New Testament Church Life

The Conversations that Matter

Years ago, I heard a mission statement someone had crafted: “I want to have conversations that matter with people who care.”

When I heard it, I knew instantly that this was the part of my life I treasured most. Above any recreational pursuit, athletic competition, or entertainment option, what I enjoy most is having a conversation that makes a difference in my life or someone else’s because we care about finding our way into Jesus’s fullness. Of course, that is most meaningful when it happens with Sara, my children or grandchildren, other family, and close friends.

But Jesus has also allowed us to have thousands of conversations like this with people worldwide. Many of those have become close friends with repeated opportunities to grow our friendship. That’s why I enjoy doing the podcast and interacting with those who listen, helping them further the conversation with their friends and family. Rich conversations are the treasures that transmit the kingdom.

I read something the other day that helped me see some ingredients that help conversations matter. A psychologist writing about emotionally abusive people said they are incapable of engaging in “mutually respectful relationships that require consideration, empathy, compassion, and kindness.” I find that so incredibly sad because the relationships that allow God’s grace to unfold require those exact things—mutual respect (especially where people don’t see things the same way) as well as consideration, empathy, compassion, and kindness. Those attributes open the kind of dialogue that sets us at ease even in our struggles, helps unravel pain, and allows his truth access to our hearts.

I’ve always got my eye out for conversations that open doors in people’s hearts. I find them everywhere—in our neighborhood, with a worker at our home, phone calls, and gatherings. I pursue them with people God connects me with and intentionally take to time to let relationships grow.

Sara and I will leave California on our second RV trip in two weeks. We’ll go first to Denver to visit our son and then head east, though not so nearly as far as last time. Our itinerary is still flexible, though we are headed to some planned events near Little Rock, Arkansas, and Austin, TX. There’s plenty of room to add other conversations around that as we travel.

We’re doing it pretty much like last time—going where the Spirit seems to lead and staying as long as we need to. Here’s a rough framework, however, of what that could look like:

  • Denver, CO – September 7-13
  • Wichita, KS – September 15-17
  • Kansas City – September 18-20
  • Belleville, IL – September 21-24
  • Little Rock, AR – September 29 – October 1
  • Austin, TX – October 6-8
  • San Antonio, TX – October 11-14

Then, we head home, possibly back up to I-40 through Dallas or Lubbock. We’re not sure yet. But we will go through Albuquerque and Flagstaff on the way home.

So, if you’re along this route and have some people who would like to connect with us, please contact me through email. Then, let’s trust that if God wants us to be together on this trip, he will arrange our schedules accordingly. What will we talk about? Whatever you want to. We no longer set the agenda but wait to see what will most help their journey. Themes from my books and podcasts almost always come up, but that’s a wide range of subject matter:

  • Living loved
  • Dealing with trauma
  • God’s view of sin
  • Finding community
  • The Jesus Lens (a freeing and meaningful engagement with Scripture)
  • Recognizing the Spirit’s nudges
  • Growing trust, and
  • Compassionate and humble engagement with the world

Sometimes, we’ll cover a bunch of those in the same conversation.

And we meet almost anywhere—in homes, parks, restaurants, or by the campfire next to our RV.

Please don’t hesitate to email me if something is on your heart. We may not be able to work everything in, but we will see how the Spirit leads. As a fun aside for this trip, we plan to visit some of the Presidential Libraries along our route. Let us know if you want to join us for one of those. And, yes, we will have plenty of alone time for God’s work to continue unfolding in our journey.

After finishing the Jake Colsen Fan Club, several people asked if we could do one through He Loves Me. Now would be an excellent time to begin, so beginning next Sunday, August 27, we’re going to initiate the He Loves Me Book Club for those who want to go through a chapter-by-chapter focus on the themes in that book. It’s always tricky with an audience as spread out around the world as this one to find a time that will work for everyone. We are going to start at 1:30 pm PDT and work from there. I know it is late in Europe and early in Asia and Australia, but if we have enough interest from both, we may have two different sessions, so one will be in the evening in Europe and late morning in the East.

We will coordinate this book club through a Facebook Group that you are welcome to join. We will continue the discussion there as well as post the Zoom links. If you’re not part of Facebook and want me to send you the link, please email me here.

As I said, there is nothing more compelling than conversations that matter with people who care. Here are some ways to connect with us, but I hope you’re finding meaningful conversations in your own relationships.


The Phenomenon of The Dones

Living Loved • Winter 2016 Current Issue

The Phenomenon of The Dones

By Wayne Jacobsen

This article is also available in Spanish:  El fenómeno de los hasta aquí (the dones)

Sixty-five million Americans who were once regular attended a local congregation no longer do.About thirty-five million of those no longer self-identify as Christian, but over thirty-one million still do.This last group has been tagged “The Dones”, those who still seek to follow Jesus and find real community but have given up hope that the local congregation is still relevant to that journey.

What do we make of this phenomenon?As one who has spent twenty years helping people explore the life of Jesus beyond our conformity based system, here are some of my thoughts about helping people explore relationship with God and his people beyond our conformity based systems and how we might participate in this conversation in a way that champions the unity of all of God’s family.

The Secret is Out!

It won’t be a secret much longer: You don’t have to participate in a local congregation to live out a transforming relationship with Jesus, experience the wonder of Christian community, or to find meaningful ways to extend his kingdom in the world.

We’ve known for some time that people are leaving traditional congregations in droves.The statistics are irrefutable. Popular wisdom, and no small number of sermons told us that people who were not part of a congregation are not part of the church.Their salvation is suspect and they will whither away spiritually either because their spiritual passion would wane or they would get lost in the weeds of false teaching. And while that is true of some, researchers have now identified a large group of people who are thriving in their faith beyond the walls of any local congregation.

Dr. Josh Packard, calls them “The Dones,” in his book Church Refugees, The book is subtitled, “Sociologists reveal why people are done with church but not their faith” and helps us understand this heretofore unidentified group of believers. He describes the Dones as high-capacity people, who were deeply involved in their local fellowships until they become stifling to their own journey.For years they sought to help reform it, only to find their efforts and their passion stifled by a bureaucracy that resisted change.Finally, seeing no other way for their faith to survive, they made a conscious decision to leave the congregational model and find growth, fellowship and mission beyond it.

While many will celebrate the discovery that the church of Jesus Christ is broader and more robust than our local institutions can contain, others find the news disturbing and prefer to reject or ignore the study. In a recent webinar with the Dr. Packard much of the chat messages to the moderator expressed displeasure that they were giving voice to this research.Already one denominational bookstore chain has said they won’t carry the book, fearful of its influence on its congregations.

They either don’t believe its conclusions or want to ignore them as a threat to their own future. Because they define the church institutionally they can cast aspersions the faith of anyone who does not belong. That’s why many have responded to declining attendance by doubling-down on obligation to keep attending. Some religious leaders have a lot invested in marginalizing those who no longer participate in a local fellowship lest others follow them out the door.

Interestingly, Dr. Packard is not encouraging people to leave their local congregations.In fact, he attends one and hopes that this study will help pastors to innovate ways to engage their most capable members so they won’t feel the need to look elsewhere. Traditional congregations serve a valuable purpose where they teach people to live out their faith and where they incubate authentic community.

Twenty-five years ago I would have been shocked at this research myself. As a pastor, I thought our program essential to faith and saw people outside of it as bitter, lone rangers who were just miffed that they couldn’t get their way. One day through the betrayal of a close friend, I found myself for the first time outside the congregation. Of course I could have gone elsewhere, but found my heart hungering for a more authentic journey than any fellowship I’d been a part of was able to foster.And I discovered I was not alone and the others were not

That’s why Dr. Packard’s research does not come as a surprise to me.For the past two decades I’ve been living among those who have found a vibrant life in Jesus as well as community outside of any religious institution. They are passionate, caring, committed disciples who want to see the kingdom of God grow in the world. They have been scorned, condemned, and maligned by those who reject their faith simply because they stopped attending Sunday services.

If you care about the future of the church in the Western world, you’ll want to avail yourself of this book. Whether you are one of the Dones, or concerned about people leaving your congregation you’ll at least want to be understand why. My hope is that we will come to celebrate all the ways that Jesus is inviting people to himself and recognize the life of the church in its more informal settings as well as more formal ones.

The Labels that Divide Us

In a study called The Rise of the Nones, Pew Research put out their discovery a few years ago of a growing segment of the U.S. population that checks “none” as their religious preference instead of one of the historic faiths that people have identified with for centuries.

It was perhaps inevitable then that the rise of the “Nones” would give rise to the “Dones”, when it was discovered that there is a an increasing number of people living outside traditional “church” institutions who continue to grow in a relationship with Jesus and connect in meaningful ways with others.The Dones is the most recent label attached to them.They have been called revolutionaries, outside the box, free-range Christians, or the dechurched. Such labels serve the media’s need to talk about trends among specific groups and to market products inside those trends, but they really aren’t helpful to the work Jesus is doing in the world.

Our fallen nature constantly seeks to find identity and safety inside a tribe and labels are important to keep “my group” separate from “their group”.It works for sports teams, gangs, and even religious groups. Labels so easily polarize humanity into adversarial groups and especially with religious ones where we conclude that our group is not just different, but better.

So it’s not surprising that labels either flatter or denigrate depending on which tribe is talking. Sadly, most of this conversation about the Dones is either insiders talking to insiders about outsiders or outsiders talking to outsiders about insiders.For insiders terms like “dechurched”, or “church refugees” may seem fair but actually perpetuate the myth that religious institutions are the only reflection of Jesus’ church in the world. That is as unfortunate as it is untrue. Using “church” only for religious institutions is no minor slip. Most religious leaders want people to believe it so they won’t consider leaving too. Even many of the so-called Dones talk about having “left the church.”

Likewise those outside want to claim the titles that make them seem freer, more grace-based, or more powerful than their counterparts in more traditional settings.After George Barna published Revolution in 2006, those outside of traditional structures quickly latched on to it as evidence that they were more spiritually committed, and instead of opening a dialog for the whole family it only expanded the divide. I’m afraid “The Dones” will do the same thing if people wear it as a merit badge of deeper spirituality while others us it toquestion the sincerity of their faith.

Any title you wear be it pastor, best-selling author, or Done will do more to separate you from others, than it will help you recognize the incredible family that Jesus is building.Claiming a label works against his prayer that his Father would make us one. The community of the new creation levels our humanity—from hierarchy and from our narcissistic notions of being in a better group than others.We are all sons and daughters of a gracious Father and that’s all the identity we need. (Matt. 23)

But once again, we risk being divided into innies and outies as people and falling into the false dichotomy our flesh so craves.Whether you go to “a church” or whether you don’t is a distinction without a difference.What matters is whether people are following Jesus and being transformed by his love. What I hope comes out of this study of The Dones is those inside and those out recognize that the church is bigger than most of us would dare to believe and that his church takes expression wherever people engage each other with his love and purpose.

For those who claim that attendance at a local congregation is mandatory to be part of his church I hope they reconsider that false idea. Being part of his family is about following him not belonging to an institution. Over the last twenty years I’ve found incredible followers of Jesus both inside them and outside. I hope this research draws all those into a conversation where in and out becomes less important than loving and affirming his kingdom however it takes shape in the world.But it will take a significant number of voices across the Christian landscape to fight for a better conversation that include those.

Imagine my joy last week when I met with 25 pastors in Riverside County who wanted to discuss my book, Finding Church, and Dr. Packard’s research about “The Dones,” which will be profiled in his book, Church Refugees.Not only was I surprised that many were wiling to have the conversation, but also grateful everyone there approached it with graciousness and a desire to understand the trends we’re confronting today. There was no hostility for those differences, but a generosity to understand those who have left and appreciate their journeys as well.

I am convinced that people who truly know Jesus will want to reach across this divide, not exacerbate it. We don’t need identifying labels, especially ones that make us feels superior to others in the family. When Jesus becomes more important to us than finding identity in any particular tribe of it, then the conversations that most express his kingdom will grow in the world.Instead of demanding that others conform to our view of the church we will recognize her in the most surprising places as we find connection and fellowship with those who know the Jesus we know, even if they don’t follow the rituals we follow.

Then we won’t need labels to divide us.Brother, sister, and fellow saint will be more than enough and loving each other in a mutual celebration of Jesus himself will allow his church to flourish where we live.

Church Refugees is a Game Changer

If you read one book about the church this year, you’ll want to read Church Refugees. Dr. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope are sociologists and while researching the current trends of people’s church attendance made a surprising and unexpected discovery. They identified a significant number of Christians who no longer attend church services and yet are thriving in their spiritual life. They call them “the Dones” because they are done with the traditional congregation having felt it was stifling to their own spiritual journey.

To their surprise they discovered that most of them had not lost interest in their faith, faded out the back door, or preferred to watch football on Sundays. Instead they discovered them to be high-capacity Christians who were committed givers and deeply involved in leadership. They didn’t leave quickly or easily, having spent years trying to encourage change or simply find a way to get along. They eventually left because in all conscience they conclude that the way things are being done in their congregation threatens to compromise their faith. They sought community over judgment, mission over machinery, rich conversation over pat answers, and meaningful engagement with the world beyond moral prescriptions. While leaving is not easy as they suffered the judgments of former friends and colleagues they soon discover that there are plenty of resources for growth, meaningful connections with others on a faith journey, and ways to touch the world beyond the congregational system.

This book is a game-changer for how we perceive the church and understand those who no longer find our institutions helpful to their journey. It has the potential to obliterate the myth that our local institutions are the only or even the best way to engage the life of Jesus and his mission in the world.That’s not what the authors have in mind since they are both avid attenders themselves. They simply wanted to explore the phenomenon and seek to help congregations understand why these people are leaving and perhaps reconsider how to revitalize their institutions so they wouldn’t have to leave.

This is a compelling read that is hard to put down. The researchers mix their findings with first-hand stories from their respondents that will challenge whatever view you hold of the church. No doubt many will find it difficult to admit that passionate followers of Jesus are thriving outside our institutions, preferring the narrative that you can’t be a true Christian if you are not connected to a local congregation. The hungers, however, are real and if they won’t be served by our existing congregations people will look elsewhere. Obligation alone will not save these institutions.

For those who have already left you’ll find encouragement that you’re not alone in your desire for a more vibrant experience with God and his church and that it is possible to fulfill it in other ways. However, the terminology the authors use will make you cringe at times. Even the title, Church Refugees, is more than a little condescending to those who are no longer part of a traditional church. Calling them “The Dones” or the “Dechurched” doesn’t help either and you’ll find that language on almost every page.Just keep in mind this is a book by insiders, for insiders, about outsiders. It only uses “church” for institutional gatherings and posits those outside of such institutions as the “dechruched”. But it doesn’t dismiss them or the sincerity of their faith. I’ve not been an active participant in an institutional church for over 20 years, but I don’t consider myself a church refugee or that I am dechurched. I have never been more alive and engaged with the church Jesus is building in the world in so many expressions outside our traditional congregations. The church in Scripture was never a religious institution with weekend services and top-heavy bureaucracies. The church is the family Jesus is building in the earth and it cannot be contained or managed in any human organization. While it can take expression there, it can also take shape in many ways beyond it.

This may be the most important church book written in this decade. Whether you like what their research shows or not, Packard and Hope have done us all a service by giving us an accurate picture of the religious landscape rather than relying on our biases or experiences. What we do with them will have great impact on our engagement with the church.

If you share the hunger of the Dones but still hold hope for our Christian institutions, it will help you be a voice for change so those hungers can be served instead of frustrated. If you’ve found it necessary to leave you’ll find great encouragement in knowing there are others finding opportunities for growth, deep fellowship and mission beyond the programs of our congregations.

Hopefully it will help us all see the church as a bigger reality than our human conventions can contain, and affirm that what’s most important is whether or not people are following Jesus, not which building they go to on Sunday morning, or even if they go to one at all.

Why People Are Leaving

What does it take for someone to leave a congregation of people they have loved and served alongside often for decades?Why would they suddenly break away from close friends and lifetime traditions to wander into a lonely and uncertain future only to be accused of being selfish, bitter, or rebellious?

Except that it generally isn’t sudden at all, and not at all what they had hoped for.Yes, there came a time when they stopped attending, but none of “The Dones” I’ve met over the past twenty years left easily or suddenly.In fact most have wrestled with the decision for years in the face of some concern or unmet hunger.Initially they thought others around them would resonate with their passion, or be grateful if they identifie a problem that needed attention. To their shock, they found their repeated attempts to discuss their concerns or hopes fell on unsympathetic ears.

Try as they might to bring positive changes, they only meet resistance and eventually disrespect and frustration.“That’s not the way we do things around here.”Many give up trying to convince others, but their hunger continues to until sitting in the congregation becomes painful.After years of struggle they finally feel they have no other choice but to follow their hunger instead of quietly going along.As much as they want to stay with people they care so much about they find they can no longer participate in meetings that have become a detriment to their spiritual passions.

While the process is similar for most that I know, the reasons can be quite different.Recently I asked people on my Facebook page what it was that finally made it clear that they needed to leave their congregation.I got over a hundred responses from people that were consistent with the thousands of stories I have heard over the last two decades.

  • Forty-two percent said they were worn out by the machinery and the need to serve it.Some of that is burn-out from having to do more than they had time or energy for, but for most it means that the cost it exacted wasn’t worth the fruit it produced. Rarely does anyone say the congregation was all bad except in the most abusive cases.Mostly they say the demands of the congregation began to displace their passion for Jesus and that scared them.
  • Twenty-three percent said they no longer respected the leadership, either because they were dishonest, demanding or manipulative. This didn’t result from a bad confrontation or two, but a series of experiences that consistently eroded their trust and respect.
  • Twenty percent they simply hungered for more authentic relationships, feeling the ones they had were too superficial or governed by pat answers instead of people really getting to know them and wanting to walk alongside them in their joys and struggles.
  • Twelve percent wanted more of Jesus and his life than their congregation offered.The focus seemed to be on things other than helping people learn to experience the fullness of life in him.
  • Three percent reported no dissatisfaction at all, but simply felt led by the Spirit to move onto a different stage of their journey.

Of course my pool of respondents did not include those gave up on God when they gave up on their church. Many do, seeing the failures of their institutions or its leaders as proof that God doesn’t exist, or if he does, at least isn’t engaged with them. It’s a tragic legacy of systems that often do more to perpetuate programs than demonstrate Father’s affection.

But for every person that has left, be they pastor or parishioner, there are others who are thinking about it and second-guess that decision every time they sit through another meeting that doesn’t address their deepest hungers.Many stay because of the relationships , others out of obligation no matter how painful it becomes. Actually they are “done” too, attending in body only and with decreasing frequency and it is only a matter of time before they stop as well.

Simply put, most of “The Dones” left because their spiritual passion could no longer be fulfilled where they were.So what may look like someone just walked out one day isn’t true.It is almost always a long, protracted process that even they resisted until they could do so no longer and still be true to the Spirit’s call inside them.

The process is hard on everyone. In the first few months many of those who leave are racked with guilt and second-guess their decision frequently especially if it is difficult to find others on the outside who share their hungers.And it’s hard on those they leave behind, who often feel rejected by those who leave.Harsh words and judgments are exchanged as each side seeks to convince themselves they are doing what’s right and want to convince the others for their own validation.Nothing will destroy friendships faster and lead to animosity and hurt that will spread throughout the community.

Those who have left are not your enemy. If they were your friends before, wouldn’t they still be your friend now even if you think are concerned for them? Wouldn’t loving each other be vastly more important than how we gather or don’t gather on a Sunday morning?Maybe if we were less threatened by their hunger we could celebrate their to find an environment more meaningful to their faith.

Certainly some who leave find their way back when they can’t find the community they are looking for.Most, however, after a year or two begin to find themselves connecting to others who share their hunger for more authentic and generous community in small groups or growing friendships without the need or expense of sustaining the machinery. They spend more time in conversations that nurture their faith and less time planning meetings and maintaining structures.

People who lose hope that the institutional model can provide a lifetime environment for community and growth may not be the death knell for the vitality of the church; maybe they are the hope that there’s more than one way the church takes expression in the world.

Your Attendance Is Not Required

I’m growing convinced that much of Christianity has become a human religion loosely based on the teachings of Jesus, while missing the point of them all.

Every week now I get links to blogs and articles of various pastors giving the 5, 8, or 12 reasons everyone needs to attend a local church each week. To prove their point, however, they have to make some of the most ridiculous statements that have no grounding in the life or character of Jesus. These conclusions are not just misguided, but actually destructive to people who want to grow in his life and joy.

This is not a personal judgment against them. I’m sure many of them are fine people, only trying to do what they feel called to. I also appreciate that this is a scary time for them as so-called church attendance is on the decline. The idea that someone can actually grow in their relationship with God, experience the life of the church, and share his mission in the world without being part of their congregation has to be a scary reality. Many don’t even want to acknowledge it is even possible, so they double down on the language of obligation and accountability. In doing so, however, they twist the Gospel so that it is no longer recognizable and all that’s left is for people to obey what they are told by leadership whose success and livelihood depend on that obedience.

There are many good reasons to gather regularly with other believers and share the journey of faith. It’s just that all those gatherings are not going on in Sunday morning services shackled by the bureaucracy of a religious system that often does more stifle spiritual growth rather than stimulate it. Many have found more engaging ways to share the life of the church beyond the walls of traditional congregations and telling them they must attend a normal service, falls on deaf ears once they’ve discovered that it isn’t true.

So if they hope guilt and obligation will win these people back or scare the ones they have into remaining, they are not only fighting a losing battle but disfiguring God and distorting the Gospel to do it. The life of the church is not found in obligation but in the joy of affection and transformation. Trying to discount the salvation of those who leave in hopes of reigning back in the faithful will continue backfire.

In the latest article I read Nathan Rose, a Missouri pastor in the Southern Baptist denomination says that skipping “church” meetings is dangerous to your health. He gives five reasons why in a recent article he wrote, Five Spiritual Dangers of Skipping Church:

  1. “You will miss out on God’s primary design for your spiritual growth and well-being.” What in the ministry of Jesus leads him to the conclusion that God’s primary means to grow to spiritual maturity is to attend a church service weekly, when he never conducted one himself, never taught his disciples how to do so, and assigned the task for our growth to the Holy Spirit who would dwell in us and guide us to all truth? When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus where she should worship, he made it clear that location is not the issue.What matters is that we do so in spirit and in truth. Living in the Father’s affection and responding to his Spirit within us is God’s primary design for our growth and well-being, not sitting in a pew on Sunday morning.
  2. “You disobey God.”As many do, Rose pulls out Hebrews 10:24-25 saying that the counsel “not to neglect to meet together,” is a command that can only be fulfilled in a weekly church service.It’s dishonest on the face of it. This is the only Scripture pastors have to seek to compel “church attendance” and it is misused at that. This passage wasn’t written to believers skipping out on church services, but to people under persecution who were wondering if avoiding association with each other would make it more difficult for the authorities to find them. The writer is telling them they have more to gain by the encouragement they have from each other than going it alone. Most Sunday services don’t even allow people to encourage each other, since the focus is on the platform. Hebrews 20 is not talking about attending a meeting; it is about staying connected to others and not trying to make it alone. Honestly many of our institutions today do more to inhibit that connection than encourage it.
  3. “You make a statement to the world that God is not worthy of worship…, which is the attitude and conduct of unbelievers, not God’s people.” So if you don’t come to “worship” you are no longer one of God’s people. The judgment here is frightful. Worship is not a song service or a sermon, but a live lived in God’s reality and his affection. How we see him and how we love and respect others either brings glory to him or disfigures him. Sitting in a pew on Sunday morning is not a statement of how important worship is to you unless that’s the only way you understand worship and then you are spiritually impoverished the rest of the week. Our lives worship him whether we’re on the job, enjoying his creation, or serving someone in need.
  4. “You can’t minister to anyone.” Really? All the ministry that God wants to do in the world can only happen under a steeple on Sunday morning? That would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. Jesus never ministered in a “service,” but on the street where he encountered people. Real service is not sitting in a pew so others can hear you sing and you can show support for the pastor. Ministry is about loving and helping people you know or come across as you go through life. They can be in your neighborhood, at work, in school, or across the world.
  5. “You skip out on a foretaste of heaven.” If Sunday morning services were really a foretaste of heaven, no one would want to miss them and you wouldn’t have to obligate them to be there. In many cases it’s just a repeated formula often laced with guilt and condemnation, as was the entire piece written by Rose.

What bothers me most is not that they want people to come to “their church”, but that they see obligation as the reason. They make the same mistake the Galatians made.By turning the promise of God into an obligation they distort the gospel, twisting the joy of an invitation into God’s life into demands and threats. It has the underlying psychology of “misery loves company.”We are not here because we enjoy it and God works in us, but because God says we have to.Please!The kingdom is the pearl of great price, not the castor oil of spiritual maturity.

Paul, the apostle, encourage us to live in freedom and let “no one” defraud us by telling us where we should go, what we should eat, or what we should wear. People who try to tell you what you should do, rather than equipping you to live fully and freely in Jesus, have lost connection with the Head.

I honestly feel sorry for those who can’t see the reality of Christ’s church beyond their own congregation or the congregational model itself. They would perhaps do better to take an honest look why people who were committed members of their congregation found it necessary to leave. Badgering them with accusations and demands will never fulfill the work of the kingdom. Maybe it is time for them to ask just how much their gatherings reflect God’s nature and reality. Those congregations who honestly seek to help people live in the reality of Jesus’ freedom and transformation need not be threatened that Jesus is also working outside their borders.

In fact if they put his kingdom first, they will rejoice that he does.

I’m looking for 35 Million People

Nothing breaks my heart more than meeting someone who invested years of their life in religious service and for some reason never discovered how real God is and how deeply he loves them.

The latest research by Josh Packard, author of Church Refugees, shows there are thirty-five million Americans who have left their religious institution and abandoned their belief in God at the same time. I’m fine with them leaving. Religious institutions can often impede our spiritual growth rather than encourage it. Nearly thirty-one million other Americans have left their religious institution and continued to explore what it means to know God and share his life in the world.

But for those who left not knowing a God worth loving, my heart goes out to you.That means despite all the all the meetings you attended, prayers you offered, and good deeds you have done, you never came face to face with the most endearing Presence in the universe. You never recognized his voice wooing you, or recognized his hand at work in your life.

I understand why you would miss that. Insecure religious leaders who try to rule with an iron fist or simply don’t know him themselves, and legalistic religious traditions that substitute rules and rituals for helping connect people to the transcendent God, can be barriers to the very faith people want to explore.Some say you can’t have God without religion; it’s a package deal. If you want to be one of his you have to jump through someone’s hoops to prove your sincerity.

But those who say so are usually trying to build or sustain an institution for their own purposes. It isn’t true. While some congregations can be very helpful in helping people discover God’s reality, many others are a deterrent. Jesus didn’t start an institution, or a religion, for that matter.He came to reveal to us what it would be like to live in his Father’s reality—how his love would change us and how our loving others in the world would let his kingdom unfold around us.

That’s why the Apostle Paul didn’t try to win people with “wise and persuasive words”, because he didn’t want peoples faith to “rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” If your spiritual passion was only based on following someone else’s teachings it wasn’t meant to last anyway. It was always going to fail you.

So I’m looking for you

If I could sit down to lunch with any of these thirty-five million people, this is what I would want you to know:

  • Realize religious obligation is a conformity-based system that operates by fear and manipulation and that’s why it could not promote the love of God growing in your heart. But don’t give up. Look elsewhere, mostly with someone who already knows him.Walking with God as he really is, is the greatest treasure life offers.
  • Separate the failures of religion and religious leaders from the reality of God. Jesus did. The Pharisees had God wrong, which is why they didn’t understand his love for sinners, or his refusal to conform to their traditions. It is why they killed him.
  • Consider the possibility that you were given a disfigured view of God especially if you’ve come to see him as an angry tyrant wanting to rule the world through terror. He is actually a gracious Father who loves you more than anyone else on this planet ever has or ever will.
  • Recognize where God is already reaching out to you. That voice inside your head that invites you away from the anxieties of this life is his drawing you to himself. Those transcendent moments when you knew you were not alone in the universe and that Someone endearing holds you and this world in his hands were his doing, nudging you toward the relationship he desires with you.
  • God has not been the cause of your best friend dying, or financial difficulties, and your disappointments in life.He wasn’t punishing you or them for some broken place in their lives. This world is out of sync with its Creator and the effects of that touch us all with sin, sickness, and pain.God is not its cause. He’s the rescuer in the story, inviting us away from the mayhem and into the knowing of him.
  • Ask him to reveal himself to you and to send you someone who can help you learn to follow him.

All that Jesus said was true. There is a place for you to be at home in God, and for God to be at home in you.

