How God Used the Church to Save Me.

“A bruised reed He will not break
And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.”

– Is 42.3

Four and a half years ago my life fell apart.  Everything I had ever worked for was gone.  Jobless.  I was alone.  Homeless.  Literally half-way around the world from my home and community.  I had spent twenty years of education planning for a specific career and life which I was fortunate enough to spend four and a half years practicing, but then it all came to a screeching halt; completely outside of my control.

I was raised in a Christian home and attended Church and youth group regularly, learning the personal spiritual disciplines of the faith.  When I was in High School my family began attending a church that focused on the love of God as His major attribute.  Yes, “God is love” and it is indeed a wonderful truth to know and cling to concerning His character and relationship to us (1 John 4.7).

I learned in theory and through the teaching of the Bible how the Church was commanded to take care of one another in our moments of struggle and need.  As a naive teenager I watched as we fed the poor through a food pantry, clothed them at the local mission, embraced our friends and their families when teenagers were killed in car accidents and threw lavish events to invite the neighborhood to hear about Jesus.  These people clearly had a variety of needs and we were doing our best to “be the hands and feet of Jesus” (1 Cor 12).  And even though I loved my friends at Church, even though I loved God, I was never truly desperate for them, or for Him.

Studying science and music at a liberal arts university broadened my perspective to the blossoming narcissism that we now know as millennialism.  This worldview was in stark contrast to the strong work ethic and independence I had learned at home, but the Spiritual and emotional needs of my generation and our world become more real and my understanding of how we need to love one another and serve each other – specifically as Christians – deepened…to some extent.

Grad school was a whirlwind of excitement which led me to my dream job.  It was becoming a reality.  I attended a vibrant Church who loved me and their immediate community and had a heart for the world – the likes of such I have not seen since.  Then I moved half-way around the world to live on a tropical island working as a tour guide trekking through the jungle amongst Muslim and animistic people.  I maintained my relationship to that Church, having no local one abroad, and they cared for me and I cared for them in a “long distance relationship”.

Then the bottom dropped out.  Then came the day that I needed God to survive.  Then came the day that I needed the Church.  And in that day the Church truly exemplified the love that God is towards me.  Those old adages became my reality:  I saw that the love from the community I had in the church was real.  What was most real, however, was the fact that they did not stand beside me blindly.  They were concerned first and foremost with my Spiritual well being.  I did not handle myself perfectly through those days, and neither did they, but there was full grace for sins confessed and together we came before the throne of God.

For weeks on end I needed only to survive.  I spent sleepless hours in the Bible and prayer, listening to sermons and learning to trust God when nothing made sense.  Church leadership and friends checked in on me.  They held my hands.  They prayed with me.  They counseled me.  They cried with me.  They hung out with me.

However, I still needed a job.  I still needed to get back on my feet.  The elders, the Church body and my parents were my strength as I searched and found work half-way across the country.  Just months after the shock of my world ending, I packed up and moved 1,100 miles away.  I did not want to move so far, as the Church was the only thing I had at the time, and I floundered a while in search of my new community.  I was so raw and broken, in fact, that I had none of the normal pleasantries polished.  I often wonder what those poor unfortunate souls who crossed my path in those days thought of me.

When I finally found that new body, the transition was smooth.  My new church picked up where my old church left off.  It looked different, as I did not have the history with them, but they learned my story and paired me with a mentor who had walked this path before.  God used this new season to rebuild and restore a broken and crushed heart, and to establish a faith that understands from experience that He is indeed sovereign in every situation and works all things out for the good of those who love Him (Rom 8.28).

In those days I was the bruised reed and the dimly burning wick.  But God is always faithful and will never break the bruised reed and will fan the flame anew as long as the spark remains (Is 42.3).

This, friends, is why God gives us the body.  Scripture teaches us that true religion is to care for the widow and orphan (James 1.27).  But we also learn that God has given each believer special gifts, abilities and measures of faith – and those are all for the service of one another (1 Cor 12).  Yes, we are commanded to love the world and to care for the lost, but we are given one another the body first.  We need one another to push one another on to holiness, to meet one another’s needs, to support one another when the bottom falls out.

“Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.  So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”

– Gal 6.9-10

We, as believers, are guaranteed suffering.  It is, in fact, through suffering and trials that our faith is purified and refined.  This is why we must be open and vulnerable to our faith community, so that those who have gone before us can encourage us on the path.  So that those who are walking the same path will be encouraged to keep going, and those who come behind us can follow our examples.  God is faithful and will always be present, and sometimes we need one another to push us on and remind us of those truths we have read so many times.

“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

– Rom 5.3-5

God loves His church, and He has given it to us as a gift to carry, encourage and love one another through this journey we call life.  Find a Church.  Love your Church.  Build strong and real community.  Push one another on to holiness.  Carry each other through the difficult seasons.  Rejoice with those who rejoice.  Mourn with those who mourn.  And in this way you are serving Jesus (Matt 25).

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”

– Rom 12.15

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The Lone Ranger Christian

lone ragner

There are two types of Christians out there:  leaders and followers.  Some people come to faith and are overwhelmed at the size and depth of the Bible, and they are content to let others teach and direct them.  There are so many truths contained within Scripture that they can be fearful to take a stand because they do not have the entire canon memorized and do not want to be disproven or made to look foolish.  These are followers.  We are all followers to an extent – we will all continue to learn and grow throughout our Christian life, none of us will ever have all of the answers and will find our belief system developing – sometimes in large measure, sometimes only minutely.

There are also leaders.  Leaders are those who find pleasure in learning everything that they can about the Scripture and are excited to share it with others.  Leaders see doctrine, theology and ecclesiology as a matter of discipline and discipleship and want to grow on their own and help others along the way.  Leaders can be tempted to rely on their own strength, however, and can find it difficult to rely on others and follow the leadership of others.  All believers will find themselves as leaders at some point in our Spiritual development and life.

With the continual development of our mindset that we have autonomy to define our own truth, and our distrust for authority and claims on absolute truth, we are seeing a new phenomenon within our churches, at an alarming rate, and that is – what I like to call – the “Lone Ranger Christian”.  John Wycliffe began translating the Bible into English in the late 1300’s, and after the Reformation began when Martin Luther posted his 95 thesis on the Wittenburg Castle Church in 1517, he translated the Scriptures into German so that everyone could read the Bible on their own and have a personal interaction with God.  John Wesley and others also translated the Bible into common languages.  Post-Reformation Spirituality became personal, and with that came a variety of denominations – based on these predominant leaders:  Lutheran, Wesleyan, etc.

Throughout the years, congregations and factions would form within these larger denominations – and churches would split and smaller denominations would be formed.  Thus we have 1st Baptist Church and 2nd Baptist Church, 1st United Methodist and 2nd United Methodist within many towns.  Sometimes these splits were over doctrine or belief, and sometimes they were over interpersonal issues.

But the current generation and culture is marked by self-definition and autonomy.  Some (the unhappy leaders) dress it up as missional and call it “Church Planting” while others (the unhappy followers) just give up on everyone else and call their faith “personal”, and alienate themselves from a Church Body.  “We want to have a first-century Church”, they say, “We want to look like the early church”.  And since we cannot walk into an established body and reform it quickly to the principles we see taught in Scripture, we stomp out the door and seek to start our own or give up on everyone else completely.

It is true, our Christian traditions have been developing for nearly 2000 years.  A gathering in Jerusalem in 60 AD would look dramatically different than a gathering in Dallas Texas today.  There are a few things that we must remember, however, when observing that reality.

Firstly, the early Church did not do everything right.  After Jesus returned to Heaven and the apostles began the work of Church planting, the early church had a multitude of problems.  They were immediately plagued by legalism and Judaizers seeking to impose the Old Covenant Law on top of the Gospel.  They also suffered intense persecution which scattered many of them across the known world, and some verbally denied Jesus while others affirmed Him – and many who stood firm under persecution called those who denied Him in a moment of weakness non-believers and heretics.  There were some who taught that Jesus was not a man, He was only God; there were others who taught that He as only god and not a man.  The heresies and false teachings were countless, and the entire New Testament was written to counter these false teachings and develop right doctrine.

