If you are new to our blog, we encourage you to read some of our first posts (from October/November 2009) so that you will understand the
beginning of our journey.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

What Is “The Gospel”? (Part 2)

In my last post, I described two groups within the evangelical world who equate their favored activity or their favored doctrine with “the gospel”. Both of these groups consist of wonderful brothers and sisters in Christ, and both of them emphasize important aspects of our faith. However, by incorrectly defining and describing the gospel, they can – inadvertently – create confusion.

One of the reasons I follow such debates/discussions is that they challenge me to more clearly define my own views. So here is my answer to this vital and foundational question: “What is the gospel?”

The gospel, reduced to its most simple form, is the message that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins. And (here’s a piece that often is missed) by His death and resurrection, Jesus invites us to become citizens of the Kingdom of God.

We certainly can say much more, but this, I believe, is the essence of the “good news”.

However, to expand on this simple explanation, I would describe the gospel this way:

The gospel is the incredibly good news that God came from heaven to earth in human form to reveal Himself to mankind. He appeared in human history in the person that we know as Jesus. Jesus lived an exemplary life, but was crucified on a cross as if he were a common criminal. However – amazing as it may seem – the unjust shedding of His innocent blood can serve to pay the penalty for my sins.

Why does this matter? Because my sins separate me from God, and prevent me from living my life to the fullest, as intended by my Creator.

There is nothing I can do to be saved from my sins; there is no behavior that will allow me to earn my way into God’s favor. His forgiveness is offered to me as a gift. This is truly good news!

After His death on the cross, Jesus was buried…but then He rose from the grave and returned to heaven. His resurrection demonstrated that He truly is the Lord over life and death for all who choose to believe in Him. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords!

How do I…how does anyone…respond to this good news? Quite simply: I admit to God that I am a sinner, and I acknowledge that faith in Jesus is the only way to be saved from the consequences of my sins. I accept His death on the cross as a sacrificial act of love which He performed on my behalf. I repent of my sins and I choose to be baptized. My baptism allows me to demonstrate that I am making a new beginning; turning away from my old way of life and now living in relationship with God.

But the good news does not end there!

Notice these opening lines from the Gospel of Mark:

…Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said, “and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel!” (Mark 1:15)

Jesus makes it clear that the gospel is not just about me and my salvation…the gospel is, ultimately, a proclamation about the Kingdom of God. Therefore, when I decided to follow Jesus at age 17, I did not only receive forgiveness for my sins…I also became a citizen of God’s Kingdom.

Wow.

God’s Kingdom operates with an entirely different set of principles than the kingdoms of this world. Jesus spells out these life-changing principles through His teachings in the Sermon on the Mount…the Beatitudes…the Great Commandment…the Parables. All of His teaching is intended to show me, and my fellow citizens, how we should live as part of His Kingdom today.

Not just later on in heaven, but right here.

Right now.

In this life.

In His final words, the Great Commission, Jesus reminds us not to keep silent about this good news, because the gospel is not supposed to be a secret! The Lord of heaven and earth chooses to trust me (just as He trusts each of His followers) to faithfully share the good news with other people. Isn’t this amazing? I have the incredible privilege of inviting others to join me as a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

This is the gospel. This is good news. God has a great gift which He eagerly desires to give to anyone who simply will receive it: life with Jesus in His Kingdom, both now and forever.

Oh, Lord, help me to graciously, boldly, lovingly, confidently, and joyfully share this good news with the people that You bring into my life.

- Bruce

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What Is “The Gospel”? (Part 1)

There has been a fair amount of buzz recently in the blogosphere – and elsewhere – about the meaning of “the gospel”, which simply is the good news about Jesus. This topic has emerged largely because of the rise of two interesting groups within the evangelical world over the past few years.

One group is the “social justice” Christians. When these believers read the Bible, they see God’s very real concern for the poor, the needy, and the downtrodden. They identify strongly with the Lord’s exhortation to address injustice. I agree with their concerns and their passions, and I am grateful for their reminder that the church always must tend to those in need. Unfortunately, many in this movement have started to equate “concern for the poor” with “the gospel.” For them, a specific activity has become the standard by which Christians are measured. In other words, if you are not pursuing social justice as your top agenda item, then you are not really proclaiming or living out the gospel of Jesus. 