Seven Markers That Will Help You When You’re Done

A Thrival Guide for Those Who Find Themselves Outside of Conventional Congregations

According to the latest research people are leaving the local church congregation in droves. Many do so questioning whether God even exists, but many others continue to passionately follow Jesus convinced that the institution they belonged to was at odds with the spiritual passion growing in their heart. They may not have even understood why, but something inside continued to draw them toward a more authentic relationship with Jesus and a freer environment to share his life and love with others.

Many who have given up on the traditional congregation were once leaders, volunteers, and major contributors. They grew weary of the programs and expectations that neither encouraged their journey nor cultivated the kind of community they sought.Leaving is never easy and most do it only when other options are exhausted.

Finding yourself outside the congregational model can be incredibly disorienting for a season.Family and former friends question your faith or make you feel guilty with accusations of bitterness or selfishness.All the markers you used to gauge your spiritual health no longer make sense. Some question their own sanity and even more so as they are increasingly isolated from the only friends they’ve ever had.

If you’ve left your congregation for similar reasons, what do you do now? As I’ve watched people go through this transition the ones who navigate it most freely begin to embrace a different set of realities, which not only allow them to survive outside a local congregation, but actually thrive in learning to follow him, in sharing fellowship with others, and in being part of God’s purpose in the world.

First, take your time. You’ve been invited on an amazing journey that will take years to sort out. Many people rush to join another congregation or start their own house group to fill the void but only end up recreating what they had left. Resist the urge to find another group right away or create one. This is a season to draw closer to God and let him fill the void. There will be time for more connections later when it’s not a response to a driven need, but a freedom to embrace the gift of community that God wants to give you.

Second, don’t force your journey on others.You don’t have to tell people, “I’ve left the church” or judge as less spiritual those who still go. This isn’t about judging others or making outlandish conclusions about the future you can’t begin to sort out yet.Simply follow Jesus however he leads you and be gently honest with those who ask you why you’re not doing the things you used to. Remember, you’re the one whose changed here, they are just doing the things you’ve always done, believing they are obligated to do so.They will be threatened by the change you’re making, and you can help disarm that by letting them have their own journey. Don’t try to change them, or to fix them. You can’t until the Spirit awakens the same hunger in them that he has in you.

Third, lose your need to be validated by others. Religion works by establishing a set of expectations and rewarding those who conform and punishing those who do not. The greatest freedom in this journey is to let Jesus to break that cycle so that you can find your identity in his love for you. Trying to convince others how right you are will only harden them and destroy your friendship with them. Trying to justify yourself will not allow you to love others nor will it lead you to the freedom from the tyranny of other people’s opinions of you.Be gracious to all and let his affirmation of your life and experience be all the validation you need.

Fourth, learn the beauty and rhythms of love.Following ritual and rules that others demand of you is still following law, even if we call them “New Testament principles.” God doesn’t transform us through obligation or meeting the expectations of others. The reason why many of us grew frustrated in religious settings is because they made promises to us they couldn’t fulfill. The harder we tried the emptier we felt. God has been inviting you to live in a new creation where his love transforms us in the deepest part of our soul. Over this season you’ll learn to see through the manipulation of obligation, accountability, guilt, and fear and into a different rhythm that will allow you to live more at rest, aware of others, and free from the pressures of this age.Instead of doing what others think you should do, you’ll be freer to discern his work in you and find yourself embracing the realities of grace, forgiveness, freedom, and generosity. It all begins as you ask him to show you how deeply loved by God you are, then let him show you. This is the trailhead that will lead you to greater freedom and fullness.

Fifth, watch your trust in him grow. Many are surprised to discover how much of their religious life was driven by fear—of God punishing them, of going astray, of what others will think, or of failure. As you are more in touch with his love and delight in you, even when you’re struggling or doubting, you’ll find that your trust in his goodness will begin to grow. You’ll realize he’s for you, not against you and that your own efforts were never going to produce his life in you. Now you’ll discover the joy of cooperating with his work in you and find yourself more relaxed, more aware of his nudges and insight, and less inclined toward destructive and hurtful actions. When Paul talked about the righteousness that comes from trust, this is what he was talking about. Where we trust him we won’t try to save ourselves or force our way. Now we can know what it is to be content in him whatever life brings to us because he is walking with us through it.

Sixth, cultivate friendships with others. God’s love working in you will free you to love each person God puts in front of you. Take an interest in them, whether they already know God or not, and watch as they begin to pen up with their concerns, struggles, and joys. Look for ways to encourage them as God gives you insight to do so. Get to know people you already know from work, school, or your neighborhood. Contact people in your address book and take them out to lunch. Where the relationship becomes relaxed, authentic and mutual, make time for those friendships to grow so his community can take shape around you.

Seventh, let God expand your view of his church. Most people think of the church as a specific group or meeting at a set time and place and if you’re not there you are not part of his church. They are made to feel guilty and isolated as others withdraw from them. It’s easy to feel as if you’re the only one weary of the religious institution. But you’re not. The latest research shows you are one in about 31 million adults in America who do not belong a local congregation but are still actively looking to follow Christ, which is about the same number of people who do belong. That means one in every seven adults are on a similar journey to yours and there are 7 million who are “almost dones” who still attend but are there in body only. Does that mean the church is failing?Only if we look at our human attempts to manage it. What you’ll discover is that Jesus’ church was never meant to be an institution, but a growing family who are learning to walk with him and who are learning to share his life and love with others. Real community flows from friendships not meetings, which is why Jesus spent time with the people in his life in more informal settings. As we come to see his church as a reality outside of human control, then you can embrace her reality however she takes shape in the relationships and connections around you.

Learning to live in his freedom and joy is the fruit of a process that takes a significant period of time in our lives. Don’t rush the process.Learn to embrace him and relax in the process and you will discover that “something more” that your heart has been seeking.You’ll find yourself in meaningful conversations that will deepen your own faith and encourage others to find more reality in theirs.

It is my hope that those who are done with religious institutions, don’t go off and create their own, but learn to live differently in the world and then be able to see the church Jesus is building taking shape right around them.

Friends and Friends of Friends - Living in the Relational Church - Part 11

Friends and Friends of Friends: Living in the Relational Church – Part 11

By Wayne Jacobsen
BodyLife • September 2007

Since I first wrote The Naked Church twenty years ago now, I have searched for a definition of the church that encompasses her majesty and yet explains in simplicity who she is and how she functions in the world. At first I thought that could be answered in structural ways as I moved from the mechanics of large institutions into more relational structures, like cell groups, home groups, and house churches.

But it didn’t work out that way, for which I am incredibly grateful. Defining the church structurally has two problems. First, the life of the church is found in the affection and cooperation of people who are living in Christ. No structure guarantees that reality. In fact, smaller groups who practice performance-based religion are even more dangerous than larger ones who do. Second, these definitions were inherently divisive – excluding brothers and sisters who met in different structures and inculcating a false sense of superiority in those who think they have finally recaptured ‘the secret’ of New Testament church life.

All the while, my relationships never reflected the reality of the definition for which I groped. I had close fellowship with brothers and sisters who gathered in a variety of expressions, all the way from large institutional gatherings to those who just live relationally alongside others. I wanted a definition that transcends all the structural ways we tend to see church.

This summer, however, I stumbled upon a definition that expresses the life of the church better than any I’ve yet run across. It crystallized in my thinking at a worldwide gathering of believers this summer and it has grown on me more ever since. Its application to a variety of settings seems to bear witness to its clarity as well as practicality. What is that definition? Simply I am coming to see the beauty of the church of Jesus Christ emerge in this day as “friends, and friends of friends.”

Now, I realize that needs a bit of explanation, so let me try.

An Example In Ireland

Those who read my blog or listen to The God Journey know I was part of an incredible gathering of believers this past June in Ireland. It was hosted by a number of people who have been living relationally around Dublin for almost 30 years. They were in the midst of forming a congregation in the 80s when God made it clear he hadn’t asked them to do so. They stopped meeting regularly, but continued to share the life of Jesus together as friends living alongside each other. They rarely all get together for a meeting, though it would also be rare if on any given day a number of them weren’t together in one way or another – sharing their journeys and helping each other.

This summer God brought together people from all over the world who are learning to live relationally in his family for a week of sharing life. People came from 10 different countries including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States and other countries in Europe. Most of those who came did not know each other beforehand, and many had never even been to Ireland before.

We spent the week together, beginning with a picnic on a Sunday in a field and ended in the same field the following Saturday with a barbecue. Nothing was planned beyond the meal for both of those occasions and the rest of the week we did not gather as a large group except to take a bus tour of that part of Ireland. But throughout the week in various homes and other venues pockets of people got together for meals, recreation, and conversation. By the end of the week we were blown away by all Father had accomplished without planning or scheduling any ‘ministry’ times. Friendships blossomed, deep issues discussed, insights shared and questions answered. We prayed together, cried together, and laughed together all the while watching Jesus emerge among us. Significant time was spent helping individuals through rough spots on the road through prayer and counsel. Friends and friends of friends could be together for a week and Jesus could accomplish all he wanted through that simple reality.

Most of those who gathered during this week, I had previously met in my travels. Watching friends of mine meet and enjoy other friends of mine was an absolute delight. I was blessed at how simply a web of connections expanded to encompass other people and how so many reported that they had time with were just the people they needed to know and could already see ways God might connect them in the future.

At one level, none of this surprised me. Most of my life is spent with friends and friends of friends that the Spirit is knitting together. I had similar times this summer in smaller groups whether it was on the beach at Lake Tahoe, in an old fellowship hall in Stratford, Ontario, or in a home in Naarden in the Netherlands. So many of the tasks Jesus asks me to do these days couldn’t be done without a network of other people, each supplying their part. My life has become an endless sea of relationships, some long-term, others just for a season. But I am convinced that the environment of growing friendships is where family flourishes, not in the rigid routine of an institution.

What amazed me in Ireland was that these same dynamics were visible on a larger scale with such diverse people. This is where I have been told it cannot work. People say friendships are fine for getting together locally, but it will not allow the body of Christ to function on a global scale. They are wrong. I’m convinced it’s the only way it can function globally. Institutions constantly fight over control, doctrine and money. But where Jesus builds friendships there is no end to the assets and resources he can bring together to accomplish his purpose. Nothing is wasted in political struggles or maintaining machinery. All the dynamics of body life in the New Testament apply better in growing friendships than they do in all our attempts at group building.

Jesus-Style Friendships

I know of no managed system large or small that can guarantee real community will emerge when it is implemented. Body life does not grow out of any management system, but out of the quality of a growing friendship with Jesus, linked together by people sharing that friendship with others. Even if you are part of a large institution, your quality of life in it will be found far more in the friendships you cultivate and how they stimulate you to live more deeply in Christ, than anything the corporate meeting alone can produce. Read the Gospels again and you will see just how much of Jesus’ mission was fulfilled in simple friendships, whether he was befriending weary fishermen returning in an empty boat, a greedy tax collector over lunch, or Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. He was persistently accused of being the friend of sinners, and enjoying their company. At the end of his life, he clearly stated to those early disciples that what he wanted from them was not the obedience of slaves, but the affection of friends (John 15:15).

Perhaps friendships may sound like too casual a word to describe the wonder of our connections to him and to each other, but that’s only because we look at friendship in human terms. Most friendships are built on a delicate balance of mutual benefit. As long as people provide something for us, we consider them friends. When they no longer do so, we move on. Because of that most of us have only known very shallow friendships that can be as fickle as the weather. And too many of us have tasted the bitter pain of betrayal when a good friend decides they have more to gain by leaving us out.

Thus, many of us shy away from deep friendships thinking we can protect ourselves from future disappointments. That is why we find it easier to trust the managed relationships of institutions than to risk the spontaneity of real and growing friendships. But that is to our loss.

Friendships as Jesus viewed them were not the what-can-I-get-out-of-you style of relationship, but the willingness to lay down our life for someone else. Until you know how he does that for you, you will never know how to do it for others. But once you’ve tasted it in him, you can’t wait to give it away.

That’s why real friendships don’t grow out of institutional rules and guidelines, but out of people connecting in a real way with Jesus and then with others. As we grow in the freedom of not needing to exploit others or be exploited by them we can begin to taste what real friendships are all about. These friendships are the building blocks of the New Testament community.

This is the kind of friendship I have shared with those who gathered in Ireland and the friendship that grew between others that week. I am convinced that this is how the bride takes shape in the world as the Spirit connects the body through affectionate and caring friendships. Friends and friends of friends, living, sharing and tasking alongside each other as each contributes what the Lord gives them. This is our engagement with the Body of Christ and will open the door to all the ways in which Jesus wants us to share his life together.

Growing Friendships

Obviously joining a group and becoming part of a growing circle of friends are two very different things. Most of us only know the former and the latter can seem threatening at first because there isn’t any place you can go to sign up for a real friendship. We can’t orchestrate them. They emerge as we recognize and invest time in those Father is asking us to walk alongside in a given season. Thus they begin the only place they can begin, not with others but with him!

First, learn to be friends with Jesus. He is the only source of life. Body life is the fruit of our walk with him not the means to gain it. Let your relationship with him grow. If you don’t know others with a similar passion, just lean in close to him and keep your eyes open. He may want you to himself for a time so that you will only be dependent on him. Eventually he will connect you with others.

Second, pursue friendships with those God puts in your path. The building blocks of body life are not found in groups, believe it or not. Jesus specifically pointed to the value of twos and threes coming together in him. Small conversations are where we truly get to know each other and recognize the life of Jesus in one other. Sitting in a meeting won’t do that. I’ve even been to home groups that have been meeting for prayer and Bible study for over 20 years who are not friends. They claimed to be the church, but there was no affection among them and no understanding of what it means to share life together. They were just committed to their weekly meetings.

Find ways to share a meal, an evening or an outing together. When you cross paths in a store don’t rush on with your day. Hang back if only for a moment and enjoy each other’s company. Relationships grow best in small conversations. Trying to form groups is a poor substitute for that, and often a structured way of trying to build friendships unwittingly subverts the process itself. Friendships flourish only in real conversations where people are growing to know and care about each other under Father’s love.

Now, watch the connections grow. Out of these twos and threes a marvelous network of friendships will emerge. As some of my friends get to know other of my friends the body takes shape around me. This web of interconnected friendships offers unlimited possibilities as to the ways the Spirit might connect us and show them how to cooperate together in doing what he asks. Gatherings of various groups will take shape, not because they are trying to have a New Testament meeting, but because they want to learn together, work together or in some other way express God’s work in the world. People who live like this learn to value every connection God gives them.

Those who played a part in facilitating what happened in Ireland and other places I go are those who have invested years in growing friendships. They aren’t trying to manage groups or form structured networks, but have simply let Jesus connect them to others and made time for those friendships to grow. And they have generously shared those friendships with their other friends.

That’s how the church takes shape locally, regionally and globally. I love seeing some of my dear friends become friends themselves. When I was in the U.K. this summer, I met a young couple that had just immigrated to the UK from South Africa. They knew a couple I’d spent some time with when I was there, who in turn knew an elderly couple living near them outside London. That couple connected them with some friends hosting my visit this summer. They came down to join us the weekend I was there. A week later I found myself sitting in Ireland with the couple from South Africa who started it all and the couple from London that passed it on. What a fun family – friends and friends of friends finding fellowship and life together, helping each other on the journey.

Do you hear the clicking of the Spirit’s needles as he knits the family together?

The Wider Family

What a joy it is to watch the church take shape not as the result of the vision of some man, or group of people scheming to create an organization to contain it, but seeing it as a reality than transcends all of our attempts to control it. Thus the church takes expression through millions of simple acts of friendship in response to Jesus’ leading and the wonderful fruit that flows from doing so. No human could ever control it and in the end there is no all-encompassing institution to be managed, financed, fought over or divided.

Expressions of the wider family are in his hands alone as we respond to him. That’s the church he is building. It permeates everything and ever place and no matter how we gather in groups with other believers, those moments of twos and threes, and eight and tens are the most important. It is where relationships grow, where people truly share their journey, and where we’ll find ways to do together what he might ask of us

As I sat in Ireland I couldn’t help but wonder how many other pools of interconnected friendships fill our globe. How easy it is for the Spirit to connect them when he is ready. Only two people have to cross paths for separate bits of the family to find each other. It is such joy to meet people who have no desire to manage God’s working – to pressure others with their pet doctrines or need to organize them for any desired outcome (or income). Living loved and sharing that love is really more than enough to give expression to this incredible family. Isn’t that what Jesus told us? (John 13:34-35)

A Fruitful Life Together

Seeing the family as an ever-expanding fellowship of friends, and friends of friends helps see the church as she really is. It also allows us to appreciate the organic growth that happens through friendship, rather than the imposition of any structured model that forces people into friendships that haven’t grown naturally and most likely won’t grow in that environment either. This view fulfills so much of what the New Testament teaches and demonstrates about the life of the church.

It keeps the focus on relationship. Instead of trying to build a corporate life on doctrine, programs, rituals or structures, people are focused on their friendship with Jesus and finding others who share that same friendship. The more your friendships grow the more involvement you have in the family. And those that have a hard time connecting relationally, can be befriended and helped by those who have found freedom to do so.

It is not meeting-focused, but relationally lived. Sharing life in the body of Christ does not happen by attending a meeting, but by growing in friendship with Jesus and our spiritual siblings. Of course the body will get together in a variety of ways as it celebrates those friendships. But it will do so as people want to be together with a specific purpose in mind, not just to follow an artificial routine. Until then our focus can be where Jesus put it – on connections of twos and threes as our friendships grow. And when our gatherings happen out of friendship they won’t be a static program put on by a few to entertain the others. lsbl.sept

It answers the dilemma of how much structure we need. We won’t want structures to attempt to manage friendships, because that will only prevent people from dealing with their differences and growing in the process. The structures we can embrace are those that facilitate what God is doing among a specific group for a specific season. We won’t need to start ministries or perpetuate groups for their own sake, but simply learn how to care about each other, stimulate each other to grow in him and do together whatever he asks us to do.

It resolves conflict without the appeal to power. Institutions have to provide clear decision-making authority, creating an environment based on who holds the power to make decisions others have to follow. Friends sort out conflicts not by deciding who is in charge, but through honesty and openness looking for God’s highest good and no one assuming they will know that for others. But a connection of relationships in agreement will have far more meaningful impact on others than any council making rules.

It can give proper place to the weaker believer. One of the Scriptures that always bothered me as a manager of an institution was Romans 14-15 where Paul talks about the stronger giving way to the weaker. There is absolutely no application of that in an institutional setting. Instead the stronger must take control over the weaker or chaos will result. In a family of relationships, however, those weaker in faith can be loved, extended the grace to be where they are in the journey and encouraged to move on to greater freedom, all in the context of friendship.

It allows leaders to truly be servants, helping others to grow rather than maintaining machinery. It also prevents those who are immature from aspiring to false leadership while hiding behind their personal charisma, eloquence or intellectual knowledge as a way to lord over others. True elders will simply be those a bit further down the road helping others find friendships as well.

It allows for wider connections, both in meeting new people and cooperating together in various efforts. When we think of the church as a specific institution who share a specific location, ritual or doctrine, we cut ourselves off from other relationships that God might want to arrange for interconnecting his family or touching the world.

The Power of Connections

I’ve been blessed over the last few years to be part of some amazing connections with individuals and networks of friends that God brought together for a specific season. The Ireland gathering was like that. It was a specific event whose ongoing fruit will only be measued by the friendships it produced. Almost everything I do now brings together friends in Christ each doing their part and results in something far more wonderful than any of us could accomplish alone. Perhaps the most amazing has been my experience with a new book a friend of mine wrote.

After unsuccessfully approaching on his behalf a number of publishers to print The Shack, we finally concluded that this was something God wanted us to do together. When we started pursing that direction we had so many missing pieces. But over the days and weeks, through friends and friends of friends we connected with people who could help us put it together.

Our biggest concern was how to get it out as broadly as we thought God wanted. Imagine our shock at selling out the first printing of 11,000 copies within four months of putting it on a web site, and talking to our friends about it. As friends passed it on to their friends the book just took off. Without one advertisement and without being in any bookstore, it spread like wildfire. Today some influential members of the national media have it in hand and the stories of how it has touched lives – especially those who have suffered great tragedy – continue to melt our hearts. We have been contacted by major book chains and distributors that we had no access to when we began. And we have turned down two top-tier Christian publishers who had rejected the book a year ago and now wanted to take it over.

I could tell you so many more stories of the simple joy and fruitfulness of people connecting with each other. Almost every where I travel now one of the great results is people who live in the same area who didn’t know each other before, get to meet each other. I get email long after I’ve returned home of the friendships that have grown and how people can now walk alongside some others as Jesus directs.

I could tell you of people in foreign countries living a life of expanding friendships that is giving great testimony to the reality of Jesus in the most brutal circumstances by simply loving and forgiving as they have found it in him. I do believe this is what he meant when he said the world would come to know him by the love we share one for another.

If you want to be part of that, just remember, the joy of living as friends, and friends of friends, does not come out of a desperate attempt to find friends for yourself, but by simply being a friend to whomever Father allows to cross your path. No, you cannot befriend everyone, but you can take the time to invest in those Jesus asks you to, whether they be a believer yet or not. And when you take the risk to cultivate that friendship, you’ll never know where it might lead.

Living Loved is published periodically by Lifestream Ministries and is sent free of charge to anyone who requests it. For those with email we recommend our web-based version so that we can hold down costs and get it to you much more quickly. This is especially important for international subscribers.

© Copyright 2013 Lifestream Ministries

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So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore? by Wayne Jacobsen & Dave Coleman

The Language of Community

By Wayne Jacobsen & Dave Coleman
BodyLife • September 2006

I’m currently reading So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore into audio files for a soon-to-be-released CD. [Edit: We have finished the audio book. You can find more information here.] It has been fun to re-visit the language that has been such a part of my own journey. One of the things Dave and I wanted to accomplish in the Jake story was to let John be an example of what it means to disciple someone. He never tells Jake what to do and never pushes him.

He simply asks questions and makes observations that relate to the circumstances and issues Jake is facing at the moment. We put into his mouth the most encouraging and enlightening statements we’ve ever heard from others or discovered ourselves. Since we decided against highlighting them in the book in any way, I thought it might be helpful to make a collection of them here as examples of the kind of things we can say that builds others up in the life and freedom of Jesus. Enjoy!

“God’s plan of redemption from the days of creation to the day of the Second Coming was designed to bring people into the relationship of love that the Father, Son and Spirit have shared for eternity. He wants nothing less – or nothing else!”

“This is no distant God who sent his Son with a list of rules to follow or rituals to practice. His mission was to invite us into his love – into a relationship with his Father that he described as friendship.”

“The fact that you don’t feel him holding you doesn’t change the fact that he still is.”

Transformed by His Love

“Walking toward him is walking away from sin. The better you know him the freer from it you will be. But you can’t walk away from sin, not in your own strength! Everything he wants to do in you will get done as you learn to live in his love. Every act of sin results from your mistrust of his love and intentions for you. We sin to fill up broken places, to try to fight for what we think is best for us, or by reacting to our guilt and shame. Once you discover how much he loves you all that changes. As you grow in trusting him, you will find yourself increasingly free from sin.”

“Isn’t it sad that we thought we could press people into spiritual change, instead of helping them grow to trust Father more and find him changing them? You can’t press a caterpillar into a butterfly mold and make it fly. It has to be transformed from the inside.”

Growing Trust

“The church Jesus is building transcends every human approach we’ve tried to use to replicate or contain it.”

“If we could control God, he’d turn out like us. Wouldn’t it be better to let him have his way with us so we become like him?”

“God will provide for you. He always has, except you don’t know that. The fact that you don’t have insurance or a job to lean on doesn’t mean he will forsake you. The fact that others are destroying your reputation doesn’t mean they’ll have the final say. God is not a fairy godmother who waves his magic wand to keep you happy. You won’t get far if you question his love for you whenever he doesn’t meet your expectations. He’s your Father. He knows far better what you need than you know yourself. He is a far better provider for you and your family than you yet know. He is bringing you into his life and rather than saving you out of these things he has chosen to use them to show you what true freedom and life really are.”

“When you can trust his love in each moment, you’ll really know how to live free.”

“So much of what we do is driven by our anxiety that God is not working on our behalf, that we have no idea of the actions that trust produces. Trusting doesn’t make you a couch potato. As you follow him you’ll find yourself doing more than you’ve ever done, but it won’t be the frantic activity of a desperate person, it will be the simple obedience of a loved child.”

“It’s much easier for us to find his will when we live contentedly in God’s provision rather than being anxious for what we don’t see.”

“If we don’t learn to trust, we will only interpret every event from our own self-centered vantage point, which is invariably negative and undermines our relationship with God.”

“That’s how God wins your trust. He’s not asking you to do something despite all evidence to the contrary. He’s asking you to follow him as you see him unfolding his will in you. As you do that, you’ll find that his words and his ways will hold more certainty for you than your best plans or wisdom.”

“Increasing trust is the fruit of a growing relationship. The more you know him and his ways the freer you’ll be to live beyond the influences that tie you down to your own flawed wisdom.”

“You had this incredible hunger to know God and follow him. But you also wanted to be circumstantially secure and well-liked. Those just aren’t compatible with following him. We are safe because he is with us not because our circumstances are easy and trying to get everyone to like you only made you less a person than God made you to be. When you started following what God put in your heart, the other kingdom had to collapse. It was inevitable if not enviable.

“I’m learning the joy of resting in him, doing what I know to do and not doing what I don’t know to do. It’s been one of the hardest lessons to learn, but also the most freeing.”


“When are you going to get past the mistaken notion that Christianity is about ethics?”

“We’re just not bright enough to control the ways in which God works.”

“Discipline holds great value when your eye is on the treasure. But as a substitute for that treasure, obligation can be a real detriment when it gives you satisfaction just for completing a task.”

“It’s not about teaching; it’s about living. Learn to live this life and you’ll find no end of folks to share it with. Teach it first, however, and that will be your substitute for living it.”

“Every time people see God moving, someone has to build a building or start a movement. Peter was that way at the Transfiguration. When He couldn’t think of anything else to do, he proposed a building program. If you’re going to walk this way, you’ve got to find freedom from the overestimation of your own capabilities.”

Living For the Approval of Others

“You’re so busy seeking everyone’s approval around you, that you don’t realize you already have his.”

“He’ll make the choice clear to you if you don’t complicate it with any attempts to protect yourself – not to keep your job, not to be liked by others, not ev

“As long as you need other people to approve of what you’re doing, you are owned by anyone willing to lie about you.”

“It’s a lot easier for you to get out of the system than it is to get the system out of you. You can play the game from inside or outside. The approval you felt then came from the same source as the shame you feel now. That’s why it hurts so much when you hear the rumors or watch old friends turn away embarrassed. They’re not bad people just brothers and sisters lost in something that is not as godly as they think it is.”

“You can’t love what you’re competing against and if you’re keeping score you can be sure you’re competing.”
The Illusion of Religious Systems

“We are so quickly captured by a work-driven religious culture that it devours the very love it seeks to sustain.”

“That’s the problem with institutions isn’t it? The institution provides something more important than simply loving each other in the same way we’ve been loved. Once you build an institution together you have to protect it and its assets to be good stewards. It confuses everything. Even love gets redefined as that which protects the institution and unloving as that which does not. It will turn some of the nicest people in the world into raging maniacs and they never stop to think that all the name-calling and accusations are the opposite of love.”

“…If you do what we want, we reward you. If not we punish you. It doesn’t turn out to be about love at all. We give our affection only to those who serve our interests and withhold it from those who do not.”

“The problem with church as you know it, is that it has become nothing more than mutual accommodation of self-need. Some need to lead. Some need to be led. Some want to teach, others are happy to be the audience. Rather than become an authentic demonstration of God’s life and love in the world, it ends up being a group of people who have to protect their turf. What you’re seeing is less of God’s life than people’s insecurities that cling to those things they think will best serve their needs…

“Religion survives by telling us we need to fall in line or some horrible fate will befall us.”

“Institutionalism breeds task-based friendships. As long as you’re on the same task together, you can be friends. When you’re not, people have to treat you like damaged goods.”

“Any human system will eventually dehumanize the very people it seeks to serve and those it dehumanizes the most are those who think they lead it. But not everyone in a system is given over to the priorities of that system. Many walk inside it without being given over to it. They live in Father’s life and graciously help others as he gives them opportunity.”

“The groupthink that results from believers who act together out of their fears rather than their trust in Father, will lead to even more disastrous results. They’ll mistake their own agenda for God’s wisdom. Because they draw their affirmation from others they’ll never stop to question it, even when the hurtful consequences of their actions become obvious.”

“I want to expose the system of religious obligation in whatever ways it holds people captive, but that’s not the same as being against the institution. Don’t let the system threaten you. As long as you react to it, it still controls you.”

“Jesus didn’t leave us with a system he left us with his Spirit – a guide instead of a map. Principles alone will not satisfy your hunger. That’s why systems always promise a future revival that never comes. They cannot produce community because they are designed to keep people apart.”

