Ecclesia Outside the Auditorium

The auditorium is so bitter sweet. It is sweet because there is nothing like having that many Christians together (which is what ecclesia means – “assembly”) worshiping God. It is bitter because some equate the worship hour with what church is. How do we get people to drop the old facility mindset and take on the community mindset (John Ellas’ terms)?

Scripture helps us out here:

  1. Jesus and his disciples never had a formal church building to worship in. They worshiped in homes.
  2. Some of the most obvious and profound examples of connection between people in the New Testament happen away from the assembly (Philip and the eunuch on the side of the road, Peter at Cornelius’ house, Paul and the Ephesian elders before Paul boarded the ship to Jerusalem in Acts 20, Jesus and his disciples in the upper room).
  3. We are never commanded to go and build buildings…we were commanded to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19). That doesn’t make buildings wrong, we just need to keep first things first.
  4. Paul preached in the marketplaces as well as in the synagogues (assemblies). Can you imagine if you heard Paul was coming to preach in your city next week and when you found out the venue it was an open air public venue rather than in the biggest auditorium in town? He went where the people were who needed the message.
  5. Paul met Lydia and others by a river where she and others were baptized. Paul didn’t say, “Wait, let me take you down to the church building at a convenient time on a Sunday or Wednesday.” He met her where she was and helped her understand Jesus right then and there.

It is important people realize that an auditorium is just like a song book, a microphone, electricity, powerpoint, and all the rest…they are just aids to help us do what God put us here to do. We cannot let them become distractions that keep us from getting done our primary mission. For instance, some people wouldn’t have a problem with something if the worship was in a home but the very same thing would bother them if you moved that very same gathering into an auditorium. Would you or anyone you know be upset if services at the building were canceled this coming Sunday and instead people were encouraged to show up at the park for the very same service to take place there? Would anyone complain that wasn’t proper?

I am sure I am speaking to the choir for 90% of those of you reading this but maybe it is healthy to think about this from time to time and evaluate how we are helping or hurting how people perceive our worship based on its location rather than the fact that God is being worshiped and that is all that matters, regardless of where it is taking place. I applaud Christians who are taking it upon themselves to worship in public places so that the world can see who we are and know us by our love and our desire to please God. How better to be salt and light and like a city on a hill than to get out of the auditorium and in front of the people who need to hear?


Effective Evangelism – The Difference Between Conversion and Subversion

One of the things that gets people in trouble when it comes to evangelism is trying to subert people rather than convert them. The word subvert comes from a combination of the words sub – from beneath and the Latin vertere – to turn. The word convert is similar but rather than turning from beneath it is to turn with. This is an important distinction. We are here to walk alongside people and not just undermine their current belief system and leave them out to dry. In every single conversion story in  the Bible you have someone who was willing to walk alongside someone to show them a better way. Even Paul’s conversion had Jesus doing that, although in quite a different way from the rest of the conversions in Acts.

If more Christians would engaged in conversion – to turn with someone rather than merely upset someone’s belief applecart we would have much more success in carrying out Christ’s mission. Too often we get caught up in the trap of proving ourselves right and them wrong, which only results in turning against someone rather than turning with them.

How do you turn with someone? Here are a couple of ideas. I would love to hear what ideas you have as well:

  1. Listen – people don’t care what you have to say if you don’t care what they have to say.
  2. Understand – Don’t just listen as in “uh huh, uh huh…well, I think that you are wrong because…” That doesn’t show them you have even attempted to understand what they are saying. Listening is more than appearances. We listen because they are valuable and because we want to understand where they are coming from so we can best help them get where they need to go. Andy Stanley told a story about a guy he sat next to on a plane who was trying to convert him. Don’t you think if the guy would have listen and tries to learn a little about who Andy was there would be no way he would have tried that! Clearly he didn’t care what Andy had to say.
  3. Don’t expect them to get it down perfect. Walking with someone is through ups and downs…they may disappoint you but we still walk alongside them and help them through their difficulties.
  4. Win the soul, not the battle. Speaks for itself.
  5. Discuss, don’t argue. Arguing builds walls, discussion tears them down.
  6. Have empathy toward any bitter feelings toward Christianity or God. They have their own story of why they feel that way. Instead of letting it slap you in the face personally let them know you can understand how they might feel that way and work with it rather than let it build walls.
  7. Be in prayer for them.
  8. Don’t topple their belief system and leave them out to dry…show how God fills the gaps so they have a fuller understanding of God rather than a belief system shot full of holes with no way to mend them.
  9. Be the first to admit your own weaknesses and shortcomings. If people think you think you are perfect – door closed.
  10. If you stumble in front of them, model how a Christian makes things right again both with God and others.
  11. Have more grace than judgment