I recently read a blog post from an individual who passionately adheres to this position. He quoted Jesus’ statement in Luke 4:18-19 which reads:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

After citing this verse, the writer essentially said, “end of discussion. This proves my case.”

I always find it interesting when people use “proof texts” to reinforce their particular agenda. It is so easy to fall into this pattern, and – when I see it in others – it reminds me to guard against this tendency within myself. In this case, the passage at hand does make it clear that Jesus has a deep concern for the poor, needy, and oppressed. But is the Lord speaking of these needs in their physical context? Or their spiritual context? Or perhaps both?

After all, one could certainly make the case that Jesus did not die on the cross just so we could be healed from our physical infirmities, or be set free from poverty. And even if we take this passage at face value, is it really the “end of the discussion” about the life, ministry, and purposes of our Lord?

It seems to me that caring for the poor and needy is something that Christians should do (one of many things that Christians should do) once “the gospel” has grabbed hold of their heart.

What, then, is “the gospel”?

Another group that is fueling on-line chatter about this topic is “The New Calvinists” (TNC’s). Pastors who are part of this growing movement often are organizing under the banner of the gospel. For example, one of their groups is “The Gospel Coalition” and their major annual conference is called “Together For The Gospel.” This group has a high view of Scripture, and they teach and preach with great diligence. I am grateful for their example that we must devote ourselves to the study of God’s Word. However, it is disconcerting when they equate “Calvinism” with “the gospel”. For this group, a specific doctrinal system has become the standard by which Christians are measured. In other words, if you are not preaching Calvinism, then you are not really proclaiming or living out the gospel of Jesus.

NOTE: My views would fall more generally in the direction of Arminian theology. For a basic overview of the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, click on this link:
http://www.the-highway.com/compare.html

I once was invited to meet with a few ministers who identify with the TNC’s. I arrived at the church, we grabbed some coffee, and sat down to converse. One of the ministers began to speak, and the following conversation ensued:

Minister: “Man, it’s so good to be together.”

Me: “Yes, I always love getting together with other pastors. It’s great to be able to encourage each other and pray for each other.”

Minister: “No, I mean it’s so good to get together as Calvinists. It’s really important for us to stick together.”

Me: “Well, actually, I’m not a Calvinist....”

I explained to him without rancor that I was part of a movement – the Restoration Movement – that had been started by people from different doctrinal groups (some from the Arminian view and some from the Calvinist view) for the express purpose of moving beyond these divisions. The founders of our movement wanted to focus on the core beliefs that unite us (“the essentials”), rather than squabble over the secondary beliefs that divide us (“the non-essentials”), because they wanted to get Christians working together for the cause of the gospel.

The other ministers listened politely…we went on with our meeting…and I never was invited back again. It saddened me to realize that their narrow doctrinal view was more important than our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ. Despite their expressed intention to work “together for the gospel”, they were more interested in working together for Calvinism.

I have no doubts that there are other groups within Christianity who – like the two I’ve mentioned here – equate their preferred activity or preferred doctrinal system with “the gospel.” How sad that we draw these artificial boundaries which Jesus did not create.

What really breaks my heart is that such boundaries and divisions within God’s family actually detract from our ability to proclaim the gospel to those who desperately need to hear the “good news” about Jesus.

So the question remains: what is the gospel? How should we describe it?

I will address that in Part 2.

- Bruce

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Liturgies of Non-Liturgical Churches

In my last post, I wrote about my tour through a variety of churches. Most of these churches would fall under the broad label of “evangelical” churches. Evangelical churches have several distinctives, such as a deep reliance upon the truth of the Bible, the importance of sharing the good news of Jesus with people who do not know Him, and a rejection of the “liturgical” practices of traditional Protestant churches. In the Christian Churches where I serve, we would certainly describe ourselves as non-liturgical.