“I’m convinced that most Christian meetings give people enough of God’s things to inoculate them against the reality of his presence.”

“Religion is a shame-management system, often with the best of intentions and always with the worst of results.”

“Who would choose to be raised in an orphanage? Our hearts hunger for family. That’s where children learn who they are and how they fit into the world. Institutions are like orphanages revolving around the convenience of the staff. You survive best in it by following its rules, but that’s not how Jesus connects you with his Father. For that you need a family and brothers and sisters who can respond to you in the moment, not wait for a meeting or to schedule a seminar.”

“Not all structure is wrong. Simple structures that facilitate sharing his life together can be incredibly positive. The problem comes when structures take on a life of their own and provide a substitute for our dependence upon Jesus. When Jesus ceases to be the object of our pursuit, our touch with his body will fade into emptiness.”

Finding Real Church Life

“You have yet to see what body life can be when people are growing to trust God, instead of living together in fear.”

“Scripture doesn’t use the language of need when talking about the vital connection God establishes between believers. Our dependency is in Jesus alone! He’s the one we need. He’s the one we follow. He’s the one God wants us to trust and rely on for everything. When we put the body of Christ in that place, we make an idol of it.”

“We share body life together, not because we have to, but because we get to. Anyone who belongs to God will embrace the life he wants his children to share together. And that life isn’t fighting over control of the institution, but simply helping each other learn to live deeply in him.

“Any friendship that demands that you lie to save it probably isn’t a friendship at all.”

“If you really want to learn how to share Jesus’ life together, it would be easier to think of that less as a meeting you attend and more as a family you love.”

“The Scriptures tell us very little about how the early church met. It tells us volumes about how they shared his life together. They didn’t see the church as a meeting or an institution, but as a family living under Father.”

“Body life is not something we can create. It is a gift that Father gives as people grow in his life. Body life isn’t rocket science. It is the easiest thing in the world when people are walking with him. You get within twenty feet of someone else on that journey and you’ll find fellowship easy and fruitful.”

“No church model will produce God’s life in you. It works the other way around. Our life in God, shared together, expresses itself as the church. It is the overflow of his life in us. You can tinker with church principles forever and still miss out on what it means to live deeply in Father’s love and share it with others.”

“People who are growing in their relationship with Father will hunger for real connections with his family. He is the God of community. That’s his nature, and knowing him draws us into that community, not only with God himself, but also with others who know him. It is not our obligation. It’s his gift.”

“It’s valuable for the body of Christ to find each other and share his life together. Where people are doing that they won’t need commitment. They’ll bend over backwards to be with each other. Where they aren’t doing that, it does little good just to be committed to a meeting.”

“Sometimes that life is best expressed in a conversation like this. Sometimes it’s best expressed in a larger conversation that a meeting might facilitate. When you can only see it one way, you miss so many other of the ways in which Father works.

“Equip people to live in him first; then you’ll see how he brings his body together. I love it when a group of Christians want to intentionally walk together as an expression of community – listening to God together, sharing their lives and resources, encouraging and caring for each other and doing whatever else God might ask them to do. But you can’t organize that with people who aren’t ready. Discipleship always comes before community. When you learn to follow Jesus yourself and help some others to do the same, you’ll find body life springing up all around you.”

“Obligations are only necessary when the experience is ineffective or lifeless. When people are living in the life of Jesus, they will treasure every opportunity to connect with other brothers and sisters who are also on this journey. It will not be something they have to do, but something they wouldn’t ever want to live without.”

“Jesus is always gathering his flock to himself. People from all over the world are finding their hunger for him eclipsing their hunger for anything else and that every substitute they try only adds to their restlessness. As they keep their eye on him, not only do they grow closer to him with each passing day, but they will find themselves alongside others who are headed that way, too… That’s why you only hurt yourself when you look for people who want to meet a certain way or think like you do. Every person who crosses your path, be they believer or unbeliever, in an institution like this or outside of it, is a potential partner in this journey. By loving all of them to the degree that they allow, you’ll participate in his great gathering.”

Helping Others

“Follow him, even when it creates conflict. Always be gentle and gracious to everyone, but never compromise what is in your heart just to get along.”

“If you tell someone the truth before they’re ready to hear it, you can push them further away no matter how well intentioned you might be.”

“The more at peace we are with ourselves, the easier it is for God to use us to touch others.

Living Loved is published periodically by Lifestream Ministries and is sent free of charge to anyone who requests it. For those with email we recommend our web-based version so that we can hold down costs and get it to you much more quickly. This is especially important for international subscribers.

© Copyright 2013 Lifestream Ministries
Permission is hereby granted to anyone wishing to make copies for free distribution.

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The Real Question

By Wayne Jacobsen
BodyLife • March 2006

As I travel among the body of Christ one of the questions I am asked the most is, what do I see Jesus doing in his church today? Am I excited or discouraged by what I see?

Before I answer that here, let me admit at the outset that my vantage point is in some ways incredibly blessed and in other ways severely limited. While better traveled than most, perhaps, there is much I don’t see and certainly my teachings, writings and web postings put me in touch believers who have a specific kind of passion. But I do get to sit down fairly often with some of the most incredible followers of Christ on the planet – those who are experiencing a depth of relationship with him that is transforming how they live in the world. Many of those had been in ‘positions of ministry’ at some point, but found themselves unable to fit into the religious landscape that proved insufficient for their hungers even though few others could validate their passion or obedience.

From this vantage point I am incredibly thrilled with what I see God doing to draw people to himself in our day. This Church all over the world is rising to become a people in whom God dwells, a bride without spot or wrinkle. That doesn’t mean she’s perfect, but her passion for the groom is growing to outweigh her desire for convenience or comfort in the culture. In that regard, these are the most exciting days of my lifetime as God’s glory is becoming increasingly visible in the earth.

I can say that because I don’t see the church as the sum of all the Christian institutions that dot our world. If I did, my conclusions wouldn’t be nearly so positive. Many of those institutions are preoccupied with the wrong priorities (money, size and political power), divided by their own preferences (of doctrine, music styles or allegiance to a human leader) and fail to help people discover how to live deeply in Father’s love and grow in trusting him.

I see the church as the sum of all the people in the world who are coming to know God as Father, Jesus as Lord, and are learning to live in the power of his Spirit. At no other time in my life have I met so many people really living the life even at great cost. They follow him even when others accuse them of being selfish or rebellious. They are sorting through their deepest doubts and disappointments to find out just who this God really is and how they can fulfill the purpose he has in putting them on the planet. This is an exciting day to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

An Unhealthy Divide

George Barna, a noted religious statistician published his latest book, Revolution, in September 2005, which notes that 30% of committed believers today are no longer attached to a traditional congregation. If the same demographic trends continue, he says, in 20 years 70% of committed believers will no longer be attached to a traditional congregation. And while some would look at that as a great tragedy, Barna asserts that many of those people have not left established congregations to abandon their faith or even the body of Christ. They have left because the institutions didn’t fulfill their spiritual hunger and wasted too much of their time and energy in programs and activities that did little to promote a deeper dependence on Christ or healthy relationships among believers.

To no one’s surprise this book started a fire storm. The largest evangelical magazine, Christianity Today and the largest Charismatic magazine, Charisma, both resoundingly attacked the book. And to do so they both had to distort its message. The truth is people are leaving organized religion in droves because it has not satisfied the cry of their heart to know the Living God. These are not by and large angry, independent believers who live isolated lives, but those who live out their relationship with God and their relationships with the body in more informal, relational gatherings in homes, neighborhoods and businesses. According to Barna, these believers often have a more Biblical worldview, live out a passionate devotion to Christ, deep relationships with other believers and are generous in giving to extend the kingdom around the world.

Yes, I can understand why those who still value the congregational model would be threatened with such conclusions. And certainly Barna didn’t help anyone by labeling them ‘Revolutionaries’ and making others feel excluded from their spiritual passions and hungers. The resulting anguish (and sometimes anger) between those who participate in traditional congregations and those who do not, will not serve the kingdom well. At a time when we most need a conversation between all of those who are living under Father that will help identify his hand in our age, we are pulling apart once again – this time fractionalized by how we ‘do church.’ Can you imagine what grief this brings to our Father?

I know how passionate people can be when they leave an abusive congregation, or even one that sucked out their spiritual passion with religious activities that did little to help them live the life Father wanted for them. And I know how threatening it can be for those who still embrace the congregational form as the only God-given expression of the body of Christ, to see people walk away and talk as if it is unnecessary at best and harmful at worst.

But let’s be real about it. Spontaneously and simultaneously believers all over the world are rethinking what it means to live in the life of Jesus and how the body of Christ takes expression in our world. They have wearied of religious systems that permeates much of our congregational life and are looking for more effective alternatives. It’s not enough to simply say that Hebrews 10:25 requires all committed Christians to be in attendance on Sunday morning in one of the institutions called ‘church’. They know better. ‘Assembling together’ is not a matter of attendance at a meeting, but the joining of lives in a common journey.

Many of those are still in systems their heart no longer supports, and they too yearn for a deeper reality to their spiritual life and a revival in church life. In these days we have far more to gain by keeping the lines of communication open between us all rather than by dividing up sides and rejecting those who disagree with us.

In the last two months I have been with two different traditional congregations while I was in the midst of also visiting people who have spilled outside of such things. I find the same passion in both places. There are people in both places seeking to know him and are asking similar questions as to how they can live that out in their daily lives. It would do us well to remember that not all congregations are like the one you last attended.


Why We’re Not There

As Barna has documented and my email confirms, many people have grown weary of a religious system that on net balance has become more of a distraction to their walk with Christ than an aid to it. I know that is hard for people to hear who find the opposite to be true. Keep reading, your section is coming!

Why are so many Christians growing disillusioned with the congregational experience? There are many reasons. Here are some I’ve heard over and over:

  •    We’re bored. Sitting through the same tired ritual every week, or listening to the same voice has dulled our spiritual passions rather than excited them.
  •    We felt disconnected. Sitting in rooms full of strangers on Sunday morning watching the same stage does not build the relationships among believers we desire.
  •    We are tired of seeing people blasted with guilt and religious obligation. While it may press people to conform to the needs of the institution, it only distances them from a Father who loves them more than they know.
  •    We got sick of the political games played behind the scenes to serve someone’s ego or put institutional priorities above the purpose of Jesus.
  •    Some of us didn’t leave, we were pushed aside by those who disliked the questions we raised, the clothes we wore or the truths we struggled with.
  •    We found that they reinforced the wrong things, encouraging us to pretend instead of being real, encouraging us to exploit people rather than serve them.
  •    We found out that the Gospel was so mixed with performance-based religion that the life of the Jesus had been swallowed up by our busyness.
  •    And yes, some have left because of the emptiness of religion and have abandoned Jesus altogether and no longer believe that Scripture speaks the truth. That’s what many of us hate most about religion. It makes promises it can’t keep and then makes people question whether or not God is real at all.

Most likely none of these things adequately describes any one person’s story, but rather it would be found in a mixture of them. And we realize not all congregations fall to such blatant abuses. But most of us hoped it could change, labored tirelessly in hopes that it would, tried other congregations we thought were better, and have only found themselves outside of it when those inside couldn’t respect the journey we are on.


Why We Are There…

I am often asked to teach in traditional congregations and I often feel impressed to go. Why? Because I find God’s people there too, many of them hungering for the same thing I hunger for and asking the same questions I was asking a decade or two ago. People with a heart for God still permeate many congregations even if they do see some of the same weaknesses in it that many others do.

  •    We are there because on balance we feel our congregational experience enlivens our passion for Jesus more than the politics and abuses undermines it.
  •    We are there to connect with fellow Christians in our communities.
  •    We are there because we’ve found some people that are more focused on Jesus than the demands of the institution.
  •    We are there hoping against hope that others might come to see that the authority structures can be changed to reflect more closely the Lord’s glory.
  •    We are there to learn from the Scriptures from what others have learned.
  •    We are there because we feel God has asked us to be even though we struggle with the politics and petty gossip.
  •    We’re there because we don’t know what else we’d do if we weren’t.
  •    And, yes, some are there only because they are mistakenly convinced that Hebrews 10:25 obligates them to be so. They think today’s congregational institutions are the only legitimate expression of church life and would feel judged by others if they weren’t there.

Again, there are more possibilities here than I can list and certainly a mixture of these motivations rather than just one of them would better express what most people see. Many would even consider other expressions if they saw some in their area that lived out the New Testament more authentically.


It’s Not About Church

My point is this: there are many wonderful God-loving believers inside traditional congregations and there are many who have spilled out of them. Those looking for a more authentic life in him and with his church have more to gain by staying in fellowship with each other rather than cutting each other off if we’re being led in different directions.

While I love alternative forms of relational life that are often expressed in homes and in more informal groupings, if we only change the locale without shifting our focus we will end up with the same result. If we’re focused on how we do church, even if we find more Scriptural ways to do it, instead of on Jesus himself as the Cornerstone and Head of that church, we will still miss his life. In short, finding our place in the body of Christ has far less to do with how we do church than it does with how we find our life on him. It’s not about church; it’s about Jesus. Where he captures our hearts and draws us to himself, we will find ourselves growing in the dynamics that allow the life of his church to emerge around us. We will value people being real, rather than pretending. We’ll want to free people from guilt and condemnation rather than manipulate them to get them to do what we think is best for them. We’ll value relationships that illuminate Jesus in our lives more than meetings that often don’t. And those who bear his heart will help equip others to live the life not manage programs for others to be obligated to attend.

In this kingdom the critical question is not where you go to church or how you ‘do church’ it is whether or not you’re coming to know him and walking alongside those he is giving you at any moment to help them on their journey. And if you are, you’ll be far more concerned with recognizing Jesus’ work in others, rather than judging their place in him by their view of church.


Reconciliation Not Suspicion

Our God is a God of reconciliation. Jesus died on the cross so that he could reconcile all things to himself (2 Corinthians 5). Those who grasp that purpose will also share his passion to see the family brought together in him, not divided by institutions or differences in how we view church. We have had enough broken relationships, enough division, enough of those who worry more about defining their distinctions than sharing the life we hold in common.

How do we do that, by encouraging our institutions and denominations to work together for greater unity? As if that has ever worked! Those who lead such things may talk about it from time to time, but denominations are about dividing and few at the top of those institutions will ever give up the power, money or prestige necessary for them to appreciate the true unity of this incredible family.

No, reconciliation happens simply by you loving each and every believer God allows to cross your path and look for ways to encourage them to know him better. We have to live as if the divisions don’t exist, recognizing Father’s fingerprints in each other’s lives, even if we don’t see eye to eye on every issue. This is where the unity of the body of Christ is celebrated. It is the stuff of grass roots actions, not organizational decrees.

Wherever you find believers near you get to know them. Celebrate Jesus together and see where the relationship might lead. Don’t feel you have to convince them about your idea of church, rather fan the flames of their passion for Jesus. You’ll find some amazing things happen in relationships that institutions can never touch.

When Paul traveled back through the people he’d help establish in the faith during his journey in Macedonia, Luke says that he “gave constant encouragement, lifting their spirits and charging them with fresh hope.” (Acts 20:2, The Message). Can you imagine a better description of fellowship? Paul was able to love them so freely, not because he wanted something from them, but because he wanted to encourage them where they were and make their journey lighter.


The Great Gathering

It is the nature of the Shepherd to gather – first to himself and then alongside others who belong to him as well. That’s what I see happening in the world today. Jesus is gathering people to himself and letting them link up with each other. When you find his heart in this, you too will have a heart for the great gathering that is going on among all his followers. Whether or not people are in a traditional congregation is an irrelevant question. What matters is whether or not they are growing to know him and find life in him. That’s the real question on which the family is based.

A few years ago a friend of mine was on a flight home. He discovered he was sitting next to a believer from his own city whom he didn’t know. For an hour they shared about their life in Jesus, how they had come to know him, what he was doing in them and what they were learning about him. As they approached their destination the other man asked my friend, “Where do you go to church, anyway?”

My friend thought for a moment and then answered, “For the last hour we’ve been talking about the most unifying person in all of history and have had a marvelous time. Do we really want to trade that conversation to discuss the most divisive question the body of Christ has ever known?”

His seatmate thought a minute, smiled and agreed, “Let’s not!”

What a perspective! Trading congregational brand names or models only takes the focus off of Jesus and leads us to assumptions about people that are rarely valid. We join this great gathering by loving those God puts in front of us every day. We won’t then seek for the like-minded, but the like-hearted, and then we’ll be closer to his truth for doing so. And once we’ve a connection with others that shows our love for them and our respect for Jesus’ work in them, then we will be able to discuss those things we see differently in ways that will draw the family together, not tear it apart.

As a father of older children, nothing brings me greater joy than watching my children love and laugh together even in the face of their differences. I can’t imagine that the Father of all doesn’t enjoy that as well.

Living Loved is published periodically by Lifestream Ministries and is sent free of charge to anyone who requests it. For those with email we recommend our web-based version so that we can hold down costs and get it to you much more quickly. This is especially important for international subscribers.

© Copyright 2013 Lifestream Ministries
Permission is hereby granted to anyone wishing to make copies for free distribution.

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The Church That Jesus Builds: Living in the Relational Church – Part 10

The Church That Jesus Builds: Living in the Relational Churh – Part 10

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • December 2004

wedding_0“You want to know what I’ve learned this weekend?” the man said as he drove me to a Midwest airport early one morning. We’d just spent an incredible weekend together with a house church he’d helped foster and another group of believers who joined us when they heard I was in town. The latter were deeply conflicted about their current involvement with a congregation that sounded abusive. “I’ve been selling the wrong thing!” he continued.

“What’s that?” I asked oblivious to what we were talking about.

“I’ve been selling house church,” he said shaking his head with a sigh, “instead of Jesus.” Obviously he wasn’t talking about ‘selling’ anything, but I love his discovery. Almost everywhere I go people are preoccupied with finding the right way to do church. It seems our hunger for church outstrips our hunger for Jesus.

In one house church meeting a few years ago I heard a woman share a dream she had the night before about a bride endlessly primping in the mirror and admiring her own beauty. She fussed with her hair, make-up and dress making sure everything was perfect. Meanwhile she saw the groom standing at the altar checking his watch and wondering why his bride had not come. What a sad and lonely picture of too many believers in our day. We are so focused on ourselves and what the church should look like that we’ve forgotten our joy is in the bridegroom – Jesus himself!

If there’s anything I’ve learned over the last decade visiting expressions of the body of Christ all over the world, it is that those preoccupied with doing church rarely get to experience body life to its full, while those who are preoccupied with Jesus find church life that is vibrant and awesome.

Search for the Church

In the last 40 years hundreds of books have been written about church renewal. I have watched countless people move from mainline to charismatic to mega-church to prayer-based to power-centered to cell church to seeker-sensitive to renewal to purpose-driven to house church to emerging church and the list just keeps getting longer. Some have even gone back to liturgical services, finding solace in its aesthetic beauty and safety. As one man confessed, “I just wanted to meet with Christians where I didn’t have to worry about someone flopping on the floor like a beached fish.”

These movements last only briefly spearheaded by a gifted speaker who draws a large following and then claims he has at last found the Biblical way to do church. After the euphoria of the alleged ‘new wineskin’ wears off in 3 to 5 years, people find themselves frustrated with the results and have to look again for another expression of church that fulfills the cry of their heart.

I understand the hunger. The Scriptures paint a compelling picture of God’s church – brothers and sisters growing in their relationship with Jesus and each other in a way that transformed them. They loved each other, grew together in God’s wisdom, shared their possessions together freely, and saw him reveal himself in extraordinary ways to them and their culture.

Was it perfect? Of course not and Scripture graciously made that clear as well. They struggled through failures and sin. They had to deal with those who tried to exercise control over others and brothers and sisters who preferred the comfort of false teaching to the challenge of the true. But throughout God kept making his way and truth known. They were filled with awe and God’s grace multiplied among them in demonstrable ways.

Who wouldn’t want that? But those expressions of church life have been rare and brief in our day. What passes for church today makes us spectators rather than participants, manipulates people’s shame rather than setting them free from it, prefers the rigidity of obligation to the power of love, is more contemptuous of the world than more relevant in it, and rewards cooperative pawns in someone else’s program rather than growing disciples of Jesus himself. No wonder so many people are disillusioned with it. Yet the search goes on, like birds drawn on an inexplicable migration, to a land they’ve never seen.

Beyond House Church

What compounds this search is that all that calls itself the church is not really the church. After 2000 years of Christian history, the term is used for institutions that provide a Christian experience through rituals, clergy and tradition. Some of the best of these actually provide an environment where people can come to know Jesus, grow in Biblical truths and connect in real fellowship so that in and around these institutions some people find expressions of church life.

However, there are increasing numbers of people who find that expression incredibly limited. Some have spilled out of abusive systems where the control of insecure leaders and the priorities of the institution overran any legitimate spiritual life. Still others grew unsettled with the time and money invested in building and institutional politics and found that those who get to the top of such groups often have little of Father’s character and even less of his passion.

I am continually amazed by the number of people I run into who have left those institutions who were once respected leaders in it – pastors, elders, teachers, deacons and board members. Some left rather than submit to ungodly demands made of them, but others did so because they grew convinced that the institution didn’t fulfill their hunger to live as the church. Loyalty was valued over honesty, arrogance over tenderness, entertainment over spiritual growth and the survival of the institution over loving people.

One denominational official confronted his own organization, “A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost their faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith.” People are waking up to a new reality, and finding the way they have learned to “do church” in the past doesn’t serve their hunger to know Jesus more intimately and to share that life with others more effectively.

Many of these initially turned to house church, hoping its more Biblical dynamics would provide the Promised Land they hungered for. But they soon find it a mixed bag as well. Their excitement at the relational dynamics of a smaller group fades when they discover there are still people who wanted to control it from within or mold it into new networks from without. They find relationships awkward as people are more focused on a method than on following Jesus. They often face the same religious demands for conformity and commitment and they find the same our-group-is-better superiority that separates them from other Christians and from the world by breeding contempt for unbelievers, rather than compassion.

Now increasing numbers find themselves beyond house church still wondering where they can find authentic church life, or even if it exists at all.

An Undeniable Hunger

A sad reality is that many who break free of systems of religious obligation sometimes find themselves using freedom as an excuse to fulfill long-restrained appetites in the things of the world. They don’t always fall into great sin, but their spiritual hunger is swallowed up by their search for pleasure. I cringe when it happens, but I know for many it will only be a phase. Having worked so long and so hard for God with so little enduring fruit in relationship with him or with others, their frustration often spills out in careless personal indulgence.

For those who have been touched by Jesus, this season won’t satisfy and out of it a new passion for a real connection with Jesus emerges. Beyond their disappointments, beyond the failure of others, their hunger to find real life among God’s people surfaces again and again. I am amazed at the resiliency of this hunger to find life in Father’s family. Even those who have been abused or frustrated in their attempts to find it in the past, still find that undeniable hunger rising even beyond their resolve to go it alone. Once you’ve tasted genuine fellowship where dear friendships inspired your journey and opened up new vistas into God’s nature, you won’t be satisfied by anything less. Most have experienced some taste of that in the early days of a new fellowship, in an informal Bible study or with a close friend.

Certain there must be a consistent way for believers to share this incredible journey they read voraciously anything they can find on the church, search the Internet to see if anyone else has found it and keep going to any group in their area that sounds promising. While some find answers and connections others find themselves with passions ignited that leave them feeling increasingly isolated when they can find no one locally to share it with.

Perhaps we’re finally waking up to the fact that Jesus didn’t tell us to build his church. He said he would do that. He told us to abide in him, love others as he loves us, proclaim the gospel and help others learn to follow him. If we are focused on those things instead of trying to do his work, I’ve no doubt we’ll see the church springing up all around us.

The church that Jesus is building continues to grow the world over and you are no small part of that. Even if you feel alone in your journey, he is creating a passion in your heart for a purpose you may not yet see. I suspect in the next few years we will see Jesus bring his body together in ways we cannot even fathom now. I see two trends in our culture that excite me. First, an increasing number of believers are growing disillusioned with the rituals of organized religion. Second, an increasing number of nonbelievers are contemplating spiritual issues and hungering for authentic relationships. It will be interesting to see how these realities converge in the days ahead.

Recognizing His Church

Though I don’t expect to see a perfect expression of the body of Christ on the planet before Jesus returns, that doesn’t keep me from beholding her glory nonetheless. I have witnessed again and again all over the world the miracle of people sharing the life of Jesus together in growing compassion, wisdom, care and freedom. I’ve watched God connect people who had a profound impact on each other’s lives and had great joy in doing so.

I am reticent to define what Jesus’ church looks like, because I am convinced people know it when they touch it. Church is not a place to go or an organization of any kind. It is the network of relationships we share with other believers where Jesus is the only focus (Colossians 1:18) and we are free to grow in him (Ephesians 1:21; 4:18-20). You’ll recognize the life of Jesus’ church where people have the freedom to be honest without being attacked (John 4:24 – See sidebar Being Real), where they can disagree without being less loved (Romans 13), where they can be encouraged to their best without being manipulated by someone else’s agenda (I Corinthians 14), where guilt is lifted off each other instead of heaped on (Romans 8:1-4), where they lovingly care for each other’s practical and spiritual needs (Philippians 2:4), where they are set free from obligation to live in love (Galatians 5) and where God’s purpose in us comes into sharper focus (John 17, Ephesians 1). In short it is a family in the best sense of the word, brothers and sisters growing together under Father. People like this will find ways to gather regularly in various arrangements as God leads, but their relationships are the focus, not their meetings. Where you find people like that you’ve found the body of Christ. Of course these may happen around existing institutions, though no institution can ultimately contain it. They also happen outside institutions in the normal course of our lives as Jesus sets us in his body just as he desires (I Corinthians 1:18).

Where Can I Find That?

Relational community is not rocket science. The more we try to organize it the more we will siphon the life right out of it. When I was in junior high school I watched my parents move from being nominal church attendees to passionate believers. Caught up in the early days of the Charismatic renewal of the mid-1960s they began to discover just how real Jesus wanted to be in their lives and found many of their friends shared that hunger. Without any of the hassles of an institution they met house-to-house, shared meals and resources, and even invited in more mature believers to help them make sense of what God was doing in them.

The congregation they all attended on Sunday mornings soon grew threatened by their newfound fervor and soon forced them out. Excited, they moved their Friday night ‘prayer meetings’ to Sunday mornings to ‘start their own church.’ I remember even as a young man being amazed at how quickly their joy, enthusiasm and spontaneity faded away in the demands of getting organized, planning Sunday services, and staffing children’s ministries. Soon they were bickering over how things should be done and how money should be spent, rather than growing in Jesus.

I’ve seen that happen so many times since. Thinking we can make church life better by organizing it, we almost always unwittingly sacrifice it to the institutional needs that bear so little fruit. Church life is the natural fruit of people growing in Jesus and in friendships with people near them. It isn’t always easy to find people with that kind of passion, but Father has some interesting ways to connect them.

What You Can Do

You certainly cannot make church happen by your own effort but neither will it come banging on your door while you watch TV. There are some things you can think through that will help you see how God might be connecting you to other believers:

First, live the journey. You don’t find life in Jesus by finding the right group; you are connected with the family out of your relationship to the Head, Jesus. Isn’t it sad that people who have ‘attended church’ for 20, 30 or 40 years, have no idea how to listen to Jesus and do what he wants. We have so equipped them to live by principles that they have never learned to follow his voice. Learn to live in him. Discover how secure you are in his love and how much you can trust his work in you. Read the Scriptures so you will learn to think like he thinks and recognize his voice. If you know a few others who want to grow in this too, share that journey together.

Second, cultivate relationships. As you grow secure in Father’s love you will find yourself loving others in the same way, and not just Christians but people in the world, too. You’ll come to recognize that God works primarily through relationships. So join him in building relationships however God gives them to you. He might lead you to a group of folks already gathering or to some individual relationships among your neighbors or co-workers. He might call you to get involved with others in what are commonly called ‘parachurch’ ministries, such as a rescue mission, prison or youth outreach, or prayer gathering, or he might lead you to open your home for a Bible study or fellowship group. God knows how to connect you with folks he wants you to know. Be prepared to give some time to those relationships by doing things together – sharing a meal, helping on a household project, or going out together. Too few people actually initiate these kinds of encounters and yet they are critical to growing friendships.

Third, share the journey. Who has God put around you that you can open up your life to? It may be one person or a handful. They may live across town or work across the hall. Find a way to share God’s life together. Admittedly this will be awkward at first because we’re not used to these kinds of conversations, but this is a joy worth learning. Share insights from Scripture or things you’re learning, pray together about situations you’re encountering and what God is doing in you and learn to listen to him together as you encourage his work in others. As your friendships grow you’ll find yourself increasingly free to be more open, honest and confessional about your struggles and be able to garner the wisdom and strength God has given to others.

