As I’ve been thinking over all the areas of the church where I’ve sensed God trying to bring correction in me, I believe they all have their root in the same thing – living by the sinful nature. Take a look at the blog category names that I’m using to characterize church activity that I’ve done in the past, yet I now see in a negative light: full-time christian work, money, christian subculture, church businesses. I’m still working through thoughts on this, and I plan to use this blog as a way to log my way through topics and scripture as I continue to seek the Lord on it and dialogue about it with my wife and friends. But at this point I can say that it’s looking like the distasteful aspects of church activity are coming from my sinful nature. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the God of this universe gave us a Savior, Jesus, to help us out of that, and he gives us his Spirit of wisdom and revelation that Paul talks about in his letter to the Ephesians, so that we can “get it” when it comes to living by the Spirit. Perhaps knowing what a good steak tastes like is first being really clear about what a bad one tastes like. I’ve had both, and I’m learning to discern the difference quicker. I’ve tasted of living by his Spirit, and I want all of it that God has for my family and I, and as many as will walk with us, as we go forward. As I see it, I lost over 2 decades trying to follow Jesus mostly – though not entirely – out of the sinful nature. I’ve had periods of pause when God did a significant retooling of my heart, and the last 10 years have been the most significant ever. I’m sure there will always be the unlearning and re-learning as long as we’re on earth. But I’m committed to spending as much of the life before me – personal thought & prayer, marriage, family, work, other relationships, and doing the works of the kingdom of heaven – all out of living by the Spirit of God.
I’ve been pondering over this thing of living by the Spirit of God, and getting practical real-life understanding and words around what that really means. I’m planning to explore various aspects of this as I spend time thinking, pondering, musing over it with God’s Spirit, the bible, my wife, and friends. I’m seeing more and more that there are really two options for us: live by the Spirit of God, or live by our sinful nature. The interesting part for me is that I’m realizing that MUCH of what has been considered normal living for followers of Jesus is actually living by the sinful nature, and I’ve been duped into not recognizing it as such. So for the sake of getting some clarity on the practical part of “what does this really look like” as God brings wisdom on it, I will likely draw some comparisons of the two in the midst of common scenarios for us believers today.
The focus for this research project came to me when I recently read this in Paul’s letter to the Roman believers:
“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.”
“Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”
I’ve concluded that I am living largely out of the sinful nature at this time in my life. Being a parent of small children (3 and 5), is helping me see this! But the good news is that there’s so much to look forward to as God pulls me more and more into living by his Spirit.
It’s tough work dealing with the staining that we’ve taken from the practices of church businesses and the christian subculture, and not everyone comes to the same conclusions. Think of stained wood. Stain seeps into the grain and goes deep. It is not removed by a simple sanding. It may take a long time – several applications of stain remover, and several sandings – to ever get it out. And even then, you may always deal with a residual. This is how I think of our challenge in the church today, after 1700 years of this yuck. The better foundation we allow God to lay in us now, the farther along will be the generations that follow.
My experience detoxing is teaching me that we seriously benefit from thinking long and hard about ALL the issues with church businesses. I’m finding that a huge hurdle for many is cutting the heart strings attached to the business – personal identity in it, a paycheck, a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in the roles played, etc. These are things given by God in the context of our earthly labors (Eccl 5), but they get us twisted up and confused when done in the context of the kingdom of heaven. I want to take as much time as needed for God to unravel it all inside of me. I want to let heavenly light ruthlessly expose blindness, which runs much deeper than I imagined. This detox journey isn’t a switch to a different methodology (eg, from institutional church with leadership hierarchy to home-based church with everyone on a level playing field), but a major cleansing and revitalizing of our hearts and thinking. There’s a complete language that has to be unlearned, and a new one to replace it. I only see pieces of where God is taking us. Sometimes I get spun up wanting to begin building again with these alone, but then I’m thankful for friends that remind me it would only mean facing tear-downs again, and that it really is His church, He’s the head of it, He’s the one true discipler of it. It’s His Spirit that causes it to grow. There’s a significant risk of syncretism with a rush to presume arrival rather than fully embracing the journey.