Something So Amazing You Have to Bring Someone Else to See it

What would be something so amazing that you would have to go get someone and bring them to see it as well? Let’s say you were walking down the street and you so a man throwing basketballs threw an outside window in a gym. From deep inside the gym after each shot you heard the faint but distinct sound of a swish over and over again…every shot was being drained. Not one missed. Would you be impressed? Would you be so amazed that you would want other people to see it too? Maybe you would encourage him to go on America Has Talent (the title of the show in proper English). You see where I am going don’t you…

There were times in Jesus’ ministry that people were so amazed by him that they had to go tell someone else. Other times they took it a step further…they actually went and pulled someone from whatever it was they were doing and brought them to meet Jesus.

When do we lose that sense of wonder? Why were some in his day more impressed with healed legs than forgiven sins? Why are some today more impressed with a guy shooting basketballs through a window than with forgiven sins or God on a cross or a resurrection that we can all experience called baptism? Maybe it is time to walk side by side with Jesus again and journey with him through a study of his life and ministry. Over the next few months I will periodically be posting on the Gospel of John in a way that I hope is inspirational to you, eye-opening, but most importantly will hopefully renew in us an intensified grasp of just how awesome Jesus Christ really is and how he should inspire us to want to bring someone else along for the ride.

Living By Faith, Not By Exception

“So this guy is walking up to the baptistry…he has repented and made his confession before the congregation and just as he steps in the water he slips hits his head on the floor. He dies right before he is baptized. Is he saved?”

The point normally being made with this type of question is whether or not baptism is really necessary for salvation. First, we aren’t the judge. We leave that to God. Second, we can only answer that question (if we actually want to try to) based on what He has told us in scripture. We could go into a long discussion about the thief on the cross, Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit apart from baptism and all the rest but I am going to save that for another day because that isn’t the point of this post.

Here is the question I want to pose. Does God want us to twist and turn and contrive all possible exceptions that we can come up with in order to replace what He has clearly told us in scripture. Let’s say you take the above example…he had faith, confessed and repented and had a heart to be baptized and was even acting on that desire. Let’s say you concluded that he was saved. Is it really appropriate then to say that God desires the exception to be the rule? Does God really want us to be loophole minded rather than just do the obvious? Why not live by faith and take God at His Word. There is no doubt that baptism is important from a scriptural point of view, why develop and form your doctrine out of the exception that is not even found in scripture but is rather contrived from our own thinking rather than from scripture?

Why is it so hard to look at where Jesus told his disciples what to do to “make disciples” in Matthew 28:19 and conclude that Jesus thought baptism was really important? Why is it so hard to read Paul and the burial illustration of Romans 6 and conclude that clearly (not maybe…clearly) Paul thought baptism was extremely important. Even if you concluded that it wasn’t necessary for salvation wouldn’t someone devoted to God want to do it anyway and teach others its importance? I wonder sometimes if people try to live by exception rather than by faith and just take God at His Word. Imagine if Paul wrote his letters but made sure to footnote any possible logical exception…it would be a madhouse rife with abuse. Instead, he laid out his theology very plainly and it is up to us to believe it and live by it as best we can and let God make up for any of our short comings.

The question I am asking here is not about baptism…it is about the heart and what attitude we have when we approach God and scripture. Do we legalistically look for loopholes or do we do as Paul said in Romans 1:17 “the righteous will live by faith.” If we are living by faith, wouldn’t we in good conscience try to live our lives as closely in line with what we find in scripture as possible? And don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying we are saved by our own good works (See this post for more on that).