Fourth, learn to lay down your life. Community doesn’t happen where everyone grabs for what they want, but where they follow Jesus’ example of laying down their lives for others. As long as we only look out for ourselves we will pass like ships in the night, and even if we meet every week we’ll end up feeling alone. Laying down your life for others will open the doors to real community.

Fifth, explore relational community. As your relationships grow you might find some people or families who feel called to walk together for a season. There is no better expression of body life than brothers and sisters who want to share God’s life with some regularity and intentionality. Don’t try to ‘start a church’, just grow in what it means to care for each other through the real circumstances of life. Include entire families. Get together regularly, but also cultivate those relationships beyond the meetings. Share your resources, gifts and time as Jesus leads you. Look for ways God might give you away to others in the community, individually or collectively to reveal him in our world or bless other believers with help in growing spiritually and support each other in that process. Be careful not to limit your relationships just to those in the group and don’t try to make your community permanent. Enjoy what God gives you in each season and be open to moving on to other relationships when Jesus so leads.

And If You Want Help…

Learning to live as the church Jesus is building will challenge long-held paradigms. Most of us have been taught to be passive learners. If we need something, someone else will tell us what it is. Growth in this kingdom doesn’t happen that way. Those who find life are not afraid to knock, to ask, or to seek.

If you’re struggling to know how to live deeply in Christ, connect with other Christians, or have a group that can’t sort out how to share this journey together, it is often helpful to sort things out with a brother or sister that might be a bit further down the road in some areas. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. At every stage of my journey, God has always put someone nearby to help confirm things I’m seeing and to help me think outside the limitations of my own previous experience. But I sought out those relationships. They didn’t come to me.

There are also gifts God has distributed through the body (Ephesians 4:11-13) to help equip people to live this journey. You won’t recognize them by their titles since the real ones won’t use them, or by their popularity since most fly under the radar, or even by their writings since most don’t write. God will link you to those he desires through relationship. You’ll recognize in their demeanor Father’s nature. You’ll hear in their words his voice. And time with them will draw you to Father and free you to trust him more. They will leave you focused on him not on trying to implement some method or set of principles. They help people unload their guilt and shame and never exploit it even in an attempt to get them to do the right thing. They have patience with those who struggle and are not defensive when people challenge them with honest questions. They don’t see themselves as experts above you, but as brothers or sisters alongside and will never pressure you or try to make you dependent on them. Their joy comes in your greater reliance on Father’s work in you.

It may require you to think outside the box, but learning to live in the church Jesus is building is worth every moment of the journey. He does want you to know the joy of walking alongside other brothers and sisters and finding them a powerful addition to the life you’re finding in him. Try not to lose your heart for that, even if it only looks like a distant mirage. I assure it is real enough and part of God’s plan to bring all things together under one head!


Being Real

The following paragraph was adapted from “Will the Real You Please Stand Up!” a Lifestream Audio Collection, by a sister from Texas:

It’s OK to question what I need to question, ask what I need to ask and struggle where I struggle. I’ve learned that I am not rewarded for pretending to be better than I am, but that experiencing the life of God means that I am loved through the ups and downs, hurts and joys, and doubts as well as triumphs. Instead of exploiting people’s shame or need for approval to try and make them better Christians, I encourage people to go to God for healing and restoration from shame so they can experience for themselves the love of God.

Instead of loading others up with a list of `shoulds’, I tell people that God is working by “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” and his greatest desire is to communicate with them. I talk about learning “how to” listen to God and follow what he puts on their heart even if that means they make a mistake doing so. Instead of trying to change people I urge them to get to know Christ as life because it’s so much fun (and far more effective) watching him change them. Instead of manipulating others to do what I think would benefit me and my definition of God’s will for them.

I’ll share as much of your journey as I can to help lighten your load. If you’re in pain or in despair, I’ll be there for you as Father sorts things out. I don’t know that I’ll always have what you need, but I will at least be there with you so you won’t have to go it alone.

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Sharing the Journey

Sharing the Journey

By Wayne Jacobsen and Clay Jacobsen

BodyLife • July 2003

hikers_on_trail_0Isn’t it interesting that you can spend all day wandering through the busy streets of Manhattan without anyone noticing you, and yet anyone you pass on a hiking trail will not only notice you but usually will pause to find out where you’ve been and where you are headed? The street is anonymous—people passing in a hurry to get somewhere else. There are far too many people to even consider engaging in a conversation. You would never get anywhere.

Loneliness flourishes in large crowds. But I have yet to pass anyone on a hiking trail who didn’t stop and talk at least briefly. The camaraderie of the trails is immediate, even if you are not likely to see each other again. For those brief moments the help and insight two people can share can make a huge difference.

If your Christian experience is a living journey instead of a plodding ritual, you will find the same thing to be true. When my Christianity was more static—consisting of attending services, doing church work and trying to be good—my fellowship with others stayed shallow. I remember coming home many nights frustrated from having spent an entire evening with other people but somehow having been unable to move the conversation beyond the weather, sports, family and current movies.

I wanted fellowship, but every time I would try to bring up something about God or Scripture the conversation grew stilted and awkward. Only in the last few years have I come to recognize that Christianity is a journey into ever-deepening levels of relationship and ever-widening spaces of freedom. When you’re on that journey you will naturally talk about it in virtually every conversation you have, and when you connect with someone else who is sharing that journey, your conversation will be the best. Sharing the journey is as natural as breathing.

Geese or Sparrows?

Watching a flock of Canada geese fly over in precise V-formation is an enthralling sight? How do you suppose they do that? Do they attend V-formation flying school when they are young? I can just see a older goose projecting a Powerpoint presentation against a birch tree and explaining to the younger birds that they must fly two feet to the outside wing of the goose in front of them, one foot behind and eighteen inches above its flight path so it will impress the humans below.

No, geese fly in a V-formation because flying in that exact spot allows them to fly in smoother air with less effort. If a goose falls out of position it immediately feels the added stress of flying on its own and moves pack into position. Scientists estimate that by drafting on the wake of the goose in front of them the entire flock is able to fly 71% further than each of them could fly individually. To accomplish this incredible feat the stronger birds in the flock will rotate the lead position so that no one bird wears out. According to NASA, ?This allows a flock of birds with differing abilities to fly at a constant speed with a common endurance.?

By drafting on the wake of the goose in front of them the entire flock is able to fly 71% further than each of them could fly individuallyThe reason you never see a flock of sparrows fly in V-formation is because they are not going anywhere. They flit around the yard from tree to tree, but at the end of the day they are in the same area. They could try to learn to fly in a V-formation, but by the time they got the formation together they would already be to the next tree and not need it. The same is true about fellowship. If Christianity is about rituals, routines and morals, our fellowship will suffer. We can rearrange our groupings or try a number of novel small-group techniques, but they will be as awkward as sparrows trying to fly in formation. But when Christianity is a life of growing dependence on God through the joys and challenges of our circumstances, pooling our wisdom becomes a natural extension of that life for us as it is for geese to fly in formation. When God is more real to you than the weather and the events of your day, you’ll find him filling your conversations and fellowship will be immediate, powerful and alive.

Journey Talk

I went to a men’s breakfast group one morning where the participants pulled out scorecards and each reported how many days the previous week they had read Scripture, witnessed to an unbeliever or ‘hit their knees’ before ‘hitting the shower.’ They were holding each other accountable to disciplines they thought important. As sincere as they may have been to encourage each other, they were sincerely wrong.

These men had embraced a process of conformity, thinking it was their responsibility to motivate people to comply with their standards. Little did they realize that this process is the opposite of sharing the Christian journey. That is why accountability groups start with a wealth of zeal and quickly fade away. Can you imagine Jesus pulling out similar scorecards to check on his disciples?

Growing in relationship with God does not come through conformity, but through transformation. Relationships are organic and therefore defy all attempts to fit into any one-size-fits-all model. Rules, routines and rituals are the building blocks of religion, not relationship. People caught up in religion will always focus on obeying authority, accountability, meeting standards by human effort, finding fault, confronting failure and blaming others. In short conforming to these things can be quite painful, especially for those who struggle to conform to do the accepted thing. People instinctively know that instead of helping them know God better, these religious activities add stress and strain to the journey. That is why Paul told us over and over again not to have anything to do with people who wanted to boss others, even if it their aim was greater righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:13-15; Galatians 5:7-10, 6:11-19; Philippians 3:2; Colossians 2:16-19).

Paul wasn’t against righteousness, but knew that true righteousness grew only out of a trusting relationship to the Father. This kingdom does not result from our efforts, but from his. ?Apart from me you can do nothing,? (John 15:5) Jesus said, calling us to depend on him. We do not share the journey by conforming others to what we think is best for them, but by encouraging each other to lean on Jesus.

Those on the journey talk about encouragement, help, service, support, love, compassion, forgiveness and trust. They will focus on loving God more freely and one another more openly, trusting God instead of trusting ourselves, being real instead of repeating ‘right’ answers, and taking the risk to follow God instead of meeting people’s expectations. They won’t force people into a mold, because they know people have to have their own journey with God so he can transform them into his likeness. Doing so lifts people higher instead of weighing them down with added obligations and responsibilities.

“Instruct one another”

Teach? Me? Absolutely not! I couldn’t possibly do that. I hate standing in front of people.

It is tragic than when most of us hear the word ‘teaching’ we think of standing in front of a roomful of people lecturing. That is a small slice of what real teaching is. In fact for most of human history teaching was done one-on-one, in tutoring or apprenticeships. When share a favorite recipe with a friend; tell someone about a favorite article, book or thought; or you show a child how to use a fork, you are teaching.

We are all teachers. Sharing with others the insights God drops into our lives, or lessons we have picked up from others is the most powerful process for learning the lessons we need for the journey. The vast majority of teaching doesn’t happen in lecture halls, but in conversations in which we share what we have discovered to help others.

One of the hardest things to motivate small-group participants to do is to come ready to share. We have for so long been schooled in the notion that we gather as a body to receive what a few professionals have prepared for us that believers shy away from sharing a psalm, a word, a prayer—anything! Getting together with other Christians should be like a spiritual potluck where different ones bring something to share (I Corinthians 14:26).

I once met with a home group that grew awkwardly quiet as we began. It was the kind of meeting everyone hates, because no one has anything to share. After a song or two, it was clear that we weren’t going anywhere. ?It seems to me that we’re all a bit tired tonight.? I ventured. People nodded. ?Did anyone bring anything to share with us?? Everyone looked around the room but there were no takers. ?We have two choices, then. We can either press through our tiredness and see if God has something for us tonight, or we can just admit that we’re all tired and unprepared, call it a night, and try again next week.?

We agreed to try again next week. It was only a 10-minute meeting, but a powerful learning experience. We didn’t force anything to happen, nor did we go through the motions just to make us feel good. If we had it would have been the same as pretending to eat at a potluck to which no one had brought food. We wouldn’t do it nor would we ask our hosts to empty their freezer and feed everyone who hadn’t come prepared.

Until that notion of body life captures our heart, and we realize that God wants to use each of us to share his wisdom with others, we’ll miss out on the best teaching available in the body of Christ today. Whenever I see something in Scripture that touches my life, I always look for someone else it might bless.

“Admonishing one another”

“Don’t you think that was the most manipulative thing you’ve ever said?”

I couldn’t have been more shocked at his words. He always encouraged me in things I’d written or preached. I thought yesterday’s sermon on having a heart for outreach had been one of my best. I had looked forward to our lunch appointment all daybecause I knew Dave would be impressed.

“You’re kidding, right?” I said laughing it off. His face told me he wasn’t. I told him how powerful I thought the message had been and the positive feedback others had given me.

“I could be wrong,” he said shrugging his shoulders. “But it looked to me like you were manipulating people with guilt to make them do what you wanted. I’ve learned that anytime my success depends on another person’s response, I will manipulate them.”

Only after a few days of mulling over my friend’s words in prayer, did I finally understand. Even though my aim was noble, I had manipulated my audience and I called Dave to tell him so. That one conversation changed my life in powerful ways. Dave had spoken the truth to me out of a personal friendship that allowed it to bear fruit.

I love the way Dave spoke to me. He had the relationship to speak truthfully and firmly to me—as my friend, not my judge. He was honest with me, but didn’t try to convince me even when I resisted. He trusted that God would have to make it clear. That is admonishment—our willingness to be gently honest with people we see making hurtful choices. How many times have you walked away from a conversation wishing you had been more honest?

Admonishment was part of the early church’s body life. Paul rebuked Peter for discriminating against Gentile believers in the face of his Jewish friends (Galatians 2:11-15). And the writer of Hebrews rebuked believers who were throwing away their confidence in the mist of difficult times (Hebrews 10:35-39). Still, the New Testament uses words like encourage or build up fifty-six times, and to rebuke or admonish only 7 times. That seems like a pretty good ratio to me. Though I have learned some of my greatest lessons from Dave, he has affirmed God’s work in me at least eight times more than he has pointed out something that concerned him.

When people use admonishment to point out the faults of others so the former feel better about themselves, they kill genuine fellowship. We are not called to confront one another constantly or hold each other to exacting standards. We are to encourage one another along the journey of being transformed by God and only admonish each other when it will help them walk in greater wisdom.

Our past encouragements will make any admonishment easier to heed. Don’t force admonishment on others. Share what you see and trust the Holy Spirit to make it clear to them. Remember, we are only sharing a journey; we are not called to badger one another into righteousness or nit pick at one another’s faults.

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Shared Dependence: Living in the Relational Church – Part 9

Shared Dependence: Living in the Relational Church – Part 9

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • April 2003

cave_climber_0In the last decade I’ve met thousands of believers all over the world and watched carefully as they seek to live out Christian fellowship in a variety of groupings – from twos and threes in spontaneous fellowship to centuries old congregations and just about everything in between. In many places I have been delighted to find God’s people sharing his reality together as they grow to know him. In others, I’ve watched in sadness as they struggle to replicate some form of New Testament body life, but despite their diligent efforts they continually end up disappointed and frustrated.

Because I want everyone to know the joy of living in Christ’s life, I’m always trying to sort out what makes the difference. Why do some groups enjoy the Lord’s fullness together and others miss out? Some would say the presence of Jesus makes all the difference, and while that would be at least partly true, I find him present everywhere, even among the most captive people, inviting them closer to him.

Others might say that it’s because some meet the way God has told them to and others follow the traditions of men. That would be partly true as well, but I’ve noticed on occasion that the people employing the most biblical principles of church life have the most dysfunctional relationships and people as naive as spiritual toddlers are having a great time basking in the joy of God’s work.

No, in the end it isn’t knowledge, maturity, the right principles or even effort and commitment. People who live out God’s life in the healthiest settings have learned the beauty of shared dependence. And by that I don’t mean they have learned to depend on a leader, each other or a specific church structure, but that they are learning together how to depend on the Father and thus participate in his work among them.

Do We Need Fellowship?

Through most of my life I have heard people talk about church life with the language of need. “A good Christian is supposed to attend services whenever the body meets.” “You need to ‘come to church’ or you will fall into error.” What is so bad about body life that the only way we’re motivated to participate is because we have to. All this talk of obligation and commitment makes me wonder if the driving force behind ‘church attendance’ today is nothing more than misery loves company. Let’s face it, sitting through the same service every week can get a bit boring. Even the most incredible speakers I’ve heard grow tiresome week after week and repetitious year after year.

Body life was meant to reflect the joy of Father’s family, not be a painful obligation for his children. I know that may be hard to believe for those who have only experienced church life as redundant meetings, controlling leaders or relationships filled with gossip, condemnation and manipulation. Real body life, however, doesn’t look like any of those things.

When the New Testament talks about body life it doesn’t use the language of need or obligation. It doesn’t compel believers to engage God’s family because we have to, but invites them to share in an unparalleled demonstration of God’s glory. Your own individual relationship with him will at best allow you to taste only a tiny facet of God’s person and wisdom. Paul compared it to a partial glimpse as though we are looking at a darkened mirror (I Cor. 13:12). At best we will only see a part. But when we combine our part with the many other parts that are expressed by other members of his family, we get a more complete picture of God and his working. That’s why Paul described the church as the fullness of Christ (Eph. 1:23).

When you are loved beyond your wildest dreams, challenged to greater heights of glory, encouraged by his strength in others and enlightened by their insights, no one will have to be forced to participate. But only God can produce that kind of life together. If we look for it in each other instead of in him we’ll only find ourselves living a cheap substitute for the reality God offers us.

It’s Him We Need

In reality we don’t need each other. We need him! Body life that doesn’t begin with that simple premise is destined to miss the mark. As valuable and enriching as authentic body life is, if we make it a substitute for God’s daily presence working in each of us it will become an obstacle in the journey instead of a blessing to it.

We can’t let the two get confused. Scripture is clear here. He alone is our strength and shield. He alone is our refuge. He wants to teach each one of us how to live totally dependent upon him. Our relationships with each other must encourage that process not supplant it.

Recently I saw a photo of a newly discovered cave whose existence was only recently announced in the media. One chamber in this cave is large enough to contain the Superdome with plenty of room to spare. The only way out is to climb a rope which has been lowered through a hole in its ceiling. In the photo the team was climbing the rope to get back to the surface.

That photo held in tension the camaraderie of the journey without misplacing their dependence. Each of them was dependent on that rope to get out of that chamber. As valuable as their encouragement, experience and instruction might have been to the others, each person still needed to trust that rope enough to climb to the surface. None of them, even with the best intentions, could substitute for that rope. No one could crawl out for someone else and they could climb all over each other for years and still never find their way out to the surface.

In the same way our relationships with each other can only grow in health when we’re not trying to get from each other what only God can provide. Like the rope for the climbers, God wants us to depend on him alone and encourage others in the process of learning to do that.

Take No Substitute

Body life naturally results from people learning to live in daily dependence on the presence of the Father. That passion is an essential ingredient to people discovering effective body life together. It is tempting to think that if Jesus makes himself known in the body that we depend on him by depending on each other. Admittedly it is a subtle shift, but a potentially fatal one, at least spiritually, if it gets our eyes off of Jesus and on other people or on any system for replicating church.

Once the rope climbers let go of the rope, even to grab for each other, disaster results. We are people on a journey to greater relationship with him and greater trust in him. We can help each other go further together than most will go alone but we must never forget where we’re going. Body life flourishes where people are learning to depend on God for everything, and their relationships support that growth.

Unfortunately most of what passes for body life today, however unwittingly, offers substitutes for that dependence from taking hold in our hearts. Tradition can easily become the attempt to replicate something God did in the past, and most programs seek to secure God’s hand in the future. Both keep us from responding to the God who works in the present, leading us to trust him more. Read Matthew 6 and learn what Jesus is saying about each of us living in the absolute security of the fact that God will take care of us and lead us into his life. This is something we each must sort out in our own relationship with him.

I know learning to trust him alone can be scary. It may seem easier in the short term to put our dependence in leaders, other believers or a way of doing church, but it will only lead to perpetual frustration and hurt when others quite innocently fail our expectations or even more belligerently betray our trust. The pain that results is evidence enough of our misplaced dependency.

While we can encourage each other in the process we must take care not to subvert it by trying to rely on each other instead of on him. When people lose the passion to cultivate a growing dependence on the Father, the best they can produce by human effort is an illusion of body life.

Overestimating Our Abilities

It was one of those answers that surprised me as soon as I heard myself say it and that doesn’t happen too often for someone who generally thinks three sentences ahead of the one that is currently coming out of his mouth. For the past hour and a half I had been sitting in a former Tulsa nightclub with a group of hungry believers talking about this incredible journey of knowing the Father and walking in the reality of his presence. Then someone asked, “What do you think is the biggest barrier to people living in the fullness of God’s life?”

“I’m beginning to think the greatest barrier is the overestimation of our own capabilities.” My answer surprised me. I don’t know that I’ve ever expressed that concern in answer to a similar question. I had to pause and think for a moment whether or not that was my final answer.

The more I thought about it, however, I saw that God was illuminating something he had been working on in my life. I used to think diligent effort applied to the right process could accomplish anything. But over the years the failure of my best efforts had finally convinced me that unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain (Ps. 127:1). The joy of this life is found in trusting him and following his leading out of a daily relationship of growing trust.

The longer we talked that night about the pressure we put on ourselves and others to replicate this amazing thing we call the life of the Spirit, the more convinced I became that overestimating our own capabilities complicates our walk instead of freeing us. It leads to feeling trapped in our failures and taking pride in successes. It makes us manipulate others to do what we think is best and encourages everyone to get their eyes on people rather than on Jesus. It leads to misplaced effort and wasted energy, because we will only know how to do our work when we understand how God works. People who trust their own capabilities will never discover the reality of life in God and the joy of sharing that life with others.

Not Even A Little Bit

The life of God had turned Paul’s whole world upside-down – from a committed religionist who boasted in his abilities and prided himself in his accomplishments to one who put absolutely no confidence in the flesh. (See Phil. 3:1-11). How would you like to have been in fellowship with Paul before God got a hold of his life? It would have been insufferable. He thought himself always right, closer to God than anyone else and he had the right to kill you if you didn’t see it his way. Of course today we use accusation and gossip far more often than actual stones, but it aims at the same result.

Imagine how different it was after Jesus had captured Paul with his penetrating love. He drew Paul to himself and changed him from one who was confident in his own abilities, into one who knew that only Jesus could accomplish anything that would endure. He’s the one that draws people to the truth. He’s the one that changes lives. He’s the one that connects his body in ways that further the purpose of his kingdom.

Paul could then see that his own best efforts were nothing but sewage, worthless in the unfolding of God’s glory in himself or in others. He found the righteousness that human effort produces to be repulsive and simply delighted himself in the righteousness that his growing trust in God produced.

Since he had no confidence in his own flesh, he didn’t put pressure on others to perform with theirs. He knew that everything in this kingdom had to flow from God’s working, and we can only respond to him, not produce his life on our own. This includes body life. If we are going to learn to share his life in meaningful relationships with other believers our dependency has to be in him. We cannot accomplish it even by following what we deem to be biblical patterns of church life. While they can help us recognize the way God works they will not of themselves let us share in the glory of his life. Only the Head of the church can build his church. We can only construct illusions of it.

Sharing Dependence on Him

I spent some time recently with a group of people aspiring to facilitate a home group in each of their homes. I put a scenario in front of them. What if six months from now two of the groups are exploding at the seams with excited people, two of them are just coasting along and the other two are totally dead and boring. What would we know about the facilitators of those groups and what would we do about it?

Popular wisdom would tell us that those groups that look vital are led by good leaders and those that are struggling are led by weaker ones. But that’s not how God sees it. Some groups may look vital only because their leaders are better at fabricating an illusion of body life. Their lively personalities or giftings draw a following, but whether or not it reflects the true sharing of life by believers is another matter. Likewise, those groups that may be struggling may have excellent facilitators, but they are trying to accomplish something God is not doing.

Jesus said that he only did the things he saw his Father doing. Unfortunately the way many do church life today, we look for what the Father doesn’t seem to be doing and go there to try and make something happen. The results shouldn’t surprise us. Human effort cannot produce God’s fruit, but surrendered hearts can participate in all God has prepared for them.

By saying we shouldn’t place our dependence in each other, I am not excusing us from being trustworthy, dependable brothers or sisters. The deepest experiences of body life happen where people are free enough from their own agenda and brokenness to be faithful in times of trouble, genuine to the core and true to their word even if it costs them. But if you allow yourself to grow dependent on them you’ll short-change your own relationship with Jesus. In fact people who know Jesus best wouldn’t dream of letting you do that. They’ll encourage you to keep your dependency firmly on him, because he is the only way to life!

Here’s the truth: Genuine, authentic body life is a gift God gives not something we can orchestrate by human effort even by following Biblical principles. Instead of trying to create it, we would be better served to ask him to show us each day how he is placing us among his body, who is he relating us to and how can we encourage them to rely on Him more freely?

Your work is to simply follow him there. When you do he will place you among the body just as he desires and you will know the joy of sharing a growing dependency on him with other members of his body.

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We Already Have a Shepherd! Leadership in the Relational Church – Part 8

We Already Have a Shepherd! Leadership in the Relational Church – Part 8

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • December 2002

sheep_0What did Jesus have in mind when he spoke of leadership among the incredible community of the Body of Christ?

By Wayne Jacobsen in collaboration with Kevin Smith, a good friend from Australia. This article grew out of a conversation that began during a trip there.

Here is the best definition I’ve ever heard of spiritual leadership: If you were going to be caught in your worst failure, who would you want to catch you?

If you really want to experience the fullness of life in Jesus, wouldn’t you want someone who would treat you as gently as Jesus treated the woman at the well while offering you the truth in a way that you could understand and follow into God’s freedom?

I have not heard a simpler statement that summarizes the way Jesus lived and what he taught his disciples about leadership in his church. Even Paul’s lists of qualifications in Timothy and Titus point out those who had walked with Jesus long enough to be transformed by him in a way that could be clearly seen in their families, in the community and their freedom to live the truth and thus be able to help others in the way Jesus would.

Perhaps the question I’m most asked in my travels is, “How do you see leadership functioning among people who embrace relational Christianity?” The question itself points out two significant problems with our perception of church. First, it is so dependent on the leadership of men and women that many cannot imagine how to function without it. That is tragic, because if our dependency isn’t in Christ we will never discover the power and simplicity of body life.

Second, our perception of leadership is so imbedded in managing or controlling institutions, that we cannot recognize it without titles and positions. Jesus said leadership in his kingdom would not need either and would serve an entirely different function than it does in the world. Unfortunately we’ve allowed ourselves to be squeezed into the world’s mold on this one.

If you can, set aside all your preconceived notions of human leadership and read the New Testament again with a fresh eye. The leadership of Father’s family is clearly placed in the hands of Jesus as its Head, and the Spirit as the one who joins us together and sets us in the body as he desires. Human leadership is not the main focus of Christ’s body. Jesus hardly mentions it and most of the letters don’t reference it at all.

But there were leaders in the early church, people protest, and I wholeheartedly agree. The important question is, just what kind of leaders were they?

Not So With You!

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

Clearly Jesus warned his disciples that in God’s reality leadership serves a different function than it does in the world because it is not based on management. Yet many books on Christian leadership today are so easily adapted to the business world. That alone should make us stop and question.

Jesus didn’t view leadership as the power to command, but the passion to serve people as they sort out what it means to live as God’s children. In the last decade my understanding of leadership has changed completely. I used to see it in terms of power – thinking leadership was defined by influence, institutional power or the value of their giftedness.

That’s not so in God. Those who have helped me most to grow in Father’s love, surprisingly enough, don’t hold positions of power but simply loved me enough to point out the way to God’s heart and then let me decide if I wanted to follow it. In fact, those I meet now who are most transformed by Father’s character disdain the power of the institutions I thought so essential to the kingdom. They reject anything that doesn’t reflect the childlike freedom to walk together focused on doing what pleases our Father.

The first person I ever met like that shocked me. Whenever he opened his mouth, wisdom poured out in the simplest terms. He knew more about God than I’d ever hope to and his calm spirit mirrored the nature of Jesus that I’d read about in the Gospels.

He had been a pastor for a number of years, but left during a brutal congregational fight rather than resort to their tactics to secure his place. For the next 15 years he hung wallpaper, which I thought he was doing just to pay the bills until he could find another ministry position. I was wrong! But I really didn’t realize how wrong until one day when I told him we were considering him as a future elder and eventually as full-time staff.

To my absolute shock, he listened for a while and then shook his head. “I’m just not interested,” he said. When I pressed him as to why he just smiled and told me that I would understand some day.

I think now that I know what he means. Those who most effectively function in leadership in this body don’t need titles, salaries or positions of authority. In fact, those things will only distract from God’s calling. Those who have been shaped by Christ’s life know there is an inherent conflict between spiritual authority and institutional power. Unfortunately, most people in the institution don’t understand this truth, and they continue to be hurt by those who act as leaders and fail to recognize true leadership God has so generously scattered throughout his body. Perhaps we need to think differently.

Transformed Lives Not Credentials

I’ll never forget the first time I saw ‘Rev. Wayne Jacobsen’ pressed on an office door. Even with my vocational mindset of ministry 27 years ago it was a shock. I was 22 with a BA in Bible and two weeks experience in marriage. How was I supposed to be a leader among the body of Christ? It would be laughable now if it were not so tragic. Even though God used that time in my life in spite of how deeply I misunderstood him, I realize now how little my life at that point reflected God’s priorities.

Though I couldn’t recognize it at the time I know now that I was driven less by a desire to serve others as I was to satiate my ego by trading on my speaking ability and proving my worth by influencing as many people as possible. What’s even stranger is that people did so without even questioning whether this is what God wanted.

Today people qualify for leadership based on their university degrees, eloquence, Biblical knowledge or their ability to draw a crowd, manage a vision or manipulate people to help them achieve their goals. If they draw a salary from a religious institution or hold a title we believe them to be leaders even if their lives don’t reflect his life.