Secondly, we must understand that our Church and worship gatherings are almost completely cultural.  Jesus taught the disciples how to pray, how to live daily lives and how to make disciples, but He never said, “When you have a Church service, do this.”  Paul gave very loose instructions about the gathering of believers:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.

– Eph 5.18-21

“Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

-Col 3.16

“What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”

– 1 Cor 14.26

We understand that God us given us one another as a body, He has gifted each of us differently to serve the body and push one another on to maturity – some as teachers, some as hands and feet, and when we gather together we are taught to encourage one another with music and teaching and worship God.  We also are taught to remember Christ through the Lord’s Supper by eating together and feeding one another.

That’s it.

Scripture does not teach us to gather for an hour.  There is no outline for Sunday School.  Yes, we are instructed to sing hymns, psalms and Spiritual songs – that means we should sing those truths of old and continue to write new songs of praise to our Lord.  But the Bible never says which instruments we are to use (or not use), it never instructs us on how many songs, or how many preachers!  We are to be marked by prayer, singing and admonishing/teaching.  We all, throughout the ages, have adapted these principles to our fellowships through tradition and through our culture.

And quite frankly, the Early Church suffered much more than we do for lack of accessibility to Scripture and teachings.  We, today, have the completed Scripture at our fingertips and in our language, with 2000 years of scholarly study and theological refinement all collected on google.

So what does all of this mean?  Our culture values independent thought and critical thinking.  This is good, healthy and valuable – because we all must confess our faith personally.  Our parent’s faith, our community’s faith, our pastor’s faith will not save us.  It is also detrimental, however, because we are hesitant to submit to one another, to put each other’s desires before our own, and if our personal fancies are not tickled then we would prefer to just walk away.  This ought not be.  God created us for community and gave us to one another to push each other on to righteousness and obedience.

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

– Heb 10.23-25

If you are a Christian, you must be a part of a local body.  It is not an option.  God did not call us to be lone-ranger Christians, He called us to serve one another, to love one another, to encourage one another, and to go out and make disciples together!

Now hear me, I am not advocating blind submission.  If you are in a body and it is infiltrated by false prophets or the leadership begins teaching heresies – it is our responsibility to seek to right that false teaching, and if the body as a whole will not submit to Scripture and truth, then we should find another body.  False prophets are dangerous, and one of Satan’s tactics is to infiltrate the Church and lead people astray.  We all must be on guard against that danger.  But we must love Christ’s bride as He loves His bride and fight for her.  We should not walk away from a body quickly, but we should plead with her, pray for her, and fight for her.

And Church planting is a necessary and beautiful form of growth!  We see it often on the micro-level in small groups.  When you have a gathering of believers that meets regularly, and new believers are brought in consistently – as they should be – there will quickly come a time that the group is too big for intimate discipleship and accountability.  Those baby Christians will mature and get to a point where they are capable and ready to lead a group on their own!  This is good, right and healthy.  The same is true on the bigger scale.  Churches cannot and should not grow indefinitely.  Pastors should be raised up and trained, Churches should be planted and our footprint broadened.  We ought not be in competition with one another but partners to reach our community, the lost and the world.

This is healthy growth.  Splintering and segregating because of personalities or insubordination is unhealthy and wrong.

So let us check our hearts today.  Are you a part of a local body?  Are you sacrificing your time, energy, finances and autonomy for the sake of other believers?  Are you serving the body, utilizing the gifts and talents that God has given you for the sake of the local Church?  Or are you sitting back and just getting fed?  Do you listen to podcasts instead of attending church?  Are you frustrated about this or that and therefore pray and worship on your own and have written off the local body?

Jesus has created you for community.  You need the body, and the body needs you.  Without the body we will not have fellowship, accountability, encouragement, or an effective witness.  And perhaps most importantly, we are being disobedient if we are not actively serving and participating in Church.  So know the Lord.  Learn the Scriptures.  Find a body and test its doctrine against the Word.  But lay aside your preferences and remember that our gatherings are cultural by in large.  If Scripture does not forbid what your body practices as worship, then embrace it – as it is facilitating worship for others.  If Scripture does forbid what your body is practicing as worship, then address it and identify the sin or false teaching.  And if you must leave out of conviction, then find another body.  There ought not be any lone-ranger Christians.