Learning from Jesus’ Disciples – Sin and Reconciliation

In Matthew 26 Jesus lays out a series of predictions regarding the failure and desertion of his disciples. He predicts Judas will betray him (26:21), that the disciples will desert him (26:31) and that Peter in particular will disown him three times (26:34). In the same chapter they go on from there to the garden of Gethsemane where his inner circle can’t see fit to stay up and lend their support to Jesus (26:36ff). Starting in verse 47 everything begins to happen just as Jesus said it would. Judas betrays, disciples flee and a few dozen verses later Peter disowns him.

What is remarkable to me about all of this is that they all fell short. Not one of them did what they said they would do. They all shirked their responsibilities and showed the extent of their loyalty (or lack there of) when the rubber met the road. We can learn a lot about how what we do with sin and falling short when we look at what happened next. Judas didn’t seek reconciliation. He took his life instead. The eleven were all able to return to Jesus and benefit from his grace and mercy because they had a desire to be close to Jesus.

We all sin. We all do some things we shouldn’t. Maybe we aren’t kissing Jesus in a garden to hand him over to angry soldiers. But maybe in our own subtle ways we push him to the fringes of our life. Maybe we don’t sit by a fire and flat out say we don’t know him but maybe our lives and words don’t really say that we do know him either. What is so hopeful to me in these verses is that those who want to be reconciled can find it. Those who do not seek it out are left to work it out on their own (and fail).

Maybe you have struggled with a particular sin for a long period of time and wonder if God could find it in him to forgive you even one more time. The answer we find in Matthew 26-28 shows us that those who desire to be close to Jesus own up to their mistakes, repent of them, and seek to do better. We can’t let our pride get in the way. We can’t get hung up on having to admit we are wrong or say we are sorry. Instead, we have to do as Peter did and run to Jesus. I wonder how easy that was for Peter to do? The last time he saw Jesus he was disowning him…I bet that took some pride swallowing to run to the tomb when he heard he had risen from the dead! What do you let get in the way of finding reconciliation with Jesus Christ?

Where Two or Three Are Gathered (Matthew 18:20)

“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
– Matthew 18:20

This has to be one of the most misquoted verses in all of the New Testament. This verse is used to talk about Christian gatherings like a worship service or Bible study to say that Christ is in our midst when we gather. But if you back up and look at the context, this verse is in the context of dealing with sin among Christians and how to bring brothers back into harmony with one another. Jesus is saying, when this type of reconciliation takes place it is the type of thing he wants to be a part of and is best represented in those events. Let’s look at the context:

15“If your brother sins against you,[b] go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’[c] 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be[d]bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[e] loosed in heaven.

19“Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
– Matthew 18:15-20

If you only look at verse 20 it is very easy to go away thinking these verses are about any and every gathering of Christians. But in context you see over and over that Jesus is mentioning two or three people joining in the task of reconciliation together in order to deal with sin and bring unity to the “church.” I also wonder if Jesus saying “there am I with them” if he is referencing himself as a witness in these matters. I am not sure on that but it is a possibility.

The next issue is what did Jesus mean by “church”? I had a hunch this was not talking about Christian assemblies specifically (although it could still certainly apply) as the church as we know it was not yet in existence. The word church in Greek really just means “gathering” or “assembly.” I checked Davies & Allison’s Matthew commentary to see if I was on the right track and they confirmed my hunch. What is more their conclusion also shed light on verse 17 “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”:

“The local community is here meant, not the church universal. Its role is not to rebuke or condemn, but rather to support the individual disciple in his final attempt to convince and reconcile his brother…To treat someone as a Gentile and toll-collector would involve the breaking off of fellowship and hence mean exclusion from the community – no doubt in hope that such a severe measure (it would have dire social and probably economic consequences) would convict the sinner of his sin and win him back. The passage is therefore about excommunication. Once a brother has refused to heed the whole church, there can be no appeal to a higher authority: the matter has been settled.” – Davies & Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew: Matthew 8-18 (International Critical Commentary)

This brings out an interesting dynamic from their culture that we often miss when we read these verses. Their identity and even socio-economic status was tied to their community. Today, if someone were to be forced to leave a church for flagrant and unrepentant sin it would hardly be as severe as the punishment described here. They would just pick another church and go where no one knew about their issues. Not so in their communities. They depended on each other in more ways than just showing up for worship one hour a week. Their lives were inextricably entwined. This points specifically to our lack of connection today. It points to our lack of dependence upon one another. Church discipline is powerless in an environment where people can “church hop” until they find just the right flavor of what they are looking for or to avoid having to repent of their sins by simply going to a new church.