Will that ever change? Not on this side of eternity! We have spawned an entire industry of seminaries and institutional positions to ‘prepare’ people to lead our religious institutions. They come out with $30,000.00 of debt and the need to find a career to justify that expense. All the while they have never even had the time to be transformed by the life of Christ and to demonstrate it in their personal life. No wonder there is so much failure and error among those who seek to lead in the Body of Christ.

Mostly well-intentioned men and women get into ‘the ministry’ for all the right reasons and then stay for all the wrong ones. The New Testament recognizes leadership by the evidence of a transformed life that lives in vital, daily, dynamic, relational connection with the head. People could tell they had been with Jesus. It didn’t matter what gifts they possessed or lacked, only that their character had been transformed to such an extent that they began to treat others the way Jesus would – with the same mix of truth and tenderness.

That’s why it is so important that every believer be thoroughly acquainted with the Jesus of the Bible, because the only way we can recognize Godly leadership among us is when people reflect his glory, his truth and his demeanor in the way they live.

Supplements not Substitutes

The body of Christ can only be healthy where every member in it is growing in relationship to Jesus and learning to live in his view of reality. He is the Head so that he “might come to have first place in everything.” (Col 1:18) That can happen only as every believer experiences the depth of friendship that Jesus wants with each of us.

Unfortunately leadership in our day doesn’t always help people live in that reality but often offers a substitute for it – and people like it that way. Like the children of Israel, many prefer to keep God at arm’s length expecting so-called leaders to deal with God for them so that they can follow only when they think it best.

For two thousand years this view of leadership has stripped God’s people of their confidence in his ability to work in them and has made them dependent upon clergy and institutions for their spiritual life. Isn’t it amazing that every religious system creates a local, holy-man guru who becomes the resident expert on things spiritual? Neither Jesus nor Paul ever envisioned the role we have ascribed to vocational pastors, priests and ‘workers’ today who supplant Jesus’ place among his people. These gifts Jesus spread over a far wider group of people who help others put their dependence on Christ, not themselves, their programs or their books!

The early apostles never saw it as a threat to their place in the body to say things like, “You have no need for anyone to teach you.” “You have an anointing from the Holy One to know truth and error.” They wanted Jesus’ followers to learn to trust him and hear from him directly as they lived in mutual relationship with each other.

They were not discounting the importance of teaching or counsel, but only putting it in its proper place. Whatever gift we have in the body, it is only to supplement his working in people, not to become a substitute for it. At best the touch of a leader is only temporary, helping people along the way, then quickly returning to the more enduring place of brother or sister.

Leadership in the body simply happens as Jesus expresses himself by the Holy Spirit through a submitted life. Sadly the star syndrome in the church often means that we elevate and give glory to the messengers rather than to the rightful ruler.

No one can take Jesus’ place in the body. That’s why Paul told people not to listen to anyone who distorted the gospel of Jesus (Gal. 1) nor to follow anyone purporting to know God’s will for others. (Col. 2) Those who have Jesus’ heart for the body will always be wary of others growing dependent upon anyone but the Lord himself. They would never rob a brother or sister of the joy of learning how to live freely in daily submission to Christ alone.

To Serve Not to Manage

One popular teacher a couple of decades ago defined spiritual leadership as the ability “to motivate people to do what they wouldn’t otherwise freely chose to do.” That’s manipulation not leadership. While it may be true of drill sergeants in basic training or advertising executives designing commercials, it is the opposite of what God has in mind for his children.

Virtually everyone today gives lip service to the biblical ideal of servant leadership, but most don’t realize that as long as you try to get people to do what you think is best for them you act as their master, not their servant. You are not serving them; they are serving you.

If anyone had the right to be served you’d think it would be Jesus, who is after all the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But even he didn’t take advantage of his position (when he certainly could have) but instead concerned himself with helping others to settle down at home in his Father’s life.

We can barely talk of leadership today without using the language of management. We see leadership as those who by power, influence or anointing compel others to act. Our religious systems take people who have a heart for God and turn them into program managers who make people conform to their program and think it is loving to do so. Those who get to the top of any institutional process hold great power over people and derive great personal benefit from it as well.

When Jesus lived in the flesh, he didn’t treat power the way others did and it drove his disciples nuts. Rather than gather power, he emptied himself of it. He knew that the way to help people into the Father’s life was not to direct them there, but to let them see his Father’s reality and help them learn to live in it. He knew compelling people would never work so he always gave them the freedom to choose. Likewise the early disciples had the grace to tell people the truth, and then let them go so they would be free to choose as their conscience directed.

Any Godly leader will do the same. He won’t create power centers of influence, money or programs that can be managed or exploited, but will release the body to do as God leads them.

Function Not Identity

Beware of anyone who finds their identity in the body based on a role of leadership or a title of ministry. As clearly as Jesus told us anything, he told his followers not to depend on such nonsense, for it is based on a false view of our Father’s family. “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.” (Matt. 23:8.10)

The primary relationship for each member of the body is to be connected to the Head, then to share his life with each other as brother and sister. No greater identity is needed than to be sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters in Christ, and anything God asks us to do to help others will not alter that simple identity. The fact that our culture has built body life around ‘leaders’ and ‘nonleaders’ robs the body of the freedom to share God’s life together.

Those who seek credibility in their degrees, their prowess with the original languages of Scripture, or some kind of ‘extra’ anointing not available to other believers, demonstrate by doing so how little of God’s nature they truly understand. Whatever elevates you above others destroys the value of anything God wants to share through you.

So, what do leaders do? Scripture gives us three functions for leadership:

To Facilitate Not Control: Leading in the body is as simple as initiating, at God’s leading, actions and activities and inviting others to come along and share in that experience. Leadership doesn’t seek to control an event or make sure it happens the way they think best, but acts as a catalyst to allow others to express what God has revealed to them. That happens as simply as someone leading out in a chorus, inviting people over for fellowship, or planning an outreach activity. A gift of leadership can get the ball rolling and see if others will pick it up and run with it.

To Equip Not to Perform: Instead of taking center-stage in the body with their gifts, true leaders crawl behind the scenes to help others grow in the life of Jesus and discover how God wants to express himself through them. Since this is best accomplished by example, they will live open lives before others as they help others learn how to connect with God in a meaningful way. They never exploit people’s shame or try to hold them accountable, but free them from shame so that they can engage in a transforming relationship with God. (Anyone who does this knows it happens best in smaller groups where there is a real exchange of dialog rather than in large-scale seminars.) As people become free in God’s life, they will know how to relate to others and that will allow the body to reflect a fuller picture of who Jesus is to the world around them.

To Watch Over Not Police: While not trying to manage the body, leaders will look beyond themselves to help the body live in wholeness. They will seek out those who exploit the body for their own gain and deal with them honestly and lovingly. They will help young believers learn to discern between true and false believers and point them back to Jesus when they are distracted.

One Flock With One Shepherd

When God exposed the false shepherds in Ezekiel 34, he didn’t say he would get rid of the false shepherds and find better ones. He said he would remove the false shepherds and shepherd them himself. He would lead them to safe pastures and protect them from harm so that they would never be afraid or abused again.

With that instruction, why do we have so many people today who insist on being shepherds? That’s not what I Peter 5 is about. Peter tells those called as elders to lead like Jesus did, not by compulsion, not for money, nor to lord over the flock, but simply by being an example of Christ’s life to others.

Those who try to act on his behalf in this way are put in an untenable position. Eugene Peterson described it in his translation of Psalm 14:3 as “Sheep taking turns pretending to be the shepherd.” It gives false teachers a platform to deceive and manipulate people and corners well-meaning people into roles that distort the reality of God’s family.

Why do we think that we need leaders to follow when we have the Leader himself? In John 10 Jesus said he was the only shepherd and those who follow him “shall become one flock with one shepherd.” Why is the body of Christ so weakened and divided today? Because we march to a thousand shepherds, each claiming the mantle of Christ and each leading people to what they think is best.

How do you live this reality practically? If you find yourself weighed down by someone who wants to be your shepherd, take some distance. While you may benefit from some of God’s work in them, living your spirituality through them will only rob you. Don’t think you have to dismantle their organizations, just live in the freedom God gives you.

When God does bring someone near whom he has shaped by his life, listen and watch them without becoming dependent on them. Don’t be so paranoid of falling prey to false leadership that you miss the gifts of wonderful people God has put near you.

And if you’re one of those God has freed from the desire to rule over others, it may be time for you to step up. Don’t think for a moment that God led you outside the power structures to be isolated. He did it to free you from its clutches so you could serve people in a greater way into a fuller life in him.

We will be one flock when we embrace one shepherd. Only when we all learn how to live in him and follow him will we realize the joy and the power of the unity that he desires for his church. Any one who leads in this family, will want nothing less.

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Why House Church Isn’t the Answer: Living in the Relational Church – Part 7

Why House Church Isn’t the Answer: Living in the Relational Church – Part 7

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • February 2002

house_0When 20 years of countless prayers didn’t fix it, I had to conclude either that God was ignoring me, or that I was asking for the wrong thing. Anxiety used to be my constant companion, and quite honestly he was no fun to hang with. He used to punch me in the pit of the stomach when I least expected it and his ravings kept me awake at night.

Every time a circumstance emerged that caused him to appear, I begged God to change it so I would not be anxious. Rarely, if ever, did he answer those prayers. Finally, I concluded that the circumstances were not the problem, but the anxiety itself was. My prayers changed. I stopped begging him to fix my circumstances and instead asked him to remove my anxiety. It only took a decade this time for me to realize these prayers weren’t working any better and I grew incredibly frustrated at God’s seeming indifference to my concerns.

I didn’t know then that in God’s heart my problem was not the circumstances that allowed my anxiety to emerge, nor even the anxiety itself. The problem God wanted to fix was the fact that I didn’t trust him to work in my circumstances to accomplish his purpose. My desire to be in control of my own life and achieve the success I thought I needed to prove my worth to him, and ultimately to myself, was the real captor.

Anxiety was only the symptom of a deeper need that God wanted to expose and heal with a clearer revelation of who he is and what he wanted to do in me. Many of you have read the chronicle of that journey in these newsletters and in He Loves Me! The more he showed me how great he was and how much he loved me, the less often I met with anxiety. Even though my circumstances had not changed, my trust in him had. I have ended up not even wanting God to satisfy my agenda anymore, but just to let me live in his every day.

In my best wisdom I had been trying to get God to fix the wrong thing. Real freedom didn’t lie in conforming my circumstances to my expectations or simply removing my anxious thoughts. He wanted to build a relationship with me that would set my heart at rest regardless of the circumstances that came my way. For thirty years I had sought a cheap substitute for the real fix.

I see people doing the same thing in discovering how to be part of God’s church. Having seen the weaknesses and failures of many religious structures, they have turned towards house church as the answer for authentic church life. Unfortunately, they are likely to be just as disappointed there.

It’s Not the Form

For those who read BodyLife, you know I love seeing the body of Christ find ways to live out its faith and fellowship in household-sized groups where people can be active participants together in the journey of faith. The early church found the home to be the most natural environment for people to share God’s life together.

It is easy to convince people that house church just might be the answer to all they have desired to experience in body life, that is until they get involved in one. It quickly becomes evident that meeting in a home isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. What do we do about the people who only want to use the group for their own needs? Where can we find enough people willing to pay the price to share that kind of life together? What do we do when the meeting is boring and we’re tired of staring at each other?

Moving things out of a larger building and into a home does not of itself answer anything of substance. While it does provide the possibility of more active participation and deeper relationships, just sitting in a house together for a meeting does not guarantee that those things will happen. If people aren’t discovering the substance of what it means to live as the church, changing the mechanics will only provide a platform for people to commandeer the group in their thirst for leadership or pull it down by trying to make their needs or passions the focus of the group.

What’s wrong with the way we do church today has far less to do with the forms we use than it does the journey we are on. If we are looking for house church to meet the needs that more institutional forms couldn’t touch, we are likely to be disappointed by our experiences in house church. Any time we begin with our needs as the focus, instead of God’s purpose, we will end up disappointed by the results.

Mutual Accommodation of Self-Need

Like my attempts to get God to fix my anxiety my way, many of us are programmed to try to relate to God through our needs. If we begin to build our sense of church based on those self-needs, we will only end up frustrated with a cheap counterfeit of the real church God has created us to embrace. If we are looking to relate to the church because we need acceptance, or security, or a place to demonstrate our gifts, or people to love us in a certain way or someone to tell me how I should live in Christ, we’re already headed in the wrong direction.

Most people never see that because the things they want, like being free from anxiety, are not evil things. It’s the way we go about getting them met that provides the real trap. A friend of mine who was a denominational pastor for many years, in the end defined much of organized religion as the mutual accommodation of self-need. Some people need to lead; others need to be led. Some need acceptance and others relish in acting as their savior. Some need to get up front and sing; while others want to sit through a moving service. Some people have a passion for children’s ministry and others just want to drop their children so others will disciple them.

His contention was that congregations exist only as long as they can effectively overlap these needs. When they do, the congregation gets along famously. When they don’t they get trapped in gossip, power- struggles, and people leaving to find congregations that will meet their needs or form new ones with a different group in control. There the cycle begins all over again while most never realize that the life of the church is not built on our self-needs, but on God’s purpose in his people.

Changing the venue from a building to a home doesn’t solve this problem. If we’re going to seek to find church life by having our needs accommodated by others, we will find moments of fulfillment mingled with long, dry periods of discontent and frustration.

Absolute Dependence

Experiencing the joy of authentic fellowship begins when we realize that all our dependence must be centered on Jesus himself. We don’t share fellowship because we need to. We don’t do it to get our needs met. True fellowship can only be known where our dependence upon Christ spills out in our love for others. Knowing the joy and freedom of his life, we can’t help but share it with others.

Scripture is clear. True life is only found in Jesus. There is life in no other—not even a correct arrangement of Christians in houses or buildings. That’s what Paul meant when he called Jesus the Head of the Church, declaring that it was God’s purpose for him to “have first place in everything.” Our needs are not the focus of body life. His presence living among us is.

We’ve taught for years the mistaken notion that we need to go to church to fill up on the life of God. Not true! We can only fill up on God’s life through a transforming relationship with the Father through his Son. We were never meant to come to fill ourselves with church, but to live full of him and then share his life together with God’s people.

Here is the problem with most of what passes for church life today, including many house churches: Rather than teaching people how to live dependent on Jesus Christ, it supplants that dependency by its misguided attempt to take the place of Jesus in people’s lives. Instead of teaching them how to live in him, they make them dependent on the structures and gatherings of what we call church. Our expressions of church life just become another thing to stand in the way of people living deeply and fully in him.

But people who are learning to live deeply in a relationship with Jesus will find the sheer joy of sharing life with others who are doing the same. They can cross paths for a moment, or walk together for years, without having to manipulate or control each other. Because those people will realize that Jesus is the only one in control after all.

Unfortunately most believers have no idea how to live that way. We seem content to keep them dependent on our programs and services. It explains why so many expressions of church always promise more than they deliver. We can tinker forever with different methods of church life, but if we don’t get this right, all our efforts will fall short. If you need help find some people who are living this way, who are not gathering a ‘band of disciples’, and ask for their help.

Church life grows out of a group of people who are focused on Jesus. Focus on the church, and you will always be disappointed. Focus on Jesus and you will find him building the church all around you.

Everywhere a Movement

Everywhere I go now, people ask me about the ‘house church movement,’ hoping it will provide the answer to their hunger for real body life. While I greatly prefer relational environments to institutional ones, every time I hear the word ‘movement’ my heart sinks. I’m convinced that the day we call what God is doing a movement is the day it has already begun to die. I’ve seen many movements come and go —Charismatic, discipleship, deliverance, healing, intercession, spiritual warfare, prophetic, worship, and apostolic just to name a few. All of them came up hollow in the end, not because God wasn’t in some of it, but because people hijacked his work to serve their own needs and ambitions.

Calling something a movement inflates our own sense of importance and separates us from the multi- faceted working of God that transcends any particular way of doing things. Many years ago I was part of a denomination that called itself a movement. We used that term to make people feel that they were part of something more significant than other ‘less enlightened’ believers who didn’t do things the way we did. I think God grieves at such distinctions.

Labeling the joy of learning to share Christ’s life in our homes as the ‘House Church Movement’ takes our focus off of Christ and puts it either on the uniqueness of our methods or the voices of self-appointed experts. Either way, we trade our focus on Jesus for our own self-needs and miss the joy of authentic body life.

Sitting in a home in Buffalo, NY recently a friend handed me a new book on the house church movement. The subtitle nearly floored me, “…from the Radical Men Who Are Leading this Revolution.” One of the authors I considered friend enough to write and ask him if he could explain to me how the cover of his book was anything less than blasphemous.

If the church is truly the work of Jesus, and in it he has first place in everything, how does anyone claim to lead what God is doing? It is either his work or it isn’t. Please understand I don’t think these are malicious men out to harm God’s church. These in particular honestly want to see the church come to some kind of wholeness, freedom and life. However, the way they go about it demonstrates that while they understand a bit of God’s ways, they’ve come to know little of his character.

So while their book highlights many of the ways God has asked us to share his life together, it’s laced with the poisonous notion that we can produce that life by getting the mechanics right or by following the right leader. Such teaching actually circumvents the priorities it espouses by imposing a structure that will undermine those priorities.

Of course my friend did not agree with me. In fact, he said, the book was selling briskly. I have no doubt of that. Part of the reason we create movements is because people want models they think they can simply implement in their own communities.

Super Models

Many people ask me for a model for church life, hoping some future book might lay it out for them. I hate to disappoint them, but I don’t even believe there is a model they can implement that will produce the vitality of authentic fellowship. It is not produced in mechanics but in the hearts of people God is transforming to be like himself.

You can take the most biblical guidelines in the world and if you implement them at the expense of learning how to live dependent upon Jesus, it will still only be a substitute for Jesus presence rather than a place where fellow-pilgrims share his life together.

Jesus did not leave us with a model to build, but a guide to follow. We experience the life of the church not because we meet a certain way or in a certain place, but because we learn to listen to God together and let him teach us how to share his life. If we substitute any method or design for that process, we will end up following it instead of him and building a counterfeit instead of the real deal. I know of no greater distraction to the depth of relationships God wants us to share, than when we give our best efforts to doing something great for God. He didn’t ask us to work for him, but with him.

Beware of any model or would-be leader who wants to tell you what to do, rather than help you hear Jesus. Are there real leaders in the Body of Christ today? Of course! But they are not heading up movements or devising models, they are helping people know who Jesus really is and learn how to follow him. Religion results when men and women, with their best intentions, best activities and best programs try to accomplish God’s working. It always leads to well-intentioned programs that will do some good, but never rise to bear the great fruits that God intends and that only he can accomplish.

Many think I’m so concerned about organized religion because I’ve been hurt by the worst of it. That isn’t quite true. I think its greatest danger comes not when it is obviously flawed, but when it works well— giving people an aesthetic experience or a place to park their guilt, and missing out on a real engagement with the King of Glory. When it convinces us that sitting in the same room or greeting each other briefly in the parking lot is real fellowship, we’ll miss the greater joy of supportive relationships that will help us all respond better to what God is doing in us

Accept No Substitutes

What I love about the work of the Spirit in our day is that it is not being driven by an organization, a book or a charismatic speaker. God’s Spirit is creating a hunger in his people that defies the confines of religion or a particular way of doing things, and seeks to drink deeply of his presence and share an effective life with other fellow travelers.

Some people are finding others with that hunger inside more institutional congregations, and some are finding them outside of it. If you haven’t found people like that yet, don’t despair. God has not made all the connections he is going to make. Just don’t over trade the passion in your heart to settle for a shadow of body life and miss the real thing.

Real body life allows Jesus to have first place in everything, and encourages people to the heights of knowing him. It frees people on the journey of being transformed by God to be authentic and not have to conform or pretend. It shows them how to get involved in each other’s lives, not to manipulate others but to encourage God’s greatest work in their lives.

Why is that so difficult to find? It may be that too many believers are so focused on their own needs they don’t know how to engage others in true fellowship. It may be that we settle for cheap models that do some good in the short-term, but in doing so disarm the deeper yearnings for authentic body life. It may be that we’ve never learned the sheer joy of letting Jesus be the Head of his church.

If we don’t get this right, it won’t matter where or how we meet. It will still be centered on us, and fall far short of his glory. Why don’t you ask God to teach you how to let Jesus have first place in your heart and to help you find people who share that passion? I can’t imagine a prayer that would excite him more and when that happens he will show you how and where you can live out that life in him.

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Questions About Body Life

Questions About Body Life

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • August 2001

people_gathering_0Sharing the journey has always been an important part of BodyLife. I am continually amazed at the people that God allows to cross our paths who are also paying the cost to follow his Spirit and discover how to live with God and live in his body with all the joy and freedom that he desires for us to know.

For those who think that church involvement is about commitment and accountability, I wonder if they haven’t missed what being part of Christ’s body is all about. We don’t engage other believers because we have to, but because it is inconceivable for us not to share a partnership with other brothers and sisters who are on the journey of becoming like him. We find their friendship, wisdom and support a wellspring of the Father’s provision for our own journey.

Remember, Paul indicates that individually we only know in part and gaze on him as if on a poor reflection of a mirror. (I Cor. 13:9-12) But when he refers to the insight offered through the incredible networking of the Body of Christ, he calls it, “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” (Eph. 1:23)

It amazes me the instant connection that happens between people on a similar journey. I may step off of a plane and meet someone new or find an email pop up in my ‘inbox’ and sense almost immediately that God has us on similar journeys and that we can encourage and enlighten each other as we wander a bit further down the road.

Of course it’s best to find it just down the street or across town where I can get together more frequently for that kind of fellowship. I don’t seek out such relationships because I ‘should’ but because I just can’t imagine staying on this journey without them. If you’ve gotten out of that habit with folks near you, ask Father to make some connections for you or follow-up on some he’s already given you.

We’re going to live that out a bit in this issue of BodyLife. I’m going to let you look over my shoulder at some of the correspondence I have had over the last three months. It seems the last issue, “Why I Don’t Go to Church Anymore,” struck a nerve for many people. For some it spawned questions that were germane to their own struggles. For others it sparked interesting insights. I thought you might be encouraged to hear some of their stories and some of my responses (in red). Enjoy the feast:

G.C., from South Carolina

We are enjoying both of your books and wish we could find friendship with someone in our community with same thinking. Some friends have started a “home fellowship” but as much as I hate to say this, it is really the same old thing. We desire real friendships but it is hard to find. We are out of the institutional church and know several couples who do not go to church anymore, but this concept seems so foreign to anyone. They have been so hurt, they rather stay home, but are so empty and unhappy. This stage of our life has become quite difficult. My husband was always an “elder” in the church. We just don’t seem to know what to do now. Seem to be lost. Please pray for us.

Wayne: Though it may feel like it, I’m sure you’re not lost. God knows where you are and he is able to place you among his body just as he desires. That may not look like anything you’ve imagined before, but it will be better than you’ve ever known. But you have my compassion and my prayers. I know how difficult these times can be, especially when others have not only gotten burned out on religion, but also burned out on walking with other believers. Perhaps they need some time for the old hungers to surface again. It is amazing the kind of damage that religion can inflict on people. If it would ever be valuable for me to come by and see who among God’s people we might be able to encourage there, just let me know.

C.G., Texas

I recently read your article in the May edition of BodyLife. Thank you for sharing some light on an issue that is really a concern in my family’s life. We all want to follow Jesus, but our experience with churches is like the old saying, “water, water, everywhere, not a drop to drink…” I have wrestled with guilt and keep wondering if there isn’t something wrong with me, as we have never really felt like we have found a “home” with any church. We have been a part of 4 churches over the past 25 years. When I left (the last one) six years ago, I wrote (the pastor) to ask for his blessing. He replied by sending me a tape on loyalty and no blessing. I know he meant well because he loves me and wants me with him. My reply was similar to your article, “I am a part of the same church, we are brothers and friends and I will be loyal to you for life. I love you…we are both a part of Jesus.” Six years later, we struggle with similar issues. (Now we) are elders at a “revival” church, and when asked recently in an elders’ meeting if anyone had any concerns about a specific service, I answered honestly. (In a recent service), I felt people may have been confused or troubled by the message (as opposed to enlightened and comforted)… I got a phone call from the pastor later that night warning me to “never again” put him down “in public.” Keep bringing light and life to people… Thanks for your kind and affirming words…WOW someone understands! Why is it difficult to keep it simple… love Jesus with all our hearts, and love others.

Wayne: I am so sorry for the painful experiences you’ve been through but am also incredibly blessed that you have continued to put your conscience above the ‘conformity dynamics’ of organized religion. I know how confusing and disillusioning it can be when relational life takes a back seat to the needs of the institution and those who think they are ‘kings’ in those institutions. But disillusionment can be a great thing. If we are disillusioned that simply means we had illusions that needed to be dissed. The reason God allows that to happen is to help us see him as he really is and the church as he is really making her to be.

It’s a marvelous journey, though incredibly painful at times as you seem to know all too well. My heart does go out to you because I know it is not easy to have hungers for God’s presence to be central in his body, where honesty and openness can shape an environment that is safe for all, and only to find that others are not thinking that way at all.

But God is doing something in you that will make you a freer person and thus a more authentic witness of the life of God he wants to pour out through you to others. Keep on, Brother! The best is not far ahead and you will find the joy absolutely overwhelming.

S.V., South Africa

I have been blessed to read a couple of your articles as confirmation of what the Lord has done in our church during the last year. We need witnesses to know that we are not crazy!! I resigned as a “pastor” more than a year ago. I felt that (God) said to me, “I will keep you accountable for every structure that you keep in place that focus people’s eyes on you or on the organization so that they cannot see Me.” I know that the problem is in our hearts and that structure is in itself innocent, but used by us to make a name for ourselves. We had about 150 – 200 people attending meetings before the changes, now we have about 40 -60 and it is still falling. I pray that, if this is what the Father wants, we will find a place of relationship that will be fruitful for us and those around us in future. In your experience – can we turn a fellowship around into the freedom of a relational community or should we close the Sunday service completely and go with those who have the vision?

Wayne: What a joy to know someone willing to risk so much to follow the Lamb wherever he leads. Absolutely we cannot turn around a group of people, and I know that isn’t exactly what you’re asking. Turning around a group of people is a work of God not man. Keep doing what he’s asked you to do, making sure you’re following voice in the context of the principles he’s taught you, not to principles in the absence of voice. There are a zillion ways God can lead you. To keep the Sunday morning as a training time while recognizing that it really isn’t church and encouraging people to find a live real church in their homes via relationships with others. When we manage those groups, people usually end up dependent on us instead of Jesus. Or, God may have you close it down and go with those who have vision and let God give birth to a whole new deal… I don’t think there is a right or wrong here. I’ve seen God do it many different ways in many places.

For the most part, however, I rarely see groups ‘turn around’. Some will, many won’t. Often those who want to change get forced out by those who want to save the institution. More rarely the people who don’t want change fade away into other institutions that they see as more ‘stable.’ What does God want for you? I don’t know. I will pray, however, that he gives you wisdom together and that you have the courage to follow what he settles in your heart even if it looks crazy to your natural man, or to others around you. That’s the toughest part of the journey.

How large is this move worldwide?

Wayne: It is broad at least by the emails and contacts I’ve had, but I don’t think it is a movement yet, nor do I hope it ever becomes one. Once it moves from people following Jesus to those replicating a pattern, it will die. The hunger to get back to Jesus at the center of his church is huge. But it manifests itself in a variety of ways. Not all ‘decentralized’ groups are healthy either. Some have just rejected organized religion out of disillusionment, and have not grown closer to Jesus to let him change them. That’s sad and their forms can become even more manipulative and controlling.

It seems to me that people are looking for a king, like Israel with Saul, and for a high priest, as with Israel when they wanted Moses to speak to God for them, and men are just too willing to take up those positions.

Wayne: I think so too and I find that sad.

There is a definite feeling of guilt in me and fear that I will not be doing what God called me to do and that I will end up in my comfort zone, totally ineffective in the Kingdom. This represents my biggest struggle over the last couple of months. If I remain faithful to what I believe He has said to me, I may not look successful, or effective, but at least I will be found a faithful steward.

Wayne: Here we see exactly how the power of the institution works. It presses us into conformity to its aims by manipulating our desire to be thought successful by others. No doubt, this is one of the hardest bonds the Spirit needs to break in our hearts. When colleagues, former ‘parishioners’ and others bring their judgments on us for not meeting their expectations we really find out whether or not it is God we follow, or whether we’re being tyrannized by other men’s opinions of us. Remember Paul’s words, “If I wanted to please men, I wouldn’t be a servant of Jesus Christ.” He was talking there about other brothers not people in the world. All I can tell you, is that I think I see and hear clearly the leading of God in your life. I know it is costing you far more to follow it than you ever dreamed. But I suspect at its end the fullness of God’s life will flow out of you more than and touch lives you never imagined.