But this is not entirely accurate, because a liturgy is simply a prescribed form or format for a public worship service. In traditional churches, this is seen in the recital of various confessions and creeds…in offering formal prayers that are written in a prayer book or lectionary…and by reading Scriptures that follow the seasons of the “church calendar” (such as Lent and Advent). And while it is true that our evangelical churches may not use the formal practices of the more traditional churches, we do create – and rely upon - routine formats for our services.

Over time, then, I realized that we were fooling ourselves when we called ourselves “non-liturgical”, because every church has a liturgy of some sort.

For example, in the little Baptist Church where I became a Christian, the worship service began in exactly the same way, each and every Sunday: the organist would play a few chords, we all would rise to our feet, then the minister and choir would step out onto the platform while we all sang the first verse (and only the first verse!) of the hymn “Come Thou Almighty King”.

This weekly “call to worship” was part of our liturgy.

As I reflect back on my tour of churches, it is now clear to me that every one of these churches had some sort of liturgy, because the worship service followed a similar format…week after week. I recently read a blog post by a man whose father was a pastor in a small Bible church. He said his Dad’s service planning each week was quite simple: he took the bulletin from the prior week, crossed out the names of the hymns and the sermon title, and then wrote in the new hymns and the new sermon title. But the order of the service never changed. The choir number always was presented at the same point in the service. The offering always followed the choir number and then was followed by a solo. Communion always preceded the sermon, and the sermon always was followed by an invitation to respond.

In other words: this church had its own liturgy; they just did not recognize it or acknowledge it as such.

We live in an age in which many churches are striving to be hip, cool, relevant, and contemporary. Such churches typically view themselves as throwing off the constraints of the past and operating on the edge. And yet, these churches, too, wind up creating their own liturgies as the following video spoof makes clear.


"Sunday's Coming" Movie Trailer from North Point Media on Vimeo.

If you have difficulty playing this clip, you can find it at http://vimeo.com/11501569

So...I find myself wondering: why do virtually all churches (even those identified as “non-liturgical”) create some sort of consistent pattern in their worship services?

I believe the answer is two-fold:

First, our God is a God of order and He prefers that our time together in corporate worship be peaceful, rather than chaotic (1 Corinthians 14:33). Clearly, it is much easier to accomplish orderly worship when people know what to expect.

Second, God has designed us as creatures of habit. Our normal method of navigating life is to explore options, learn those which suit us best (or which are most comfortable), and then adopt those habits as an ongoing part of life. This brings a sense of order and normalcy to our days.

As a point of comparison, imagine how disruptive and anxious our lives would be if each day when we arrived at work (a) our desk or work station was in an entirely new location and (b) we had a completely new set of responsibilities for that day. By the end of the first week, I think most of us would be a neurotic mess.

Orderly patterns, then, make life manageable. They give structure to our days and create a sense of stability and security. That is why established patterns in church – our liturgies, whatever they might be – are vitally important.

However, there is one huge potential downside to these patterns: our liturgies can take on a life of their own. They can stop serving as a pathway to the living God, and instead they can become the familiar and well-worn ruts in which we “do church”. If we are not careful, our liturgies can become traditions that even interfere with the movement of God’s Spirit.

Facing the pressure of providing a worship service each week, alongside all the other demands of ministry, it is easy for those of us in ministry to simply do things the way we’ve always done them (whether those ways are “traditional” or “contemporary”.) It takes time to prayerfully seek the heart of God, and ask Him what He wants to accomplish in and among His people each week.

So…as I strive to find some sort of balance in all of this…I find myself asking the Lord these sorts of questions:

How can we best structure corporate worship to lead people into Your presence?

How can we create familiar patterns to help accomplish this goal?

How can we bring some variety into these established patterns to keep them fresh…without creating chaos?

How do we insure that our worship is orderly...yet still sensitive to the promptings of Your Spirit?

- Bruce

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Tour of American Christianity

When I became a follower of Jesus Christ at age 17, I knew almost nothing about the institution we call “the church”. I was aware that it came in a variety of forms and flavors, but all of these were foreign to me. Out of curiosity, and a sincere desire to learn, I spent the first several years of my spiritual journey checking out many of these different expressions of Christianity.