Have a look at Mark Adam’s post from 2 years ago for more on this passage.

How has your congregation created communities of faith that foster more dependence and connection with other Christians?

A Bible Study Most People Can Stick With

We talk a lot about studying the Bible but how frequently do we give people accessible options to make it a habit? There are 80 posts on this blog that deal with studying the Bible in some way, shape or form. We have classes on all the proper “how to’s”…how to read a psalm or how to study a Gospel. But most people walk away with lots of “how to” knowledge but little actual doing. The normal track that I have seen people take is to encourage personal Bible study by trying to read through the Bible in a year. That is a great thing to do and anyone over the age of 12 should be able to complete it if they are motivated enough. But in reality most people don’t.

So what can we do to make Bible study more accessible and habit forming? I think it is important to regularly put things in the hands of Bible students that is on their level, relevant, biblical, and brief. I say those things specifically because I think there are a couple of typical barriers people face to studying the Bible. People bail if:

  • The study is over their head – so make it simple
  • The study is irrelevant – so make is practical
  • The study just seems to be pop-psychology with little bigger picture meaning of what it has to do with our relationship with God – so make it biblical
  • The study is so long that people won’t make time for it – so make it brief

It is important that we recognize the barriers that keep people from making personal daily Bible study a habit and put something in their hands that is basically barrier free and gets them right to the text in a way that is meaningful and applicable.

Our solution:

  1. Pick a book of the Bible (we picked James – download it from this post)
  2. Break the book down into chunks that you can write a one page study on (again see the James study for an example)
  3. Write up brief study guides that are emailed to your target group/Bible class on a regular basis (at least 3/week)
  4. Follow up/accountability – see if anyone is doing it and encourage them to do so.

This probably takes someone on staff to accomplish unless you have some really dedicated people to put this together. We are hoping to work through the entire New Testament outside of Bible class in this manner and I will keep you updated through the Small Group Lessons page on the blog. Hopefully through this we can get more people making a habit out of studying the Bible. I truly believe that the Word of God has the power to transform lives but it takes us getting motivated to study and actually doing so rather than just talking about it. If you aren’t studying the Bible on a regular basis challenge and encourage you to take on the study of James and follow along with us through future studies.

Bible Study – Just Pick a Book And Stick With It

Over the last couple of months in our 20s & 30s Bible class we spent several weeks talking about why study and how to study the Bible. Bottom line – pick a book of the Bible and start studying. We recommended the book of James as a good starting place and I started emailing a study guide every couple of days to class members. This isn’t anything in depth but would be useful for someone trying to get the gist of what James is talking about. It also has application questions. I will be posting these study guides over the next few days for anyone who would like to take on reading and studying James.

Here are a couple of useful tips to use when studying scripture:

  1. Don’t assume you already know what it says. You can read the same chapter at different times in life and come away catching something entirely new. I am convinced that scripture intersects our lives at particular points in time that make it come alive in new and varied ways. There is still absolute truth found in scripture but the way we perceive it can be affected by where we find ourselves in the moment we read.
  2. Ask lots and lots of questions. Make sure to write these down so you can try to figure them out.
  3. Journal as you read. Don’t read for volume. Read for quality and transformation. Make notes of relevant points and things you want to try to remember. Journal things the text calls you to change in your life or any calls to action you find.
  4. Try to find at least one thing out of any given text that does one of the following: changes the way you view yourself or others, calls you to action, encourages repentance in an area of your life, humbles you, leads you to give God glory and praise.
  5. Let the Bible shape you and not the other way around. That has been said on this blog in the past but it is such an important point. Transformation should never go in the direction of us to text. It should always go from text to us. In other words, we don’t twist the text to avoid transformation or to remain comfortable. We have to allow the text to work on changing us instead.
  6. Use two translations that fit well together. Go with something on different ends of the spectrum like any of these pairs: NASB + NLT, NIV + NRSV, ESV + NRSV (these are all found at for free)