A design flaw in the very idea of church businesses is the need to gain legitimacy by providing some kind of goods or services – like solving other people’s problems & puzzles, being their answer, a benevolent mediator, an institution to depend on – which is what earthly work is all about, designed by God for earthly life. But when the same ideas are applied to the kingdom of heaven, wrong things happen that we didn’t foresee – such as the blunting of our awareness of their need to know and hear God’s voice for ourselves. I doubt many in the church businesses intended this. I didn’t either, but I contributed to it nonetheless. John the baptist knew better – he didn’t get between the Groom and his bride. When we love Jesus and his church, we have the same response as John, “I must decrease, He must increase.” Beware the trap of being the answer to someone’s question.
My encouragement to those of us on the detox journey is to be ruthless about getting free from the church business mindset. Consider taking 2-3 years off this activity. If you aren’t there already, consider gainful employment in a “normal” job outside the christian subculture. I have yet to see anyone truely clear themselves of bias regarding church businesses and the christian subculture as long as their livelihood is tied to it. And then try simply asking God what’s important to him. Let’s humbly posture ourselves as those who know nothing, and see what God will do. Let’s not be in a hurry. I have never sensed that he is.
At times I have suggested that starting church gatherings is tough work and not everyone is the pioneer that it requires. I’m rethinking this. Could it be that the common (mis)understanding of what church gatherings “should be” has over-burdened the many into thinking they’re dependent on the few to do it? Did Jesus really intend for “two or more” gatherings to be that difficult? 10 years into detox and I’m seeing brand new areas of blindness in me.
If you can organize a birthday party, you can gather with 1 or 2 others and share your thoughts regarding God and church. If you can call a plumber to come fix a leak in your pipes…if you can use a map to drive anyplace you’ve never been….if you can hear a new word and begin using it in a sentence…if you can try out some new software on a computer…if you can walk into a new restaurant and order off the menu….then you can find 1 or 2 people and begin talking about your questions regarding God and church and ask him to show you his answers. Jesus said, “where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” And presto, you’ve got a church gathering! It’s so easy to make this WAY over-complicated.
My wife and I began with the two of us. We had just moved to the area and knew nobody. We’d helped plant a few church businesses in previous years, but now felt like we’d been on the wrong bus. So we spent Sunday mornings at a nearby food court in a mall, sipping tea and coffee and talking about God, church, his word, worship, the Spirit, what’s a Christian, you name it. It went on for 2-3 years. One thing led to another and for the last 6 years we’ve been gathering with 4-5 families at least a couple times a month. We’ve done two annual retreats together. We’re growing into more of what it means to be the church with each passing year. We’re connecting with others all around us who are on the same journey. We’re living faith on the front lines, and seeing God use us for his purposes. Our kids are growing up together under this entirely simple concept of church life. We’re learning things we can’t even articulate yet. Growth happens and sometimes we only know it in the rearview mirror – “hey, we’re not as bitter as we used to be…” We’re not clever, and we’re only a slice of the pie of what it means to be the body of Christ.
It’s my view that it could be generations before we have many post-detox “elders” among us. Now is the time for letting the purifying finger of God leave no stone unturned in our hearts, so he can lay a foundation that others will stand on. My prayer is that my children’s children know the answers to these current stuggles by the time they are 5 years old :-).
In an email to a friend, I recently wrote: “Let’s quit doing the Christian subculture – things that pull us out of the world that Jesus so naturally lived in. We lose, and those who are trying to be saved lose. He wants our lights to shine on top of the hill, not hiding under the sofa.”
About 10 years ago I read a book by John Fischer called, What On Earth Are We Doing that was formative in my early years of breaking away from the Christian subculture. It’s a quick read (189 pages), which are the only ones I seem to get all the way through, and I still recommend it on this topic. From the introduction, John writes:
“Now, enterprising Christians create and market thousands of products and services to a Christian market eager to pay for a safer version of contemporary culture – a sort of decaffeinated world where Christians can have their Christianity and their culture, too. This book is concerned about the emergence of a Christian subculture that encourges us to see ourselves as separate from the world not by beliefs and attitudes but by definable practices, identifiable markings, and cultural artifacts . . . I believe Christ established the church (his body of believers on earth) not to develop its own separate customs, civilization, and achievements, but to infuse the customs, civilization, and achievements of every age and society with people who love and fear God. In opting to abandon the world for our own safer version of it, we are failing to deliver on this vital aspect of our presence in the world.”
And that was published in 1996!
We need more like John.