Although I visited a few Catholic churches, my tour primarily focused on Protestant expressions of the faith, and encompassed the following churches: Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, FourSquare, Congregational, Friends, Brethren. My exposure to many of these churches was limited to a few Sundays as a visitor, because usually I could tell fairly quickly whether or not I was going to fit in. When I found a church where there was a strong foundation on Scripture and meaningful worship, then I would settle down into regular attendance and (usually) membership.

This “church tour” was enlightening in many different ways:

1. Each of these churches had their own set of distinctive doctrines and practices. And yet, beneath these differences, there was a foundational belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. These churches were not exalting some other “god”…Jesus was at the core of their faith. Even when I disagreed with a particular church’s approach to the faith, it was wonderful to see how many different groups of people took Christ – and His teachings– seriously.

2. If I stuck around a church long enough, I always encountered some people who truly seemed to radiate the transforming love of Jesus Christ. Sadly, I also encountered some people who did not seem to be very Christ-like. As a result, I learned at an early stage that just knowing “about” God by attending church should not be my focus. Instead, I should strive to know God personally, and allow His Spirit to actually transform my mind, my heart, and my life.

3. The differences I encountered in doctrine and practice among these various churches forced me to dig deep into Scripture to determine what I believed. I chose, as my role models, the people of ancient Berea. The Bible tells us that the Apostle Paul went to Berea and began to explain how the Messiah, Jesus Christ, had arrived to usher in God’s Kingdom. And how did these people respond? They “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). In a similar way, I wanted God’s Spirit to speak to me through the pages of the Bible; to confirm in my heart and mind and soul how I should understand and express my faith.

As a result of my own prayerful study, I ultimately found that every church I visited or joined had some issue or practice or doctrine that just did not fully resonate within me. As an active member of a church, I usually had some sort of teaching ministry, and I made it a point not to teach on the specific issues where I disagreed, because I did not want to be divisive in any way. However, this also made me a feel a bit like an outsider; as if I never could fully belong.

And there was one other nagging thought. For many years there had been a longing in my heart, and a stirring in my soul, to serve God through full-time ministry. On more than one occasion, people even confirmed this call upon my life. But I knew that for this vision to become a reality, I had to find a church where I would be fully “at home” in terms of doctrine and practice.

Then, some 25 years ago, God graciously allowed me to find the Christian Church. This network of independent congregations (known collectively as part of “The Restoration Movement”) became my home. For the first time, I found myself attending a church where the doctrines and practices fully lined up with my understanding of Scripture. For the first time, I was part of a movement where I could teach and preach and serve without reservation.

I must confess that by the time I joined a Christian Church, I had virtually given up on God’s ministry call upon my life. Thankfully, though, the Heavenly Father had not given up on me. So after 5 years of active service in our local church, the Lord invited me to leave my business career behind and become a full-time minister of the gospel. I took that step of faith with the full support of my wife, recognizing that this was not just a “career” change…this was a lifestyle change.

Some of the most challenging transitions we had to deal with included: a radical change in the nature and flow of my work-week, an increased sense of living in a fish-bowl where my life (and that of my family) was under greater scrutiny, vastly reduced income (both immediately and over the long term), reduced benefits (particularly in the area of retirement), and a recognition that now – for the first time – my job and my church family were inextricably linked.

Needless to say, our transition to this new lifestyle was not always easy. We have experienced many ups and downs over these past 20 years in ministry, but we have absolutely no regrets about the life God has asked us to live. Obedience…even when it is costly…has its own satisfactions. Best of all, the opportunity to invest in people, and then watch God actually transform their lives, is simply amazing. I can think of nothing in this life that is so rewarding.

As I reflect on the past, I am convinced that I would not be in the ministry today without having embarked on my “church tour”. This exposure to the diverse expressions of Christianity helped to form me and shape me. I was driven to learn and to study; to wrestle with issues of doctrine and theology and church practice. As a result, when God opened the door to ministry…I was ready.

Through a long and somewhat circuitous route, God had prepared me to answer His call.

- Bruce