Spiritual Snacks Will Never Fill You Up

I love snacks. I could snack all day. Chips, donuts, cokes, string cheese…I could probably make a list longer than all the types of shrimp Forrest and Bubba came up with. They are my weakness. What I have found over my years of snacking is that they never leave you full. Snacks are like throwing gasoline on a fire. It makes a big flame but it doesn’t last. If you want a fire that lasts you have to have a fuel that is jam packed with lasting fuel. Wood burns so well because of the years of growth it has taken to build it into what it is.

Some Christians live from one spiritual snack to the next. They snack on quick prayers, weekly worship, a verse here and there, and maybe something on the radio or a Christian CD that keeps them encouraged. Moving rapidly from one snack to the next there is never a sense of being full. There is never a lasting feeling of satiation. Deeply rooted spiritual experience and relationship with God is forfeited for a much shallower yet much flashier brand of Christian faith that is high carb, high fat, low protein and low fiber. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6). When you think about your faith, is there ever a time you can say you feel “filled”? Jesus promised it. If we don’t then maybe we aren’t actually hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Maybe we have been hungering and thirsting for something that has the appearance of spiritual nutrients but in the end is no more than spiritual junk food.

Jesus explained the differences between these types of Christians through his parable of the seed. The sower sows seed and it falls on different types of soil. Spiritual snackers are like the seed that falls in the rocky places (Matthew 13:5). It springs up quickly but because it has no root so its quick growth is rapidly depleted. But the seed that falls on good soil had the lasting nutrients it needed to grow tall but also deep as its roots had a favorable environment to grow in a lasting way.

So put down your spiritual snacks and Christian crutches and begin a healthier diet that may not be as flashy and maybe doesn’t taste as sugary but it will see you through the tough times and draw you in closer to the heart of God.

Where We Exist vs. Where We Belong as Christians

“In the world but not of the world” is a popular phrase used by Christians to describe how we fit into the world around us. You often hear people say that we are citizens of another kingdom. And yet, here we are right in the middle of the world. There is a distinction in scripture between where we exist and where we belong. Here is a chart I made up to work through the possibilities:


Where do we exist?
It is obvious that we exist in the world. We see it, smell it, touch it, etc. No doubt about it. But we also exist in God’s kingdom. Ephesians 2:6 says we are “seated with Christ in heavenly realms.” Jesus said the kingdom of God was near and that some would not taste death before it came (Mtt 16:28). The New Testament is clear that God’s kingdom exists here and now and that as Christians, we are already a part of it. So we exist in this world and in the kingdom of God, simultaneously. Some have taken either extreme and missed the point of the dual-nature of Christian existence. On the one hand, a unitarian/universalist approach would say all that exists in the world also exists in God’s kingdom. On the other extreme, a monastic approach would be to remove oneself from existing in the world to a great a degree as possible and try to separate the spheres of what is is in the world and what is in God’s kingdom. But the middle option is what we see in scripture. We exist in the overlap of both realms. Not all that is in the world is in the kingdom of God (sin for example). Not all that is in God’s kingdom is a part of this world.

Where do we belong?
Jesus said we can’t serve two masters (Mtt 6:24). He also prayed for his disciples to remain in the world and yet be protected from the evil/evil one of the world (John 17:11-17). In that passage, Jesus says his followers are not “of the world.” That is an important point to consider. “Of” usually denotes possession. Jesus’ followers are not to be possessed by the world or exhibit the qualities the world exhibits. Colossians 1:21 says that before we were Christians we were “alienated” from God. But when we become a Christian, things change. We go from being alien to God to being an alien/stranger to the world. The Hebrew writer tells us that God’s people are “aliens and strangers” on the earth, looking for “a country of their own.” (Heb 11:13-16). Peter addresses his readers as aliens and strangers (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11). The New Testament makes it clear that we don’t belong to this world even though we exist in it. We belong to God and God’s kingdom and so we live as a citizen of the kingdom to which we belong.