Jesus entered into the obedience of the Kingdom through suffering and He said that it is through much tribulation that we will enter ourselves, so there seems to be no short cut to the place of rest that I am craving. The question remains x how do I detect the deception that will bind me into my own world of inner turmoil and make me totally inefficient? Maybe the safeguard lies in “exhorting one another daily” – that is why I am exposing my heart to you and to some other witnesses as well.

Wayne: Those certainly help, but ultimately we have to trust him to finish what he has begun in us. Our eyes must always be on him. When people ask me, “Wayne, are you confident that you can hear God’s voice clearly?” I have second thoughts about that because I don’t have that much confidence in me. But the real question is, “Wayne, do you think God is big enough to make his will clear to you?” That’s a question that gets a resounding YES! He is big enough. He has done it even at times when I was deeply ensnared by my own selfishness and ego. I’ve no doubt he can to it today.

The problem seems to be in our hearts – and how are we going to overcome it? When am I making a name for myself? When am I operating as a teacher with a heart that enjoys it when people call me “teacher” in their hearts without using the title? Jesus I believe was adamant that we should not call men “leader or teacher” or any title, because He knew about this problem. One of the most difficult things I have experienced in the last 10 months since I have resigned as “pastor”, is what I see in the eyes of the people and the children. There is a position in the soulish arena that people give to leaders that put them on a pedestal and that leaders enjoy despite their protestations to the contrary. This is what I missed the most and I am appalled by this!!!! Who will deliver me?

Wayne: He already is! The day will come when you will despise such titles and power as you continue to see how they’ve prevented you and others from really seeing God’s church as it is and living as the church with great joy and power. That you are appalled by the desire in yourself to bask in the accolades of being the local- holyman-guru, is a certain sign that you are well on the way to liberty.

Sorry that I did not respond earlier. I had to work through some issues before I could find the time and also understand what the Holy Sprit wanted (to say).

Wayne: No problem! I would much rather you sort these things out with God and use anything I might say as a supplement to what he’s showing you than the other way around. I enjoy where the Lord has led you and the things he has seeded deeply in your conscience. You couldn’t walk where you are walking if he had not been opening your eyes. The things that burn on your heart are definitely from him. The fact that you’ve been willing to pay a tremendous cost to follow them is even further validation. Personal expedience will never lead someone down the path you’re taking.

Sometimes conscience can be a challenging thing to live with. Wouldn’t it be easier just to give in and go along, making the most of a religious system that can do some good, and have others stroke us with their affirmations? But the life is not there. That is an illusion that promises what it cannot deliver. Continue to follow what God has put in your heart. When the old dies away you will find a greater joy, freedom and fruitfulness than you ever imagined.

Note: This email exchange went on to consider issues of elders, leadership, paying salaries and meeting together. It did not fit in our snail-mail version, but I have included the rest of our exchange on another page if you’d like to continue reading.

A.M, Massachusetts

I have a question for you. It is rather a personal one so if you’d rather not answer, I’ll certainly understand: Taking into consideration all we have come to know about “Instead of filling our children with ethics and rules we need to demonstrate how to live in God’s life together” what would you have done differently in raising your children? Wayne, I can’t tell all that is in my heart about how much I appreciate your teaching. Please continue to let His truth flow through you.

Wayne: I don’t mind trying to answer at all… I don’t know that there is a lot we’d do differently. I think we did raise our kids in a relational context and taught them how to depend on God when they sinned or failed. I’m pretty grateful for that. We also had them involved in home fellowships right along side other families for most of their growing-up years, so that was good too. The one thing I wish I had done differently now is not linking their acceptability with me to their performance. When I was disappointed in their actions I often distanced myself as part of their ‘punishment.’ That’s how I saw God treating me, so I did it to them. Now that I know he doesn’t, I regret doing it to them. I am grateful however that God is bigger than our (lack of) parenting perfection and they seemed to have gotten through it fine. I have, however, discussed it with them and asked their forgiveness…

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Why I Don't Go To Church Anymore by Wayne Jacobsen

Why I Don’t Go To Church Anymore: Living in the Relational Church – Part 6

Why I Don’t Go To Church Anymore: Living in the Relational Church – Part 6

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • May 2001

Why I Don't Go To Church Anymore by Wayne JacobsenDear Fellow-believer,

I do appreciate your concern for me and your willingness to raise issues that have caused you concern. I know the way I relate to the church is a bit unconventional and some even call it dangerous. Believe me, I understand that concern because I used to think that way myself and even taught others to as well.

If you are happy with the status quo of organized religion today, you may not like what you read here. My purpose is not to convince you to see this incredible church the same way I do, but to answer your questions as openly and honestly as I can. Even if we don’t end up agreeing, hopefully you will understand that our differences need not estrange us as members of Christ’s body.

Where do you go to church?

I have never liked this question, even when I was able to answer it with a specific organization. I know what it means culturally, but it is based on a false premise—that church is something you can go to as in a specific event, location or organized group. I think Jesus looks at the church quite differently. He didn’t talk about it as a place to go to, but a way of living in relationship to him and to other followers of his.

Asking me where I go to church is like asking me where I go to Jacobsen. How do I answer that? I am a Jacobsen and where I go a Jacobsen is. ‘Church’ is that kind of word. It doesn’t identify a location or an institution. It describes a people and how they relate to each other. If we lose sight of that, our understanding of the church will be distorted and we’ll miss out on much of its joy.

Are you just trying to avoid the question?

I know it may only sound like quibbling over words, but words are important. When we only ascribe the term ‘church’ to weekend gatherings or institutions that have organized themselves as ‘churches’ we miss out on what it means to live as Christ’s body. It will give us a false sense of security to think that by attending a meeting once a week we are participating in God’s church. Conversely I hear people talk about ‘leaving the church’ when they stop attending a specific congregation.

But if the church is something we are, not someplace we go, how can we leave it unless we abandon Christ himself? And if I think only of a specific congregation as my part of the church, haven’t I separated myself from a host of other brothers and sisters that do not attend the same one I do?

The idea that those who gather on Sunday mornings to watch a praise concert and listen to a teaching are part of the church and those who do not, are not, would be foreign to Jesus. The issue is not where we are at a given time during the weekend, but how we are living in him and with other believers all week long.

But don’t we need regular fellowship?

I wouldn’t say we need it. If we were in a place where we couldn’t find other believers, Jesus certainly would be able to take care of us. Thus, I’d phrase that a bit differently: Will people who are growing to know the Living God also desire real and meaningful connections with other believers? Absolutely! The call to the kingdom is not a call to isolation. Every person I’ve ever met who is thriving in the life of Jesus has a desire to share authentic fellowship with other believers. They realize that whatever they know of God’s life is just in part, and only the fullest revelation of him is in the church.

But sometimes that kind of fellowship is not easy to find. Periodically on this journey we may go through times when we can’t seem to find any other believers who share our hunger. That’s especially true for those who find that conforming to the expectations of the religious institutions around them diminishes their relationship with Jesus. They may find themselves excluded by believers with whom they’ve shared close friendship. But no one going through that looks on that time as a treat. It is incredibly painful and they will look for other hungry believers to share the journey with.

My favorite expression of body life is where a local group of people chooses to walk together for a bit of the journey by cultivating close friendships and learning how to listen to God together.

Shouldn’t we be committed to a local fellowship?

That has been said so often today, that most of us assume it is in the Bible somewhere. I haven’t found it yet. Many of us have been led to believe that we can’t possibly survive without the ‘covering of the body’ and will either fall into error or backslide into sin. But doesn’t that happen inside our local congregations as well?

I know many people who live outside those structures and find not only an ever-deepening relationship with God, but also connections with other believers that run far deeper than they found in the institution. I haven’t lost any of my passion for Jesus or my affection for his church. If anything those have grown by leaps and bounds in recent years.

Scripture does encourage us to be devoted to one another not committed to an institution. Jesus indicated that whenever two or three people get together focused on him, they would experience the vitality of church life.

Is it helpful to regularly participate in a local expression of that reality? Of course. But we make a huge mistake when we assume that fellowship takes place just because we attend the same event together, even regularly, or because we belong to the same organization. Fellowship happens where people share the journey of knowing Jesus together. It consists of open, honest sharing, genuine concern about each other’s spiritual well being and encouragement for people to follow Jesus however he leads them.

But don’t our institutions keep us from error?

I’m sorry to burst your bubble here, but every major heresy that has been inflicted on God’s people for the last 2,000 years has come from organized groups with ‘leaders’ who thought they knew God’s mind better than anyone around them. Conversely, virtually every move of God among people hungering for him was rejected by the ‘church’ of that day and were excluded, excommunicated or executed for following God.

If that is where you hope to find security, I’m afraid it is sorely misplaced. Jesus didn’t tell us that ‘going to church’ would keep us safe, but that trusting him would. He gave us an anointing of the Spirit so that we would know the difference between truth and error. That anointing is cultivated as we learn his ways in his Word and grow closer to his heart. It will help you recognize when expressions of church you share life with becomes destructive to his work in you.

So are traditional congregations wrong?

Absolutely not! I have found many of them with people who love God and are seeking to grow in his ways. I visit a couple of dozen different congregations a year that I find are far more centered on relationship than religion. Jesus is at the center of their life together, and those who act as leaders are true servants and not playing politics of leadership, so that all are encouraged to minister to one another.

I pray that even more of them are renewed in a passion for Jesus, a genuine concern for each other and a willingness to serve the world with God’s love. But I think we’d have to admit that these are rare in our communities and many only last for a short span before they unwittingly look to institutional answers for the needs of the body instead of remaining dependent on Jesus. When that happens do not feel condemned if God leads you not to go along with them.

So should I stop going to church, too?

I’m afraid that question also misses the point. You see I don’t believe you’re going to church any more than I am. We’re just part of it. Be your part, however Jesus calls you to and wherever he places you. Not all of us grow in the same environment.

If you gather with a group of believers at a specific time and place and that participation helps you grow closer to Jesus and allows you to follow his work in you, by all means don’t think you have to leave. Keep

in mind, however, that of itself is not the church. It is just one of many expressions of it in the place where you live.

Don’t be tricked into thinking that just because you attend its meetings you are experiencing real body life. That only comes as God connects you with a handful of brothers and sisters with whom you can build close friendships and share the real ups and downs of this journey.

That can happen among traditional congregations, as it can also happen beyond them. In the last seven years I’ve meet hundreds if not thousands of people who have grown disillusioned with traditional congregations and are thriving spiritually as they share God’s life with others, mostly in their homes.

Then meeting in homes is the answer?

Of course not. But let’s be clear: as fun as it is to enjoy large group worship and even be instructed by gifted teachers, the real joy of body life can’t be shared in huge groups. The church for its first 300 years found the home the perfect place to gather. They are much more suited to the dynamics of family which is how Jesus described his body.

But meeting in homes is no cure-all. I’ve been to some very sick home meetings and met in facilities with groups who shared an authentic body life together. But the time I spend in regular body life I want to spend face to face with a group of people. I know it isn’t popular today where people find it is far easier to sit through a finely-tuned (or not so finely-tuned) service and go home without ever having to open up our life or care about another person’s journey.

But ultimately what matters most to me is not where or how they meet, but whether or not people are focused on Jesus and really helping each other on the journey to becoming like him. Meetings are less the issue here than the quality of relationships. I am always looking for people like that wherever I am and always rejoice when I find it. In our new home in Oxnard, we’ve found a few folks and are hopeful to find even more.

Aren’t you just reacting out of hurt?

I suppose that is possible and time will tell, I guess, but I honestly don’t believe so. Anyone who is engaged in real body life will get hurt at times. But there are two kinds of hurt. There’s the kind of pain that points to a problem that can be fixed with the right care – such as a badly sprained ankle. Then there’s the kind of pain that can only be fixed by pulling away – as when you put your hand on a hot stove.

Perhaps all of us have experienced some measure of pain as we have tried to fit God’s life into institutions. For a long time most of us hung in there hoping if we tweaked a few things it would get better. Though we could be successful in limited ways during moments of renewal, we also discovered that eventually the conformity an institution demands and the freedom people need to grow in Christ are at odds with one another. It has happened with virtually every group formed throughout the history of Christianity.

Are you looking for the perfect church?

No, and I don’t anticipate finding one this side of eternity. Perfection is not my goal, but finding people with God’s priorities. It’s one thing for people to struggle toward an ideal they share together. It’s another to realize that our ideals have little in common.

I make no secret of the fact that I am deeply troubled by the state of organized Christianity. Most of what we call ‘church’ today are nothing more than well-planned performances with little actual connection between believers. Believers are encouraged toward a growing dependency on the system or its leadership rather than on Jesus himself. We spend more energy conforming behavior to what the institution needs rather than helping people be transformed at the foot of the cross!

I’m tired of trying to fellowship with people who only view church as a two-hour a week dumping ground for guilt while they live the rest of the week with the same priorities as the world. I’m tired of those who depend on their own works of righteousness but who have no compassion for the people of the world. I’m tired of insecure people using the Body of Christ as an extension of their own ego and will manipulate it to satisfy their own needs. I’m tired of sermons more filled with the bondage of religion than the freedom of God’s love and where relationships take a back seat to the demands of an efficient institution.

But don’t our children need church activities?

I’d suggest that what they need most is to be integrated into God’s life through relational fellowship with other believers. 92% of children who grow up in Sunday schools with all the puppets and high-powered entertainment, leave ‘church’ when they leave their parents’ home? Instead of filling our children with ethics and rules we need to demonstrate how to live in God’s life together.

Even sociologists tell us that the #1 factor in determining whether a child will thrive in society is if they have deep, personal friendships with nonrelative adults. No Sunday school can fill that role. I know of one community in Australia who after 20 years of sharing God’s life together as families could say that they had not lost one child to the faith as they grew into adulthood. I know I cut across the grain here, but it is far more important that our children experience real fellowship among believers rather than the bells and whistles of a slick children’s program.

What dynamics of body life do you look for?

I’m always looking for a people who are seeking to follow the Living Christ. He is at the center of their lives, their affections and their conversation. They look to be authentic and free others to hurt when they hurt, to question what they question and to follow his voice without others accusing them of being divisive or rebellious. I look for people who are not wasting their money on extravagant buildings or flashy programs; where people sitting next to each other are not strangers; and where they all participate as a priesthood to God instead of watch passively from a safe distance.

Aren’t you giving people an excuse to sit home and do nothing?

I hope not, though I know it is a danger. I realize some people who leave traditional congregations end up abusing that freedom to satisfy their own desires and thus miss out on church life altogether. Neither am I a fan of ‘church hoppers’, who whip around to one place after another looking for the latest fad or the best opportunity to fulfill their own selfish desires.

But most of the people I meet and talk with are not outside the system because they have lost their passion for Jesus or his people, but only because the traditional congregations near them couldn’t satisfy their hunger for relationship. They are seeking authentic expressions of body life and pay an incredible cost to seek it out. Believe me, we would all find it easier just to go with the flow, but once you’ve tasted of living fellowship between passionate believers, it is impossible to settle for anything less.

Isn’t this view of church divisive?

Not of itself. People make it divisive when they demand that people conform to their revelation of truth. Most of us on the journey are accused of being divisive because freedom can be threatening to those who find their security in a religious system. But most of us aren’t trying to recruit others to leave their congregations. We see the body of Christ big enough to encompass God’s people however he calls them to gather.

One of the things often said about traditional church is that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in American culture. We only meet with people who look like we do and like things the way we do. I’ve found now that I have far more opportunity to get with people from a broader cross-section of his body. I don’t demand others do it my way and I hope in time that those who see it differently will stop demanding we conform to theirs.

Where can I find that kind of fellowship?

There’s no easy answer here. It might be right in front of you among the fellowship you’re already in. It might be down the street in your neighborhood or across a cubicle at work. You can also get involved in compassionate outreaches to the needy and broken in your locality as a way to live out his life in you and meet others with a similar hunger.

Don’t expect this kind of fellowship to fall easily into an organization. It is organic, and Jesus can lead you to it right where you are. Look for him to put a dozen or so folks around your life with whom you can share the journey. They may not even all go to the same congregation you do. They might be neighbors or coworkers who are following after God. Wouldn’t that kind of interconnection among God’s people yield some incredible fruit?

Don’t expect it to be easy or run smoothly. It will take some specific choices on our part to be obedient to Jesus. It may take some training to shake off old habits and be free to let him build his community around you, but it is all worth it. I know it bothers some people that I don’t take my regular place in a pew on Sunday morning, but I can tell you absolutely that my worst days outside organized religion are still better than my best days inside it. To me the difference is like listening to someone talk about golf or actually taking a set of clubs out to a course and playing golf. Being his church is like that. In our day we don’t need more talk about the church, but people who are simply ready to live in its reality.

People all over the world are freshly discovering how to do that again. You can be one of them as you let him place you in his body as he desires.

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Reasons to Run: Living in the Relational Church – Part 5

Reasons to Run: Living in the Relational Church – Part 5

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • March 2001

“You must stay with him. That is only way God will bless.”

sunset_runner_0I heard the words, but was so shocked by them that for a moment I doubted my own ears. I was sitting at the table of a woman who was ready to divorce her husband of two years. I knew the abuse she had suffered at her new husband’s hands and the risk she felt that her children from a previous marriage were under in continuing to live with him.

There’s no doubt the situation was messy. Many of us had wept, prayed and counseled with both of them as the situation unfolded. A few days earlier another couple had asked me to go with them as they shared with her a word the Lord had put on their heart for her. When they dropped the bomb on her so unequivocally demanding her compliance, I knew something was desperately wrong.

I turned to face Beth (not her real name). She was obviously as taken back by their words as I was. Before she could speak, I opened a door for her escape.

“Of course, Beth, you know that words like this are only valid to the degree that they confirm what God has already put in your heart. If not, you’re free to disregard it.” In the next few moments she told us that she didn’t agree with what she had just been told. She had been seeking the Lord diligently and was getting counsel from two women in the fellowship we knew to be godly. Both of them had affirmed her decision to separate.

“Then feel free to pursue that,” I told her. “If God has anything else in mind, I’m sure he will make it clear to you.”

Outside her home, the couple tore into me on the driveway. “What were you doing in there? We had God’s word for her and you gave her all the excuse she needed to ignore it.” No amount of explaining soothed their anger, and I knew that if something didn’t change in the weeks ahead, I would not be able to serve alongside them much longer.

As much as Scripture invites us to run with open arms into relationships with other believers, it also warns us that not all relationships are healthy ones. Failure to understand that, cause many to be trapped in destructive relationships that will not only erode their own walk with God but also will in time cultivate a cynicism about others that will make them withdraw from healthy relationships.

Not an Easy Out

Scripture talks in no uncertain terms about the value of walking alongside other brothers and sisters of the faith. What each of us knows and sees on our own is only a small part of all that God is. As he connects us to other brothers and sisters who are discovering that same life we begin to get a fuller picture of him. That’s why he defined his body as “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”

When those relationships work well they will encourage us to stay the course, comfort us through our darkest moments and help us keep our trust in God when we’re tempted to place it elsewhere. There is no treasure greater in this world than sharing that kind of friendship with believers who are committed to God’s work in your lives.

Everything I write here presupposes that truth. I know how easily these words can be used to excuse those who want to be lone rangers in the body of Christ. Do that at your peril. I want no part in it because our God is a reconciling God and his purpose in Christ is to bring all things together in him.

Where we are coming to discover his heart we will not be looking for excuses to distance ourselves from others just because a relationship goes through a difficult moment. Any deep friendship I’ve ever had has at times traversed deep waters where misunderstanding, human weakness and personal failures have caused hurt and confusion. If we bail out whenever relationships get difficult, we will never know just how truly awesome friendships in Christ can be.

However, I often cross paths with believers who are plagued by relationships where other believers are manipulating and controlling them. Wanting to be humble and open they make room in their lives for the wrong kind of counsel and advice and are overwhelmed with guilt when they can’t satisfy what others expect of them.

That’s why the New Testament not only tells us to love each other deeply, bear with each other through the tough stuff and forgive each other’s faults as they arise, but it also warns us to recognize when relationships turn destructive and to take proper distance from them.

Have Nothing To Do With…

Paul put it in the simplest terms possible, “Have nothing to do with them.” He used the same phrase in a variety of circumstances to help us recognize the signs that the relationship we’re having with another believer is not going to help us know God better and follow him more closely. He warns us to step aside from them, not in judgment or anger, but simply so that they will not swallow up our spiritual passion nor lead us astray.

These may not always be easy to recognize, especially when they come from people we care about, or even those who have helped us in the past. It is often the most well-intentioned people in our lives that will unwittingly make it more difficult for us to do what God asks.

Jesus faced that reality with one of his closest friends. When he told Peter about his journey to Jerusalem and his impending death on the cross, Peter jumped to his defense vowing to prevent such a thing from happening. His best friend had become the voice of the evil one. Jesus had to put that talk behind him knowing how seductive Peter’s misplaced love could prove to Jesus’ obedience to his Father.

To recognize when our relationships with believers move into treacherous waters does not mean we have to judge people or their motives. We only have to recognize that their words and actions are doing more to prevent us from following God than they are encouraging us to do so. We don’t take distance from them as if we are superior to them, or because they’ve become evil, but simply knowing that they will be an occasion for us to trip over our own worst motives. His desire was not to spawn separatism or one-ups-manship, but that the environment of body life you live in would be conducive to real spiritual encouragement and growth. So what can we watch out for?

The Pharisees’ Yeast (Matt. 16:6-12; 2 Tim. 3:2-5): Jesus warned his disciples to steer well clear of it and Paul did as well when he spoke of those with a ‘form of godliness, but denying its power.’ What were they talking about? They both refer to busybodies who are always pressuring people to conform to their standard of morality. Because their righteousness is conformity-based it is only an outward pretense and does not reflect what’s really inside. I knew one brother who made young couples embarrass themselves by confessing that they had premarital sex at their own wedding while he was hiding an affair in his own closet.

These people can forever justify anything they do even though you have often witnessed the disparity between what they appear to be and who they really are. Like yeast, this attempt to make themselves look good while trying to change others is incredibly contagious and before you know it, you’ll find yourself doing it to others. Because righteousness can only come from God’s transforming work inside of us, no one who has experienced it ever tries to force it on others. They know it simply won’t work that way.

Dividing Lines (Titus 3:10): These people think they can judge between those who belong to God and those who do not. Thus they have an obsession with controversy and gossip, leaving a wake of broken relationships wherever they go. These are not always easy to spot because their rhetoric of theological purity disguises their real bent. They love to hold institutional power and accuse others of being divisive who do not conform to their way of doing things. Just remember it is never divisive to raise honest concerns or ask the difficult questions.

Because each of us only has a handle on but a facet of God’s glory the desire to make our part the whole jewel has fragmented Christianity into a thousand brand names with pet doctrines and personal preferences of worship styles that has splintered the body of Christ around the world. When I was in Nepal before Christianity was legalized in that country, I witnessed an incredible amount of love and unity in their shared sufferings. It wasn’t long, however, after Christianity was legalized that denominations of every stripe came in and divided up the body of Christ by offering monthly stipends to those who would affiliate with them. Don’t be a party to division. Don’t be sucked into the notion that your way of doing things is the best or only thing God is doing in the world, or you will find yourself swirling about in a whirlpool of self-righteousness and miss the bigger work God is doing in our world.

Misplaced Confidences (Phil. 3:1-11): The number one assault on the early church was to forsake their trust in God’s ability to accomplish his work in them and then strive to do by their own effort. Nothing better sidetracks believers today either. Those who place confidence in the flesh will be a constant stumbling block to those wanting to learn the life of trust. When you see people blaming others or passing out lists of things you can do to be a better Christian, you better know you’re with people who are placing their confidence in something other than the work of God himself.

Rationalized Sins (I Cor. 5:1-13): All of us struggle with temptation and sin and our ongoing assessment and honesty about our weaknesses is a key ingredient to real body life. When people rationalize their failures to justify themselves, they have missed the essence of what it is to live as broken people at the foot of Jesus. God does not love us because we do nothing wrong, God loves us because he loves us; and sinners are who he came to redeem. We don’t have to change the definition of sin to think ourselves righteous, but rather find in our own temptations even more reason to draw near the only one who can transform us. Unfortunately we only think of sexual sins in this way, but Paul’s list to the Corinthians also included such things as greed, idolatry, swindling and slander.

Being Number One (Col 2:16-22 3 John 9): Whether by selfish ambition or a mistaken idea of what leadership in the body is all about, many people seek to have first place in any expression of the body. Though that place is reserved for Christ alone, they think it is theirs and act that way by demanding that their wisdom prevails, their preferences are served and their plans to be viewed as God’s plans. They think it is their responsibility to manage other people’s spirituality and are threatened by anything less than unquestioned obedience. You’ll know you’re near one of these when they force you to choose between submitting to them and doing what you honestly feel that God has put on your heart.

Step Away Quietly!

Of course, who of us can honestly say we haven’t fallen into one or more of these traps from time to time ourselves? That’s what makes them so destructive. They offer us the very things our flesh craves– acceptance, feeling of superiority, and control. Hang around believers who live like that and you will find all the excuse you need to be like them. We take distance from them because they will rob us of the hunger of listening to God every day and following him.

The reason Paul gave us these instructions is so that we could follow God’s leading when he encourages us to step away from a destructive relationship and not feel guilty about it. We have pursued such a false notion of unity in the body of Christ that many of us feel the need to pretend fellowship even with those who are hurtful and destructive in the life of the body.

Please notice that Paul never asks us to distance ourselves from the people of the world. How else will they ever come to experience God’s love if it is not through people like us loving them even in the midst of their worst failures and sins? The danger of distraction doesn’t come from the world, but from so-called believers whose misguided notion of the life of God provides easy distractions to the depth of his calling.

When John wrote that many antichrists had already gone out into the world, he was not talking about wicked people who actively opposed Jesus Christ. Rather, he was identifying those who appeared to be inside the faith who would draw dependence on themselves rather than on Christ alone. They were of the antichrist spirit because they sought to take his place in the lives of the faithful. It is a tragic commentary on our time that so many would-be leaders in the God’s church today feel they can only fulfill their calling by making people dependent on them. The results are always disastrous.

Of course having the freedom to run doesn’t mean we have to run. People that act destructively are themselves broken and fractured people. They need love to. If God graces you to stay near them to love them and you can do it without compromising your own relationship with him, by all means do it!

But when you recognize that another believer is distracting you from the real prize of knowing him, you don’t have to go on a tirade. You don’t have to confront, accuse and try to prove you’re right. You don’t even have to overreact and become the lone ranger. All you have to step away quietly from them and spend your time in the body of Christ with those relationships that stimulate you to draw closer to God and recognize his work in you.

With the demands of life pressing us from every side, time is just too short to waste our energies on other believers filled with manipulation, gossip and division. When you have a chance to be with other believers don’t you want it filled with encouragement, revelation and humility?

After all, life in the Body of Christ, shouldn’t make you doubt his ability to work in you, but to help you trust him even more.

After this article was published, I had the following email exchange with a reader that clarified some issues in this article. I include it here:

I found myself being troubled at a foundational level when reading ‘Reasons to Run’ in the March issue of BodyLife. The troubling may have come because of a certain conviction I hold from the Word that you may have inadvertently left out. After all, the whole concept behind the gift of His love and grace is to empower us to become like Him, which in its fullness, is the power to be free to obey in all loving devotion to Him, making reconciliation with man by His love. I know you alluded to this kind of faith, but, failed to bring it out in regards to the woman seeking a divorce. This was troubling.

Wayne’s Response: I guess the opening illustration I chose was a poor one. I related that opening story only to demonstrate how abusive leadership can be when it presumes to speak into someone’s pain without even listening to what they had been through and what they were hearing from the Lord. The ‘reasons to run’ were about taking distance from destructive relationships in body life and were not meant to be taken as justification for divorce. I am sorry if that illustration added confusion to the article. But I do appreciate you raising it with me. While I believe that no human relationship is outside the scope of God’s healing, I also realize in situations like the one I used here that it takes engagement by both parties to bring reconciliation which was not possible in this situation at that time.

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Giving and Generosity: Living in the Relational Church – Part 4

doubloons_0By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • November 2000

“Follow the money!” The haunting words from Deep Throat, the unidentified Watergate informant for the Washington Post, proved to be the critical voice that unraveled the corruption in the Nixon White House.

I find it an interesting echo of Ecclesiastes 10:19, “Money is the answer for everything.”

When people ask me why do all the TV preachers sound the same, I point them to Ecclesiastes. When I’m asked why organized religion works the way it does, I point them to Ecclesiastes. When they ask me how do I know what my heart really wants, I point them to Ecclesiastes.

In human terms, money is the answer for everything. How you view it and how you use it will show you what you understand about Father’s work in your life.

