Matt 9.9-13

When Jesus called Matthew to be one of his disciples, the pious religious teachers were confused and judgmental.

The other common story is the stoning of the woman caught in adultery:

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.  Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?’  They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.  But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’  Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.  When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.  Straightening up, Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?’  She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.'”

– John 8.3-11

We see much about the character and heart of Jesus in both of these stories.  On the most basic level we can observe that Jesus did in fact interact and eat with “sinners”.  He also intervened on the behalf of a woman who was either sleeping with a man who was not her husband or sleeping with someone else’s husband.  This is no small matter.

To simply leave the observation there, however, is inadequate at best, and wicked at worst.  Jesus did in fact interact with those whom the world considered sinners.  He also interacted with those whom the world considered righteous or holy.  Interestingly enough, He was in the temple teaching the religiously devout when the Pharisees brought the woman before Him (John 8.2).  He regularly went to the temple, he often met with religious leaders, and some of his disciples were religious leaders like the Pharisees.  Jesus did not have a type with whom He normally chose to associate.

He associated with those who came to Him.

This is a jarring reality.  Jesus had an intentional plan and agenda.  He went to specific towns, followed the leadership of the Spirit, and ultimately went to Jerusalem where He was crucified.  He met many people along the way.  Some were unsuspecting, like the Samaritan woman at the well and the twelve disciples when He called them.  But by-in-large, His reputation and His presence drew a crowd.  He was continually surrounded by people wanting to hear Him teach and looking for a miracle.  We have no stories of Jesus in Scripture casually wandering into a bar or “sinner’s hangout”, just to blend in with the people.

Jesus also never trivialized or condoned sin.

Everyone who has ever been born has sinned.  Except for Jesus.  This is the foundation of Jesus’ profound response to the Pharisees who sought to kill the adulteress.  Even the Pharisees, who were pious and religious, knew that they were not perfect and without sin – thus none were able or willing to throw the first stone at the woman.  However, after He proved their guilt before the crowd, Jesus turned to the woman and strongly commanded her to “go and sin no more”.  He did not condone her adultery.  He did not excuse her sin on the basis that everyone sins, He told her to change.  He knew that in a very short time He Himself would pay the penalty for her adultery and all other sin.  He was giving her no leeway or freedom to continue in her lifestyle, He was profoundly offering forgiveness by preparing to take her place on the cross.

With Matthew and the tax collectors, Jesus also boldly proclaimed that He was there to call the sinners to righteousness stating simply that the sick need a healer.  All of humanity is sick, and we all need a healer.  Jesus is that healer.  He was not dining with the tax collectors to condone their theft and abuse of the people, He was eating with them calling them to righteousness.

What then is the application?  Jesus regularly preached to the masses and He also had intimate conversations one-on-one with people.  Jesus spent three years teaching and training the disciples, but he also sent people out to be His witness after a single encounter.  Jesus condemned some sinners for their sin and encouraged others to repentance.

In short, there is no science to evangelism and disciple-making.  Every person is unique.  Some people are sinning and know that they are sinning, but are ready to repent.  Some people are sinning and know that they are sinning but are not ready to repent.  Some people are sinning and do not know that they are sinning!  Each situation is dramatically different and should be handled intentionally.  Some people are open to instruction in a group setting while others prefer instruction that is specific to their situation and personality.

What is vitally important, however, is Jesus’ clear example of never entertaining sin.  He build intentional relationships with people and spoke truth clearly from interaction number one.  He never welcomed or overlooked sin, but intentionally pushed each person according to their disposition and personality. Even so, however, almost everyone deserted Him.  There were many times throughout His ministry that the crowds came to Him to listen to Him preach or to receive healing and His teaching was too difficult for them to hear – so they left.  Many times people sought to kill Him – both the religious leaders and the crowd.  And we all know that ultimately they did kill Him, with even the twelve disciples being scattered.

Because of this reality, the biggest misunderstanding about Jesus and His interactions is not always the “who” but the “how”.  Jesus never just hung out with people.  He was always teaching, building up, healing, praying, and fulfilling His mission on Earth.  We must live with this type of urgency and intentionality.

There is very much a place for “relational evangelism” today.  However, we often use that term as an excuse to avoid the topics of sin and salvation.  We think that we will just be friends with non Christians and “sinners” and hopefully one day they will see what is different about us and ask.  Jesus’ relational evangelism was the exact opposite, however.  The truth was always boldly proclaimed and he continued to work with people towards the goal of their understanding and salvation.  We cannot condone sin.  We cannot overlook it and pretend it isn’t there.  But we also must remember that the greater problem is salvation – it serves no good to clean up a person’s actions if they have not yet met Jesus.

In short, Jesus hung out with anyone who wanted to hang out with Him.  However, in every situation He was intentional and spoke truth.  We should strive to be like Jesus.  We should engage everyone, speak truth with everyone, and adapt that truth fittingly to every situation and personality.  Let’s live with urgency and intentionality!