Of all the questions I get about relational church life, “What do you think of tithing?” ranks right at the top with “What do we do about children?” Admittedly I traverse financial waters with great care since nothing has been more abused among God’s people in our day.

Usually those who speak about it do so only to get their hands on more of it for themselves. So let me offer this one caveat at the beginning: There is no financial crisis here, and please don’t send us any contributions because you think this is a veiled appeal to do so. It is not, and if that is hard for you to believe, please feel free not to read any further.

So much of what has been said in this area either burdens people with guilt or bribes them with false promises of God giving them more money in return. I’ll risk being misunderstood because I want you to discover the joy and freedom of seeing Father’s hand in your giving just as much as any other area of your life. I don’t pretend to have all the answers here nor to offer a complete treatise on this subject, but I do want to share with you where the journey has led me in this area.

Jesus and Money

Jesus spoke about money as much as he spoke about anything except relating to his Father. He said nothing reveals our affections more than that which we compile as treasure, or that which we freely share at God’s bidding.

Even a cursory reading of the Gospels reveals that he talked about it more than he talked about church, worship or even prayer. He warned us not to judge God’s fairness or generosity by it, and made it clear that the abundant life had nothing to do with the amount of money or possessions we have, but the simplicity of living in the freedom of his righteousness, the rest of his peace and the fullness of his joy.

The pursuit of money and the worries it creates has the capacity to choke out the life of the kingdom in any of his followers. It is better to give it away to the poor than let it own your heart.

He also said that wise hearts would use money as a tool for God’s purpose in the world. It can open doors and minister to the needs of many, when it doesn’t own you. Use it responsively to him and it can be a blessing to you and others. Hoard it and its promise quickly turns into a cage for a darkened heart.

With capacity for such good or such evil, how does he want us to handle our money?

Storehouse Tithing

This used to be real easy for me. Growing up I was taught that ten percent of everything I received belonged to God. I owed him that ten percent. That is tithing.

How I paid that tithe was to donate it to whatever local congregation I attended. Those in charge were free to use it for the needs of the fellowship—to procure a facility, to pay salaries, to fund its programs and also to help people in need. I was not free to give it where God might lead. If I wanted to give anywhere else, it would have to be above my tithe. That is storehouse tithing.

To be honest, I was never fully comfortable drawing the Biblical lines to that conclusion. Certainly Abraham tithed as an act of gratefulness to God even before the law was given. It helped pay for the upkeep of God’s Temple and the Levites who cared for it. It was shared with the needy and also used to fund feasts for celebrating God’s life among them.

Admittedly, however, the New Testament is conspicuously silent about tithing as a practice of the early church. Nowhere is it encouraged and yet the generosity demonstrated by their giving to each other has not been rivaled since.

For too many years I missed that, however, blinded by the pragmatic need to fund the facilities, salaries and programs of the institutions I served. Without committed tithers we simply could not have funded the things we thought were so important to us. It was easy to co-opt the Old Testament tithe as an easy proof-text for our needs.

A Different Way of Giving

My conclusion now is quite different. No, I don’t believe tithing is wrong, I simply view it now like everything else in the Old Testament. It is only a shadow of something far more real that God wanted to show us in Jesus. And, like every other old covenant shadow, when you discover the real substance of giving you will see that tithing is a cheap substitute by comparison.

“You mean I don’t have to tithe?” I love the question, because it belies the motives that tithing too often taps. It’s a bill—an obligation we owe God. Once it is paid, we can run off with the remaining 90% and spend it however we like. Not to give it, in Malachi’s words, is to rob God of that which we owe.

The New Testament paints a far different picture. Jesus never mentioned tithing as a practice for his followers. And though giving is a constant theme of Acts and the Epistles, tithing is again not mentioned. Instead we see something else at work. Believers gave not because they had to, but because they chose to. Those who had been invited into relationship with the Living God, were so shaped and blessed by his generosity, that they responded to others around them with that same generosity. The giving that resulted outstripped anything tithing could ever accomplish.

Even when Peter addressed Ananias for lying about the money he was giving, he made it clear that the church had no claim on it. “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” (Acts 5:5)

When Paul took up a collection for the famine-ravished believers in Jerusalem, he made it clear that it was not his command, but merely an opportunity. ” Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” ( 2 Cor. 9:7)

Ultimately, giving because we have to is not really giving at all. It is just another obligation to meet and a far cry from what God really had in mind all along.

Giving Generously

In fact Paul was shocked at how the Macedonians, who were in the midst of poverty themselves, responded to the need. “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.” (2 Cor. 8:2-4)

Does that sound like tithing? Would tithing have resulted in such overwhelming action? I don’t think so! Here were believers who were so blessed by God’s generosity toward them that even out of their own need they could respond with generosity to others.

I love how the New Testament puts the focus where it belongs. We don’t give money to God so God will act generously toward us. Rather, he begins the cycle. Having overwhelmed us with his generosity, we will respond in the same way to others.

But there is a catch here, isn’t there? What if I don’t feel God is being generous with me, do I still give to others? Paul said that giving and receiving in the body does go in cycles. Those who have plenty today, might well be those who in need tomorrow. The goal is to share so that no one has too much or too little.

But how much is too much and how little is too little. While I think it’s obvious that almost every one of us who live in first-world countries are incredibly wealthy financially by world standards, so few people really know God’s generosity. Why?

Generosity God-Style

The reason so few people really understand God’s generosity results from two realities. First, they measure it by what they perceive to be their wants and needs. Comparing our homes, cars and toys to others in the culture leads to envy and greed. In the face of our demands God will rarely seem generous.

Paul understood God’s generosity at a far deeper level than material comfort. He said he knew the secret of contentedness whether he enjoyed an abundance or whether he suffered in need. Because he was focused on God’s agenda for his life and not his own, he saw God’s hand of generosity in every area of his life. Look at how he described it: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Cor. 9:8, emphasis mine)

I have lived most of my spiritual life like a son of a stingy Father. Not ever having all I wanted and often being disappointed by his response to some of my most fervent prayers, I lived with a nagging disappointment in God. Yes, I could express thanks and praise as well as the next person intellectually, but underneath I felt cheated and was continually frustrated by the things he did not do that I expected of him.

It has only been in the last six years as God has dismantled my agenda for my own life, that I have been able to see a glimpse of what Paul is talking about here. Because I was so busy trying to get God on my page, I couldn’t see the incredible things he was doing in my life every day. When I start everyday without my own preferences for how I want things to turn out, I find myself constantly amazed at what God is doing in my life and genuinely thankful at every turn. If he doesn’t give me something, it’s because I really don’t need it.

This is why our expectations are disappointed so often. It’s not because God doesn’t care about us, but because he is committed to freeing us from the tyranny of self. Only then can we enjoy God’s resources and discover just how generous he is.

How Does It Work?

Living in God’s generosity leads to a life of generosity with our money, our time and our spiritual life.

Since God takes such incredible care of us we no longer have to live self-focused lives. Thus it will be easier for us to see ways God wants us to help others.

Remember the Macedonians who gave so much even though they were in need? Did that happen because they were committed to tithing? No. As Paul wrote, “They did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.” (2 Cor. 8:5)

Simply, they heard God and did what he asked them. It was greater than Paul could conceive. Those who are convinced that giving to God is nothing more than paying ten percent as an obligation, will never understand giving like this.

A few times every year, I get calls from people whom God has led out of abusive institutions. They tell me that God has led them to send their tithe from now on to Lifestream. My answer is always the same. After thanking them for their thoughtfulness, I steer them away from any regular commitment. “If God puts it on your heart to send us something this month, please do so. If God puts it on your heart to send us something the next month, then do that. If in the following months God leads you to do something else with your gifts, then by all means do that.” Never have any of those people given to us more than a month or two. Hopefully they are learning a better way to give.

A Life of Giving

Each day God wants you to taste of his generous love, and then show you how he wants to channel his generosity through you to touch others. As I see it, Scripturally you are not obligated to give that to any specific location. He will show you where to give when you are led by him and not swayed by the appeals and demands of those who always claim to be in crisis.

Those who gather in more relational settings and have no need to spend significant funds on facilities, salaries or programs, often find creative ways to see God use their generosity. They give to those in need, to extend the light of God’s kingdom in the world, even to support ministry projects they feel called to aid.

They may do that together, or separately. I know one group in Australia that collected offerings into a combined account to distribute it on behalf of the group. After spending six weeks disagreeing over how to distribute it, they decided to give everyone their money back and let them give as they felt led. They choose to spend their time encouraging each other’s faith instead of spending each others offerings.

I know others who put a specific amount of money in their wallet each month and see where God might want them to give it at serendipitous moments throughout their week.

Notice I am not saying it is sinful to give ten percent to the group you regularly gather with if God so asks you. In fact, I think people whom God has blessed who are not willing to share the financial load of that which they benefit from might well reconsider whether or not God has called them to be part of it.

But God’s way of giving makes tithing a mere shadow by comparison. Those who discover God as the generous Father will give beyond ten percent, just by doing what God asks of them. What’s more, because it’s not a bill they pay, but an extension of his generosity, they will give with a passion that not only transfers funds, but builds relationship as well.

Why embrace the shadow, when you can enjoy the reality behind it? That holds true for so much in this kingdom, doesn’t it?

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The Spirit of Family: Living in the Relational Church – Part 3

The Spirit of Family: Living in the Relational Church – Part 3

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • September 2000

hiker_0No matter how independent we humans may try to be, there are times we can’t help wanting to share with others.

Special moments are like that. Over the past few months as Sara and I have walked along the beach, we’ve watched a pod of dolphins play in the waves, even body-surfing into the shore. We couldn’t help point them out to total strangers and stand there sharing the moment with them. It has been so incredible that I think we’ve also told it to just about every human being we’ve met.

We also enjoy having others around when we feel threatened, uncertain or in need of direction. The first time Sara and I tried to hike to Walling Lake in the Kaiser Wilderness, we weren’t certain at all if we were on the right trail. Imagine our joy at finding another group of hikers coming down that same trail. We were able to confirm our bearings and they were able to warn us of a marshy area ahead that was filled with mosquitoes so we could get our insect repellent on before we became their lunch.

And one of the things I least like to do alone is move, paint or pour cement. I don’t know how I would have gotten our triple dresser to the second-floor without some dear friends and family who helped us move. As much as I hate to do it myself, I also hate anyone else left to do it on their own.

Sharing special times, sharing information to help others along the way and sharing resources to help lighten the burden on someone’s shoulders… I can’t imagine a better description of what it means to be part of God’s family. Why doesn’t it always work out that simply?

The Longing for Family

Maybe you’ve shared something special God showed you, only to have someone else dismiss it even as they tried to top it with their own discovery, or even worse tried to tell you how yours was flawed. Perhaps you’ve asked for help, only to have people ignore your pleas or send you down the wrong road, promising a reality you could never find. And in our day, fellowship has often become less about lightening another’s load as weighing others down with demands and expectations.

Is that why we live in a jaded age where many believers will only gather consistently to enjoy a polished performance; or else they retreat to themselves, doing the best they can on their own? Both options save us from having to get involved with anyone beyond a superficial level and rob us of one of the most incredible facets of being God’s child—life as a part of his awesome family.

The reason broken relationships in our own earthly families hurt so deeply, and why even in the face of such pain people still have an insatiable longing to be linked to family is because God created us for it. Unfortunately, the body of Christ in our day has not had much better success finding a healthy family life. Many come away from experiences in the body of Christ crushed by the disappointed desire to find real community, caring and involvement, where every member has a significant place and every person is valued.

Unfortunately today, institutional priorities are usually the guiding force of the shared life of believers. We have blindly accepted their demands while failing to realize that those priorities are the opposite of family. Instead of celebrating diversity and authenticity, or making room for people to be at different places in the journey, they are pressed into conformity. Smooth running programs are championed above building healthy relationships and the gifts of a few are exalted instead of unlocking the gifts of all. Institutions exist to secure their own preservation, rather than to embrace God’s wider work in the world and genuinely serving those who do not know him. It’s no wonder that these dynamics have proven more successful at entertaining crowds than nurturing Father’s family.

Forgetting What’s Behind

Anyone who has been involved in institutionalized Christianity knows how quickly the relationships of the most well-intentioned become filled with some of the very deeds of the flesh Paul outlined in Galatians 5: … “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.” We can get caught up in those very actions even while thinking we are doing God’s will.

When the pain gets too intense, a faction breaks off to start a newer, better body. In a matter of years they are overtaken by the very things from which they fled. After a few experiences like this it’s no wonder many believers give up hope of ever finding vibrant body life.

But Father beckons us past our hurts and disappointments. I’ve heard horror story after horror story of people being exploited and manipulated by those who claimed to have God’s interests at heart. They were asked to defy their deepest convictions in the name of ‘love’ and ‘unity’, and when they would not, were vilified and excluded. As excruciating as those experiences can be, I still hear them hungering for real connections with other believers.

But for them to experience real body life they will have to follow their hunger even beyond their hurts and reactions to past failures. Perhaps it will help to realize that even though we were believers trying to follow God, those relationships may not have been built on the real spirit of Father’s family. Often they are focused more on what we felt we needed to get from others, not on what he freed us to give others.

It is easy to look at ourselves as victims and others as villains, when the truth is rarely that simplistic. Yes, you were probably manipulated by others, but isn’t it also true that we did some of our own manipulating? We expected people to act in certain ways and were disappointed when they didn’t. When we tried to get them to do it our way, we often resorted to tactics that Jesus never asked us to use.

Why? Because it is in our fallen nature to use organizations when they meet our needs and to abuse them when they don’t. In other words, the reason the spirit of family often decreases in proportion to the growth of an institution that tries to contain it, is because people begin to view it as the way to get their own needs met and their own preferences satisfied.

One former pastor I know defines institutionalized religion as the mutual accommodation of self-need. One has a need to teach, another to be taught. One has a need to lead worship, another to have a worship experience. One has a need to shepherd others, another a desire to put their responsibility on someone else. When our needs brings us together, we will both be exploited as well as exploit others. It is no wonder that this approach fails to nurture an environment where people can live together as God’s family.

One Anothering

One AnotheringThus the root of the problem is not our institutions, but our own self-needs and our attempts to get other people to fill up in us what we lack in our own relationship with God. You can almost find Scriptures to underscore that mistaken notion because God clearly works through others as the extension of his own hand. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus builds his body based on our self-needs. Far from it!

He builds family life only out of our relationship with him. As the Lord of Lords, the Head of the church, and the Savior of the world, all of our needs can only be dealt with in him. If they are legitimate he will meet them. If, instead, they are merely the tyrannical ravings of our flesh, he will want to set us free of them. Only when we get that straight are we ready for the kind of family life Jesus envisioned for us.

As we learn to trust him for everything—our fulfillment, our direction, our righteousness, our ministry, our resource—we can finally begin to share healthy relationships with other believers. Because our eyes are on Jesus to bring his life to us, we no longer have to manipulate others to get what we want. Though he will often use other believers to do that, he will rarely use ones we expect it from.

That’s why the Scriptures paint a far different picture of body life than we see today. It does not envision large institutions with hired staff and cumbersome overhead. Instead it depicts a group of people who are growing together to listen to Jesus; who intentionally and freely learn to share their lives without manipulating each other. The only body life the early church understood was the care, wisdom, and encouragement that people would share together in the reality of life.

They would not have conceived of the church as people lined up in chairs. Instead they saw it as the whole body engaged in sharing special moments, helping each other on the journey and finding ways to lighten someone’s load. That’s why the life of the early church can be summed up in the ‘one another’ Scriptures laced throughout the New Testament. (See list at right.)

This is how they saw their engagement of the Father’s family. Christ-centered friendships spilled over in acts of compassion and service through the daily course of human life. The body flourished only as each person was free to grow in Christ and valued for the gifts and insights they brought to the body. It was not a group of people that needed to be managed or entertained; but a family who could mutually share in God’s life. No one needed to lord over the others. No one needed to feel spiritually inferior. Instead, they looked to Jesus to meet their needs, and lived intentionally to put others’ needs on par with their own.

Freely Receive, Freely Give

Notice we don’t come to the body to get what we’re not finding in Christ. That’s backwards. We bring to the body the fullness of our relationship with him. That’s why Jesus didn’t tell us to “get love from one another” or to “get service from others”, but for us to “love one another” and to “serve one another”. It’s not what we expect from others that allows us to experience body life, but by that which we intentionally give.

Jesus expressed it to his disciples this way: “Freely you have received, freely give!” Received from whom? Each other? No, they share what they received from him. I like the way The Message translates that portion: “You have been treated generously, so live generously.”

I love that because it puts things in their proper order. I can’t be generous until I’ve experienced in a daily way God’s generosity for me. And, where I’ve experienced his generosity, I can’t help but treat all others around me in the same way. The saddest believers to me are those who never seem to discover that generosity. Because they live on their own resources or expectations instead of embracing his life wholeheartedly, they come to view God as a meager God. They never have enough time and energy for themselves, much less be able to take an interest in others.

However, when we fill up on God’s incredible love for us and embrace his purpose in us, we don’t have to make other people its substitute. As people like that find each other along the way, something incredible happens – family! I’ve been picked up at the airport often by total strangers and by the time we get to their house feel as if we’ve known each other for a long time.

Friends on the Adventure

I honestly think if we worried less about trying to find ‘a church’ or trying to start a new one, and simply learned to live in Father’s love while intentionally looking for opportunities to share that with others, that we would find ourselves in the midst of church every day.

The problem for many is that the life of trusting God is peripheral to their lives, and thus relationships with believers that are mutually-encouraging and edifying are as well. We think just because we sit in the same room with believers regularly and call it ‘family’ that we’re experiencing the fullness of it. The truth is, we probably haven’t even begun.

Let God become the sole source of every desire and need in your life. Go on the adventure of learning to trust him and you’ll soon find him connecting you with other believers who are on the same journey. It will be just like meeting other hikers in the back country. There will be immediate rapport, a willingness to share what you’ve experienced to help others, without the desire to force others to do what you’re doing.

If God leads you to, find ways to get together and discover how to take an interest in each other. I can’t emphasize enough that this is an intentional choice to engage the family pro-actively and become an active participant in helping others. It doesn’t just happen while we sit at home and twiddle our thumbs or sit in a service and watch the minutes tick by until the sermon ends. It happens as people go on an adventure with God and actively look to participate in other people’s lives as an encourager in the journey.

Where you hear of other believers near you sharing a similar passion, go check it out. I’ve been at a couple of gatherings this past summer where people chose to come great distances just to meet others who were on this kind of journey. If there’s a group of you already trying to do that and feeling like it’s falling short, ask someone to help you talk it out together and hear what God is saying.

There is nothing like the kind of relationships that allow us to share special moments, to help people further along in God’s life and to lift the burdens in this life that weigh us down. It’s not nearly as difficult as you might think, and the joys are indescribable.

After all, its what he made you to be a part of!

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In Exactly the Same Way

In Exactly the Same Way

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • March 2000

He didn’t keep it to himself. It might have been impossible – even for God!

fountain_0To hold something so beautiful for himself was unthinkable.

He had enjoyed it forever in the divine relationship of Father, Son and Spirit. He wanted to share it so much that he made a universe to house those he would create to be its object.

Genuine love is like that. Part of reveling in its delights is to share it with others. When you really touch it, just try and contain it if you can. If God didn’t, how do you think you’ll pull it off?

The earliest believers transformed by the cross couldn’t, even when they were being beaten with whips or battered with stones. When they were commanded to silence they responded, ?We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard? (Acts 4:20 ).

They had been touched by the greatest force in the universe and they were unable to keep it in, even when they knew it would cost them dearly. Such is the nature of God’s love. As I said at the outset, there is nothing more powerful in all the world and once you’ve experienced God’s kind of love, there will be no way for you to keep it to yourself.

The Wellspring of Love

I’ll have to admit that I grew up viewing love as an onerous chore. Loving others meant I had to be nice to them, even when I didn’t want to. Lacking compassion, I still thought I had to act compassionately at least toward other believers.

Trying to share God’s love with the world was a bit more confusing and often embarrassing. We knew we were supposed to share the gospel with them, but often we talked about them as enemies meriting of God’s judgment. Most attempts to share God’s love were driven more by our feeling condemned if we didn’t, than out of genuine concern.

Because our motives lay more with our needs than theirs, we weren’t really loving them. That was probably more obvious to them than it was to us. Instead of feeling loved, they felt exploited by those who want to get another notch on their belts.

Jesus didn’t call us to convert the world, but to simply love others the way we’ve been loved. As long as we act out of obligation toward others we will fall far short of what Jesus asked us to do. But he also knows that we cannot love effectively if we have not been loved extravagantly ourselves. That may seem selfish at first look, but until we trust our Father to care for us, we will constantly use the people around us to meet our own needs and preferences.

The unfolding of love in our lives can only begin with the wellspring of love, the Father himself! ?This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins? (1 John 4:10). Once we experience love as God defines it we will not be able to keep from sharing it with others as it has been shared with us. True love does not give with any thought what it gains in return.

Where God is generous with you, you can be generous with others. Where God affirms your worth in him, you won’t seek its substitute with others. Where you know God overlooks your flaws; you’ll overlook them in others.

Jesus left us with one command: to love one another as we have been loved. Paul even placed love on a higher plane than spiritual knowledge, noting that knowledge can easily puff us up whereas love will build up others (I Corinthians 8:1) He thought it absurd that believers would trample those for whom Christ died over disputes about what foods to eat or days to celebrate. But it happened in his day and through the course of history because we’ve made Christianity more about right doctrine than loving others.

Healthy Relationships

You will soon find that your security in God’s love and your awareness of his unlimited patience with you will redefine the other relationships in your life.

Instead of demanding that others conform to what you think is right, you will find yourself letting others have their own journey. By no longer manipulating them to what you think is best you can allow them the same freedom God gives you. You will let them choose their own course based on nothing but the clarity of truth as you understand it and the willingness of their conscience. It is the task of the Holy Spirit to convict, not yours.

Instead of despising people who are broken by sin you will be touched by the depth of bondage that holds them captive. You will also see more clearly how the Father is responding to them and then know how you can. Sometimes that means you’ll stand back and let the consequences of sin take their course as the father did with his prodigal son. At other times it means you’ll jump into the mess with them and help them find God’s way out.

Instead of saying what you think people want to hear, you’ll look for ways to be gently honest with them. Human love seeks people’s comfort at the expense of truth. God’s kind of love seeks people’s comfort in the midst of truth. He doesn’t avoid the difficult moment or hold his peace just to be nice. As you experience that in your own relationship with him you’ll find yourself unable to be disingenuous with people.

Finally, by looking to God as the resource for your needs you will find yourself not overloading your friendships with expectations that are easily disappointed. So much ill-will exists in God’s church because of something said or not said; something done or not done. We either withdraw with hurt feelings or work even harder to manipulate others to do what we want.

By vesting all of our hope in God’s ability to meet our needs we will not need to force our friends to do it. I know God will often use other believers to extend his gifts and graces to me, but now I also know I don’t get to choose the vessel he uses. In other words, I always look for how God is revealing himself to me through other believers, but I don’t trick myself into thinking it has to come from a specific person I want him to use.

Disappointed expectations destroy relationships because we look to others in ways God wants us to look to him. Such expectations set us up for enduring frustration. However, when we give up our expectations of people, we’ll find God using some of the most unlikely people to lend us a hand. Our frustration will yield to gratefulness at however, whenever and through whomever God uses others to touch us or us to touch others.

A Safe Harbor

Instead of trying to fix people in crisis, love will call us to graciously lend them our support. We will be able to offer insights as fellow-strugglers in the process, not experts with pat answers. When you live like that you will be a safe place for people to be encouraged in their trials and for them to discover what it means to rely on God in the midst of it.

People who serve the illusion of a demanding God will be unwittingly destructive to people in pain instead of helpful. When I thought I had to work so hard to earn God’s acceptance, I thought loving people meant I had to push them to do so as well. When someone came to me in crisis, I would tell them what they were doing wrong and encourage them to try harder. No wonder people in pain shied away from me.

I discovered that a few years ago as I was sitting in a roomful of people going through some very painful life experiences: lost jobs; family crisis, desperately ill relatives; chronic diseases, and drug dependencies. Thinking out loud I observed that it seemed to be a tough time for God’s people. A few years ago, I noted, that most believers I knew were living the bliss of the American dream – stable families, healthy children, rising incomes.

Knowing glances shot around the room. “Should we tell him?” someone finally asked.

Tell me what?

“Back then you were not a safe person for people who were hurting. You had an answer for everything and it usually added to people’s feelings of condemnation and inadequacy. But the difficulties you experienced in the last few years have changed you. People sense your compassion and your trust that the Father will sort it out with them in his time.”

If all the pain I’ve gone through opens that door for others, I can truly say it has been worth it. But again, this is nothing I set out to change. Somehow some of the patience God had poured into me had splashed out on to others without my notice.

I am amazed at what love will call people to do, and they won’t even think it a sacrifice. Recently I met a woman from the Midwest who had been divorced when her husband told her he was gay, that he had AIDS and that he wanted to live with his lover. A few years later as the disease progressed, she felt compassion for her former husband and felt God wanted her to help care for him as the disease worsened.

She did just that. With her husband’s permission she moved back in, not as wife but as nurse, and cared for him as the disease progressed. I can’t imagine what it took for her to give of herself in this way, and don’t think her obedience should become a standard for others, but she talked about it as one of the greatest experiences of her life. What’s more, after his death she took in other AIDS patients for the next few years to share God’s love with them as well.

The Excellent Way

Without God’s love filling our hearts, we’ll end up hurting people despite our best intentions. For years I’ve heard of congregations doing ?Jericho marches? around property they needed to expand their facility to reach their neighborhood more effectively for the kingdom. I heard one pastor telling how one of their next-door neighbors sold them the property they needed after they went out on a Sunday evening and marched around it singing and praying that the owners would sell.

A few years later I got a look from the other side of those curtains. Our new neighbors were not Christians and let us know in no uncertain terms that they didn’t want that ?Jesus stuff crammed down their throats.? We assured them we would not. As we got to know them better we found out why. Their previous home had been located next to a church facility and according to them the people there had been obnoxious in their attempts to make them move. They parked in their driveway, trampled their flowers, and even one night marched around the house chanting. As an elderly couple it had scared them half to death.

They had held their ground for many years thereafter unwilling to give in. When they finally did move they were embittered at how they had been treated and had rejected any sense of God’s reality.

Over the course of the next thirteen years, however, we got to know them, mostly by taking them their mail when it had mistakenly ended up in our box. They mentioned one day how much they appreciated some article I’d written for the local paper and our conversations more frequently turned to spiritual things. They were interested but still cautious.

Do you know what finally opened the door? One day I found out they were too ill to get their paper any more and had to wait until the evening when their son would come over and get them their paper. I told them I’d be happy to get theirs every morning when I got mine. For the next four years, until we moved, it was our family project. It wasn’t any big deal to us and yet it touched them deeply.

I did get to share the life of Jesus with them and was even asked to preside at the husband’s funeral when he passed away a couple of years ago. They were not ?missionary projects? to us, they were friends and neighbors whom we cared about.

Jesus said the same thing. ?If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching? (John 14:23).

I know that can be taken two ways and for most of my life I’ve followed the wrong one. I thought Jesus was saying if I really loved him I would keep all of his commands, as if the keeping was proof of the loving. But the rest of his actions and teaching prove otherwise. Those who love will find themselves obeying his ways, as if the keeping was only the natural result of loving.

The difference is critical, for it determines where we’ll invest our efforts – in keeping or loving. We know our best efforts at keeping will never be enough but the transformation that love brings to our lives will help us live like Jesus in the world.

That’s why he told us to love – exactly the same way he would love us. Until we know he does? we can’t. Once we fully know he does? we can’t help ourselves not to.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. I John 4:10

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Living in the Relational Church – Part 2

Living in the Relational Church – Part 2

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • September 1999

“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb. 10:24-25)

I don’t know of another Scripture that has suffered more abuse than this one. It is often quoted as the reason people must file into a religious institution on Sunday morning, sit in rows and submit to a music performance and a lecture that others have put together for their benefit.

For many, that is the only standard that determines whether someone belongs to God’s church or whether they are regarded as independent and rebellious. It has become so enshrined in our religious psyche that nothing else matters.

If you frequent one of these religious establishments with some regularity (every few weeks will do) others consider you to be a healthy believer. If not, however, they raise an eyebrow of caution. Just going validates someone’s faith even when nothing else about their lives would indicate that they know who he is. Some of the most arrogant and independent people I know sit through a weekly religious event and still go out and live life on their own terms.

Pressed on the point, many will admit that Sunday morning attendance isn’t going to earn their way into heaven or secure a life-transforming relationship with the Living God. But while they concede it may not work for everyone, they consider those who do not attend to be in grave danger.

How tragic! When we fail to view the church as God does, and unthinkingly embrace what 2,000 years of religious tradition says it is, we miss out on some of the simplest and best truths of God’s Word. For the writer of Hebrews is talking about something far more vital than where someone sits on a weekend morning.

Encourage One Another

The above passage from Hebrews was never intended to be a proof-text to demand people sit through a programmed ‘service’ every week. But please don’t misunderstand me here. If your relationships with other believers revolve around such a meeting and you are growing to experience all that God has for you in the midst of it, stay with it!

But I think we make a critical error if we assume that’s all the writer had in mind. I see five reasons why he must have been talking about something more:

First, the early church did not have anything like what we call ‘church services’ today. Yes, they got together–mostly in homes, and only occasionally in larger settings to hear one of the apostles or a distant teacher help them discover who God is and how to walk with him. These gatherings, however, didn’t look at all like most programmed gatherings today which are often designed more to entertain than to equip.

Second, the writer specifically focuses on an environment where each believer is actively involved in encouraging the others–stimulating them to love and good deeds. Where does that happen in most Sunday morning events today? People only look at the back of other people’s heads while all the ‘ministry’ flows from talented musicians and orators up front. This Scripture paints a far different picture of face-to-face dialogue and personal engagement.

Third, he tells them to do it daily. How can that be fulfilled in a weekly or twice-weekly event? If he meant such gatherings they would have to meet every day. Obviously he’s not talking about organized meetings, but spontaneous connections between believers learning to live together in God and finding occasion to cross each other’s lives daily.

Fourth, he specifically says the main reason for getting together is to encourage each other. Most people talk about attending our religious institutions today because of the need for accountability, not encouragement. That can have some painful, if unintentional results. Philip Yancey tells about a prostitute who was looking for help and was encouraged to go to church. She responded, “Why would I ever go there, I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”

Surprisingly, no Scripture assigns believers or leaders to provide accountability for each other. That is reserved for God alone. We are told to encourage each other and though that means at times we might have to confront or admonish, it does not mean we hold each other accountable.

Finally, he envisions believers connecting with each other all over the community. While claiming to be essential gatherings for believers, our Sunday morning events do more to fragment the body of Christ in any locality. Rather than connecting us with a wide-diversity of his people, we end up meeting with people who are just like us and who believe the same things we do.

Two or Three Together

The writer of Hebrews was encouraging a relational connection between believers that goes far deeper than any religious service can offer. He was talking about the entire network of relationships God builds between believers and how important it is for us to let others into our lives. Don’t go it alone, when we can be so helpful to each other.

Paul gives us some insight as to why in Ephesians. He said that the fullness of God is revealed in the whole of the body, not in the individual believer. We won’t know enough on our own nor have enough strength. But how do we live that out? By being a spectator in a large gathering, or by sharing our lives with fellow travelers who are coming to know his life?

Even Jesus himself made it clear that the most powerful moments of body life happen in twos and threes, not in groups of hundreds. It’s where people can be known for who they are, loved through their most desperate pain, and discover God’s presence with others.

The most powerful example of that in this century happened in Red China during the communist regime. As people were forced underground by persecution they discovered the joy caring for one another, the focus of being excluded from the mainstream, and freedom from religions traditions, one-man leadership, and those who were not completely sold-out to God. How God’s life grew among them is the stuff of legend. But are we listening to the lessons they learned during that time? No! We’re too busy smuggling in our Christian programs so they can be more like us.

Circumstances forced them to embrace what the New Testament speaks so clearly. True body life cannot be embraced institutionally, it is the result of people who are passionately loving Father and learning how to live as a family with other brothers and sisters.

Sadly, many believers have never tasted of that kind of body life–holding no greater view of the ‘church’ life than to file in on Sunday, enjoy the performance and go back to their lives. However, when crisis hits and they need friendships to speak the life of God into their circumstances, no one is there for them. They will soon find that sitting through the performance has not adequately prepared them to face the darkest days of their lives.

Finding the Family

Knowing God as Father leads to an engagement of his people as family. Do you sense that hunger stirring in you? It’s happening to people all over the world. Weary of the political games used to manipulate institutional power, or bored with the passive environment fostered in worship “services,” people are dropping out of organized religion in ever-greater numbers.

I know many of them have sadly given up on God, but many others hunger to share an authentic body life with other believers that allows Jesus to truly be at the center as we learn how to live in the full freedom of his life. Like many on the cutting edge of hunger, they may not know what they are really searching for. Since most of us have been steeped in religion most of our lives, we’re not sure where else to look. So we keep looking for an event, a group of people or a mentor to help us find a way, and often come away disappointed in the search.

As I said in the last issue, institutional dynamics will only produce a shadow of what family life really is. It cannot provide the reality. If relationship is what we hunger for, then we might want to think relationally. God’s kind of community isn’t produced by man’s ingenuity or program. It springs up organically among people who are learning to follow Jesus and see themselves as part of something larger than themselves.

Thus, finding Father’s family begins with Father, not with others. If he is not the object of your whole- hearted pursuit, you will miss so much that he has for you. Don’t begin with a program. Begin with him. Don’t let any expression of body life be a substitute for cultivating your own relationship with him. That’s how we often get it confused. We seek to relate to God by relating to others. The exact opposite is true. We learn to relate to others, but loving God first and foremost. Then you’ll be able to see how he is placing you in the family around you. Look at that in the whole of your locality, not just in a single group. God has people everywhere. Discovering how he wants to place you in it is a process that may encompass the following stages:

1. Spontaneous Fellowship: Getting connected in this family often begins with spontaneous fellowship. What hungry believers has God placed around you? These might be people you know that you invite over for an evening of fellowship, or share lunch together once and a while. It also happens in more serendipitous moments when you just happen to be standing in line at the store and find out the person next to you also loves the Lord.

God has many ways to bring his family together. Get to know the family that just moved into the neighborhood; invite the new employee home from work, or volunteer in your community and see who God brings near you. I’ll guarantee you’ll never look at people around you quite the same way again. They might be believers with whom you can share God’s life, or people who don’t know him at all whom you can love in his name.

Either way, this is where fellowship begins. People who meet, find a bit out about each other and find that they hold the life of God in common. In my travels I have met people in every corner of the world who hunger to know the Living God, and find just a meal together, or staying over in the home of someone I’ve never met before begins a life-long relationship sharing our passion for Jesus.

Spontaneous fellowship can be fairly fluid. They may only last a few moments, or days, but sometimes they may go on to become far more significant. Look around you. The believers God wants you to experience body life with may be closer to you than you think.

2. Developing Friendships: Out of these spontaneous encounters, you will find people with whom you seem to have a deeper connection. It is if the Holy Spirit is drawing you together to help each other in the journey.

Friendships develop because people make an effort to get together. They are in touch with each other every few days; look for things to do together and find themselves encouraged every time they come away from each other.

Friends don’t place expectations on each other, or use people for their own self-needs. Friends are those who can share their journey together under Father. They don’t seek to control each other, or toss another aside when they no longer meet their needs. Godly friendships look to share a journey together with ever-deepening honesty and vulnerability, always freeing the other person to be absolutely genuine.

Often friendships develop between people who help each other through difficult times. What often starts out merely as a compassionate act of ministry can easily become a close friendship. That’s why it is important to engage people in need around us, offering to support them and give what help you can to get them through a crisis.

Every true friendship we have with someone in Father’s family is an incredible treasure. They are worth every bit of time we give to cultivate them. The real ones last forever, even though time and circumstances may not make it possible to be together with great regularity. But when you do connect you can pick up right where you left off.

3. Intentional Community: As friendships develop, sometimes people find themselves wanting more. God made us for community, remember, and though we are linked by the cross to every other believer on the planet, one of the most valuable ways to experience his life is to explicitly share the journey with a group of friends.

Intentional community happens when an individual or family decides to join with others in sharing their journey. Realizing that Father has called them to walk together for a time which could range from a few months to a number of years, they choose to share their journeys together, both by gathering regularly for sharing, worship, prayer and study of the Word, and by staying in touch with each other through the week.

Listening to God together, guarding each other’s freedom in Christ, caring for each other in moments of need and being mindful of how God wants to use them to extend his kingdom seem to be some of the significant objectives of this kind of community.

The forms it takes, however, can vary greatly. House churches can look this way as do more loosely affiliated groups that often spring up within institutions. These are not held together by covenants or creeds, but by the choice people make to love deeply enough to stay with each other through the ups and downs of life, and to live their lives openly before each other. Though it probably demands an entire article some day, children fit into this environment with incredible ease and nothing will better prepare them to live a life-long adventure in Father’s family.

Initiative Required

Why are such groups sometimes difficult to find? Because they require a level of individual initiative that more programmed structures have robbed from God’s people. Either because they prefer everything to be spoon-fed to them, or because they’ve been taught to think they are incompetent to follow God without an ‘ordained’ leader handy, many believers have little time or energy to discover the fullness of living in Christ’s body that Father intended.

There are far easier ways to get together with Christians, but to discover the depth of what it means to live in Father’s family we cannot sit back and wait for someone else’s program. Instead we can choose to engage the lives of people God has placed around us looking for ways his life in us can bless others. As we recognize people God’s calling us to walk with we can combine our resources with those of other brothers and sisters and find ourselves far more equipped to stand in these increasingly-darker days.

That’s what the writer of Hebrews wanted you to know.

That’s what God is rebuilding in these days. Ask him to teach you how to see his church as he does, and live in the joy, power and freedom of that reality.

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Living in the Relational Church – Part 1

Living in the Relational Church – Part 1

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • July 1999

“So, after 2,000 years, how do you think he’s doing?”

I can’t resist asking that question whenever I’m studying Matthew 16 with a group of believers. There we find the only recorded instructions Jesus gave to his disciples about the church. “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” He didn’t ask them to do it. He didn’t give them a blueprint of an organization. He simply said he would build his church and it would be strong enough to withstand any assault by darkness.

So it only seems natural to assess how he’s doing. If he’s been at it for almost 2,000 years, what do we have to show for it? I’ve asked that of all kinds of people, even at pastoral conventions. When I do, you can feel the tension in the room. People shift awkwardly, a few chuckle nervously. They know better than to say he hasn’t done well, but they also know the church is fragmented by division, scandalized by immorality, vilified for its arrogance, exposed by its misplaced priorities and far from replicating the ministry Jesus modeled for us in the Gospels.

We either have to conclude that Jesus hasn’t done an exceptional job, or consider that there is a vast difference between what he calls church and what we do.

I used to be disillusioned by what I thought was God’s church. Seeing his people lost in priorities that were far from his own and doing things in ways that seemed to benefit the institution more than extend God’s kingdom in our lives or the world, I lamented the sorry state of the church.

Not anymore! In recent years I’ve come to realize that our religious institutions are not the church God sees. What God calls ‘church’ are all the people who know his Son as their Lord and leader. They are scattered over the whole world, growing to know him better and to demonstrate his character in the world. This is the bride God is preparing for his own Son. I’ve seen parts of her all over the world. Far from being weak, divided and corrupted, the church of Jesus Christ is growing in beauty, strength and power everyday. How is Jesus doing at building his church? Incredible! His people exist in every knook and cranny of the world, and they are finding ways to relate to each other that glorify his name, not cause people to disparage it.

What God Calls Church

To see it, however, you have to look past the institutions and buildings we call church and find those people who are living in him. Please don’t misunderstand that statement. I am not speaking against those institutions as evil, only encouraging you not to confuse them with church. Yes, many people frequent them who are part of God’s church and are growing to know him better. That’s not at question, but to see God’s work in the world, you have to look beyond the groups that call themselves church and see the bigger picture–all those God is calling to himself throughout your city and the world.

If not, we’ll confuse our religious systems with the church and miss the great thing God is doing in preparing himself a bride. We must be careful to call church what God calls church, or we’ll end up saying things that don’t make any sense.

For instance, I was with a young couple recently. A few months before, they had simply had enough. Tired of the backbiting, bored by being a spectator on Sunday mornings, wearied of being manipulated to do more for God, and burned-out on too many responsibilities, already they told me they had left the church.

“How could you do that” I asked. “The church is not something you can leave, unless you’ve left Jesus.”

Of course they hadn’t and they only meant that they had left organized religion in hopes of finding a more authentic expression of his life than the group they were in. But that is a very different thing than leaving the church. Let us be careful with our terms. When religious organizations co-opt the term, ‘church’, it is easy for us to get confused, thinking that’s what they really are. But they are not. They might be gatherings of people who are part of the church, but in and of themselves they are not the church.

The church of Jesus Christ could never be contained in any organization, and in fact, the way he works makes it impossible to fit in the most skillfully constructed structures.

Lone Rangers Need Not Apply

I know you’ve probably heard people say such things proved to be lone-rangers, never seeming to thrive in the life of Jesus. But that is a long ways from who God’s people really are. Just as institutions can’t be the church by declaring it so, neither can individuals.

Who is the church in the world? Is it not those who live the same confession Peter offered” “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”? You are part of the church as you live under the Head, following him as your Lord and leader. You can’t be the church by following someone else who is doing that, you have to do it yourself.

And following him will not lead you to independence. How can it? God is a community and wherever he is known, real community will emerge among his people. Father, Son and Spirit have dwelt in true community for all eternity, knowing the sheer joy and wonder of sharing life, love and glory with themselves. You can’t touch his love and not find it drawing you toward others God puts in your path.

As brothers and sisters begin to connect with each other in real fellowship, they will soon discover that what they know about God is always in part, as if through a darkened window. But in fellowship among believers who are growing to know him better, there is a fullness of wisdom and revelation. That’s why Paul said in Ephesians 1 that the church is “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”

Imagine any singular group of people fulfilling that incredible promise! The reason why our view of God is often limited, is because institutions are only able to pull people together who see the same thing in the same way. Their view through the darkened glass never gets any clearer, they only grow more convinced that what they see is more accurate than what anyone else sees.

God’s kind of community, however springs up among people who are pursuing a vibrant friendship with the Living God. For I’ve thought the life of God flows to people through our so-called church structures. But it isn’t so. Life does not exist in the church, it is only in Jesus.

Those who gather then to get fed or pumped up to get through another week miss what relational church is all about. We can only find life in him and once we find it there, our connection with other believers allows us to share that life together. ‘Church’ cannot ever be a substitute for knowing him. We can’t follow him by conforming to the religious system in which we find ourselves and why would we want to. He’s offered each of us the joy of knowing him every day.

Institutional Dynamics

That’s why a growing personal relationship is critical to relational Christianity. It can only begin as people are equipped to know the living God and follow him. Having a growing relationship with him, will teach you how to relate to other believers. It doesn’t flow the other way around, and years of trying to make it do so have only disillusioned those who really want to know God better every day.

Gene Edwards was right when he says the model for church life is found in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples. He never taught them how to have a ‘service’ or how to construct an organizational flow chart. He didn’t tell them that church life was about attending a meeting, conforming to a group ethic, or regimenting people’s lives by the most well-intentioned program.

Instead, he taught them how to relate to God as Father and each other as brothers and sisters. The language he used with them (and indeed the language Paul uses in his letters) was not the language of institutions, but the language of family.

Because most of what we call ‘church’ today operates on institutional dynamics, many believers today have no idea what God has designed church life to be. Institutions must focus on creeds, programs and procedures that attempt to get people to conform to the ‘way we do things here.’ Usually a group of top-heavy leadership draw the most attention and people are encouraged to submit unquestioningly to their insights and counsel.

Institutional dynamics encourage people to promote an image, and does not free them to be real. Gossip and one-upsmanship games abound as people try to find their place often at another’s expense. The same things you see in the corporate world are the basis of life as an institution. And if you ever leave an institution, you will often be ignored. Many people who have left religious institutions have commented that they felt like they ceased to exist even for people whom they had considered close friends.

Family Dynamics

Life as a family, however, is built on an entirely different set of methods and goals. In a healthy family people are not cooperating to achieve an end, they are simply learning to relate to each other in love. In a healthy family diversity is not only allowed, it’s cherished. People don’t relate to each other through lines of authority, but by functional gifting. If someone’s car started to make strange noises on the way over, they feel no compulsion to ask the older brother to attend to it. They will already know who in the family has the most ‘car-sense’ and seek their help.

Healthy families don’t press people to conform, but let people grow together at their own pace. They have the freedom to disagree without separating into multiple families. They share together in each other’s journey, serving with their gifts, offering insights and abilities where they are helpful, and supporting each other no matter what they go through.

Many believers today are finding fresh encouragement in the ‘one anothering’ Scriptures that the New Testament encourages believers to do for each other. They are discovering that teaching, counseling, serving, offering hospitality, sharing confessions, praying for needs, admonishing the selfish, and all the rest are not things we hire a staff to provide for us, but what the body was meant to do for each other. As we live in Jesus together he passes out gifts among the entire body, that each can give and each receive from God through others. That’s why some have said that there is more ‘church’ going on in the parking lots on Sunday morning than is allowed to happen in the morning service.

If you’ve ever experienced real spontaneous, fellowship among a group of believers, you don’t need me to tell you how rich it is. The joy of journeying together, of not having to pretend, of having people support you in your weakness and affirm you in your gifts is reward enough. And yes, a lot of that can go on among believers who gather in institutional environments, but it isn’t always there.

The important thing is that you recognize family dynamics when you see them and embrace them wholeheartedly. Conversely recognize hurtful, institutional dynamics which have nothing to do with God’s kingdom and take your distance from them guiltlessly.

As much as Paul encouraged believers to get together in ways that encourage your life in God, he also told them to be free to walk away from environments that become destructive to that life. If you sense him leading you away from such a group, don’t be condemned either by them or yourself. You will not be leaving the church at all, he may only be preparing you to find it in a more authentic way than you ever dreamed.

Finding Body Life

So where do you go to find relational church life? Why? to Jesus, of course! That may sound simplistic, but where else can you go? Trust Jesus to provide the fellowship he wants you to have. Remember, his church is built on those who are learning to trust him.

You might discover the freedom to live relational church right where you are. Don’t worry about whether or not everyone else shares your same perspective, simply look for opportunities to share life with people hungering to know him more fully.

You may find, however, that some institutional structures actually devour those who hunger to follow God freely and he might call you out. Many people leave one broken institution, only to dive into another or start a new one on their own. Let me encourage you to slow down and don’t do anything until he clearly speaks to you.

Watch for the people he begins to connect your life with, some may be lifetime friends, others new acquaintances. Don’t hurry to start anything, learn to recognize what he is doing in your area to provide meaningful connections between believers that are hungry to know him–his honesty, his grace and his life! He has people who will share the journey with you and encourage your growth without manipulating you to conform to their expectations.

Where you find that in your own locality may differ greatly from how someone else finds it in theirs. It might be in a Sunday morning gathering, with a neighbor up the street, in a home groups or with people God spontaneously brings across your path. However it comes, you’ll find that church life could never be a once- or twice-a-week event. It happens every day as we live our lives in him and share that with others.

As you’ve read in these pages before, there are lots of ways Jesus calls his believers to share his life together. In our next issue we’ll look at what it means not “to forsake the assembling of yourselves together?” and detail some of the ways God invites people to share his life together.

I know it can be discouraging, looking for a depth of body life that it seems too few hunger for today. But Jesus would not have stirred your passion for it, if he didn’t have a way to meet it. It just may not come in the way you’re expecting it. So don’t focus so hard on any one thing, that you miss the other doors he opens for you. Tell him how much you hunger to know an authentic body life that matches what he shared with his disciples. Ask him to connect you with people who share a passion to live in the dynamics of family.

Then enjoy whatever connections he begins to make. Don’t force it into your mold, or feel the need to make a group out of it. Just learn what it is to relate to brothers and sisters, even in groups of twos and threes, that lets Jesus be at the center. Love others in the same way God loves you and you’ll see the church Jesus is building all around you and all over the world.

It will astound you! After all, he’s been doing that for 2,000 years. He’s actually amazingly good at it!

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Going to the Root

Going to the Root

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • June 1996

Talk about intimacy with God for very long, and the conversation almost always turns to how that is lived out in church life. Most people seem to recognize that the means by which we often “do church” does not always help foster that relationship and often provides significant distractions to it.

Look at all the books written and all the seminars held in the last 30 years about church renewal, yet what has really changed? A variety of structures have been offered, each claiming to be God’s last, best answer. But even those lapse back into the same pattern of Sunday services with kids spirited away to their own peer group, up-front led worship, and a sermon that may entertain briefly, but can not be recalled two days later.

Add to that the confusion that comes when people in the church force their way on others, and it’s no wonder that most people really question what ‘church life’ should look like. During a recent trip to New England this topic came up continually. For all the time and energy we put into our church structures, wouldn’t you think they would be more effective at doing the most important thing helping us know Jesus better?

But not everyone finds them so. A couple of years ago, I would have claimed to have more answers than I would today. Now I have far more questions, but through the sometimes painful circumstances of our church involvement the past few years Sara and I have come to see how simply powerful the life of the church can be, without the need for extensive structure.

In the last year we have had significant contact with believers all over the world who have moved out of traditionally-structured churches to seek a more effective and authentic body life. Many meet in homes, building the life of the body around Jesus-centered relationships and daily discovering what it means to pursue God and care for each other. Their meetings are rarely slick and attractive. They are designed to equip and encourage through active participation, honest examination and simple love. They say they have stopped just going to church and are now learning to be the church.

I am not offering that here as the answer, convinced that no structure guarantees renewal. But I am finding increasing merit in their priorities that can even be a blessing to people who attend more traditional church structures. Those are best summarized in a book by Christian Smith called, Going to the Root (Herald Press: Scottsdale, PA). He offers nine proposals for radical church renewal. I want to share them with you for your own reflection and encouragement this summer:

1. Build Intentional Community

“Radical church renewal begins with a new vision of Christian relationships in the body of Christ. It affirms that the church should look, and feel, not like a club or interest group, but a loving, extended family What is necessary for people to live like this? People must truly know each other, share with each other who they really are.”

In short, discipleship and personal care in the body of Christ were never meant to come through a paid staff or cumbersome programs. Jesus gave his ministry to people who would live out their lives in close, personal friendships.

Let me give you a word of warning about this chapter, however. It seeks to build that community through accountability and commitment, two words that are not linked to body life at all in the New Testament and are often misused to exercise control over people. While I love his goal here, his methodology will only set us up for disappointed expectations. Love and freedom is how Jesus called us to embrace body life for it was in relationship not institution that Jesus vested his life.

That said, the author gives two key pieces of advice: “Christian community is an alien, alternative reality that must be purposefully pursued and cultivated” and “It is a living dynamic experience that is nurtured, not a prepackaged program that is instituted.”

2. Do Church Without Clergy

Don’t panic! I know a lot of hot-buttons just went off. The author doesn’t advocate throwing pastors overboard, simply makes the case that we do not need them in the way they’ve come to dominate church life today. “Going to the root helps us see that our clergy system is not demanded by the New Testament. It is often counterproductive. And it can obstruct healthy, biblical church life. Is it possible that one of the best things that could happen to the church would be for the clergy to resign and take secular jobs? The problem with the clergy is not the people, but the profession itself. The New Tes-tament is clear that ministry in the church is the work of the entire body of believers, not of a single minister or pastoral team.”

From both sides the fact of clergy in the body of Christ today produces two classes of people leaders and followers. This is unhealthy from two angles. On the one hand we expect pastors to be the body of Christ for every one, and who can stand up to that weight? On the other, it promotes passivity on the part of believers, waiting for the leaders to sort things out without going to the Head and following his desires.

The profession always seems to lead clergy to be more program managers than mentors, making decisions for people believing themselves to have a superior perspective, rather than linking people close enough to Jesus, that he can live out his will through them.

3. Decentralize Leadership and Decisions

“Never in the New Testa-ment is one believer, even a church leader, said to have spiritual authority over another…. (We don’t find) a model of leadership that is hierarchical, authoritarian or focused on filling offices. What we find is a very organic, bottom-up model of leadership…. (Spiritual authority) is given to leaders by believers around them because of the exemplary, trustworthy character of their lives.

The author goes on to say that whatever leadership emerges exists only to mentor others to hear and follow the the Lord. They should function in plurality without one leader dominating the others. But for decision-making, he encourages those believers affected by the decision to engage in a process of consensus-building. “When dominating leaders make decisions and call the flock to follow, the seeds of apathy and immaturity are sown.” Of course this works more realistically in groups less than 50 than it does in large impersonal groups. For that to happen we will have to learn how to handle growth by multiplying groups not expanding them until they can longer function relationally.

4. Open Up Worship Services

“Structurally, the worship services of many churches are preplanned, clergy-centered and performance- oriented (that often)undermine our best intentions In the most extended New Testament teaching on church gatherings ( I Cor 11-14), Paul repeatedly states that the overarching goal of meeting together is mutual edificationbuilding and strengthening the believing community.”

How can that happen if we don’t move away from our pre-planned meetings, and invite the honest, open participation of all God’s people who gather? This doesn’t lead to an efficient service, but it does allow the body to be the body.

Here the author encourages us away from up-front led worship, which puts the focus on a few and breeds passivity in the rest. Instead people can have the freedom to lead out in prayer, give thanks, read Scripture, encourage, and even ask questions from the teaching so that the body can be built up by its honest interaction in the presence of the Lord.

5. Get Over The Edifice Complex

“Perhaps the most obvious monument to the church’s im-mobility and inflexibility are its church buildings. Buildings are massive, stationary structures, imposing physical symbols of fixity and rigidity.” Here the author most clearly suggests the home church model, “The early Christians could have followed the familiar model of the Jewish temple or synagogue and created specifically Chris-tian buildings to meet and worship in. They did not. Appa-rently they believed their homes were the best context for gathering…. Homes are a place of family, which is what the early believers were to each other.”

Of course the edifice complex can be just as apparent in avoiding buildings, and it could be said that persecution may have contributed to the early church staying in homes. But we still have to ask what do we gain (or lose) by confining God’s work to a building that more often than not confines the life of the body, at great expense to build and maintain.

6. Cultivate a Spirituality of Daily Life

How do we relate to a living God in our everyday existence? Too often we only see that in terms of meeting legalistic, guilt-inducing ex-pectations in the do’s and don’ts of our behavior. This method never produces God’s transformation. Radical renewal invites us to cultivate a relationship with God, that fills every corner of our lives with his presence where we realize it’s not what we do for God that matters, but what we let him do in us.

7. Practice Lifestyle Evangelism

“The Bible makes it clear that the central and irreplaceable medium for communicating the gospel is the quality of believers’ lives together. The lives of people who genuinely love each other, for all their warts and false starts, will be a truer explanation of the good news than the most precisely pitched evangelistic message.” Amen.

8. Work for Social Justice

“Doing biblical justice, therefore, means taking positive actions that create and preserve flourishing human community in fidelity to God’s covenantwhich is to realize a just social order.” This chapter was not easy to understand, but it demonstrates that God’s heart is for justice, especially in alleviating the suffering of the oppressed and needy. How we accomplish that might differ greatly, but we can acknowledge that our service in places like that is close to God’s heart and the true nature of religion.

9. Do Grass-Roots Ecumenism

“Radical church renewal rejects the unnecessary divisions that separate and isolate Christians from each other. It calls believers to work for the unity of the Spirit. But to be meaningful and effective, this work must become the bottom-up, grass roots work of the people of God.” Don’t confine your relationships only to believers who make up whatever group you worship with. God’s work in our world is so much larger, and we can see that when we make an effort to seek relationships beyond our own group.

I doubt I’ve done these justice by trying to summarize in so short a space, but aren’t these fascinating? They have each challenged me to take a fresh look at what it means for me to be a part of the church.

Certainly I’m not encouraging everyone to leave their traditional church structures and jump into house churches. Many of these proposals are possible through home groups and other relationships that can be a part of more traditional structures. What this book did for me, and what I hope this overview does for you, is to help me find meaningful body life wherever God plants me.

If you have been lulled into passivity, expecting your church to spoon feed it to you, I hope this calls you back to action. I also hope it encourages you to find significant friendships with other believers, where you grow together through open and honest conversation, serve each other gladly, and challenge each other to walk in the fullness of his life.

But I also want it to encourage many who read this newsletter who are no longer part of those traditional structures. They are finding God’s life more effective in meaningful exchanges of relationships with other believers in their own homes. I don’t want them to labor under the guilt of an obligation to a Sunday morning format that Scripture never made compulsory. There are many ways for the body of Christ to gather and celebrate.

Let me close by paraphrasing a comment I read off the internet. It ties together so well with past issues of BodyLife:

“Beloved, if we preach ‘the church’ in all of its technical correctness, we will never find it, but if we embrace the power of the cross we will see the church spring up around us in all its glory. When the cross is in its rightful place in the lives of the believing community, the church as God has ordained it will organically flow from that.”

Then God himself can truly be more important than any church structure. In being free from the need to go to church to fulfill some kind of obligation, we can recover the simple joy of living as his church in the world.

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