Healthy churches have explicit pre-commitments in what they believe (confession), how they live together (covenant), and how they are governed (constitution). Of course there is more that constitutes a healthy church, but I would argue it is critical from the outset that a church make clear these commitments based on the Word of God.
I’m grateful to belong to a covenant community seeking to honor the commitments we have made to one another. As a community formed by the gospel, we seek to live together as repenters and believers. This important to remember when it comes to living out our covenant commitments because no one of us grounds our identity based on our sanctification or our ability to keep those commitments perfectly. Even the commitments themselves speak to this. For instances, God commands that we forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us. That assumes that we live in such proximate intimacy that we are going to sin against one another and be offended/hurt by one another (the Bible expects this). The proper response (which the Bible expects also) is to lovingly engage the one who has hurt/offended us and seek gospel reconciliation by making peace through repentance and forgiveness. Others include bearing one another’s burdens (context is addressing a sinning brother) and loving in ways that records of wrongdoings are not upheld and hoping all things at all times is applied.
This is important to remember because we are in danger of misunderstanding grace-based church covenant and making it into a condition-binding contract. In a church contract, when the conditions are not met by other members in our church community, you feel that you are justified in leaving that congregation in pursuit of a more perfect community. The irony to such a response is that such a response is a sinful reaction that dishonors the gospel. The person may feel justified in leaving because their feelings were hurt or was sinned against, but such justification has nothing to do with living in light of our justification by faith in Christ.
How many people have left their church family because they got upset with someone and could not do Scripture tells us to do? How many people have left because their feelings were hurt, the preacher stepped on their toes, another member failed to show sympathy and concern in a moment of crisis, and so on? How many churches were started not as a new work but as a sin-laden schism because blessed peacemaking seemed beyond the reach of those harboring resentment, fear of man, and self-pity?
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Acts 17:26-27
Last week, I talked to you my efforts this year to build a neighborhood in my city through Next Door. This is a heavy burden I have, one that I have not steward very well in the past. The verses above speak about God’s providence, namely that God determines our dwelling places. Have you thought much about that? Yes, you thought you live where you do because of the great deal on the house, the school district, the proximity to work, etc. But in and through all of these secondary causes, there’s a primary cause that you live where you do: God put you there.
And God’s providence is not without God’s purpose.
God’s purpose in Acts 17 is “that they should seek God…and find him.” So let’s put this together. God placed me in this particular plot on planet earth for the purpose that people should seek God and find Him.
And God’s purposes should become the passion of our lives.
If God’s purpose of providentially placing me in the city where I live so that people would seek God and find him, then it ought to be my passion to accomplish that purpose. God has a design. He’s being intentional and purposeful. When I embrace that intentional design, my response should be a passionate embrace and acceptance of the mission.
Simply put: I live where I live so that those without God can find life in Him. What difference would this make if my life really looked like that?
Yesterday morning, Dr. Tom Nettles preached on Melchizedek from Hebrews 7 at Grace, pointing out the significance of his name and offices. As a type of Christ, Melchizedek functioned as prophet (blessing Abraham), priest (of the Most High God), and king (of Salem). The offices of Christ and his role as mediator of the New Covenant is one of the richest topics for sustained meditation and gospel enjoyment.
But today, I thought about the spiritual perverseness of substituting myself in the role of being prophet, priest, and king of my own life. I know that sounds crazy, but if we are honest with ourselves, we are more prone to this manner of forgetting the gospel than we realize.
When I Am My Own Prophet
Jesus not only faithfully proclaims the truth, Jesus is the truth. Jesus not only gives us direct Word from God; Jesus is the Word made flesh. As the writer of Hebrews explains, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). Paul Tripp rightly notes that no one speaks to you more than you do; therefore, no one has more influence over your thoughts than you. Each and every day, we have the option to have Jesus as our Prophet, or we can speak things into our own lives in our self-salvation project.
When I am my own prophet, I am willing to believes half-truths or complete lies rather than the what God says about me in Christ. Is Christ words not enough? In the words of Joel Osteen, is it that I have to declare things over me, or is not what Jesus declares sufficient? If I am in Christ, I am to be defined by the Gospel word, having the good news as the most important and constant message that shapes my identity. When I am my own prophet, I foolishly substitute counterfeit messages that might comfort for the moment but cannot heal, pacify but cannot bring peace, help you cope but cannot save.
I live in the city of Cape Coral, FL. It’s a fascinating city in many ways. A few years ago, it was one of the top ten fastest growing cities in the United States. More recently, it has held top ranking for highest numbers and percentages of foreclosures and short sales in an area with the worst performing job market of the 100 metropolitan areas of the United States. Cape Coral has massive potential unfortunately ruined with horrible planning. It’s a story that advertises paradise with a much darker reality.
The city is built like a massive grid (see the image above). Only a handful of neighborhoods in the midst of 165,000 people. I would say 90% of the city lives without any communal connections in their immediate geographic context. It wasn’t made to be this way. Cape Coral was to be a bedroom community. Business development was severely discouraged (we don’t have an actual “downtown” or business district). Because it was once swamp land, the developers dug over 400 miles of canals throughout the city (more than any other city in the world). According to Wikipedia, Cape Coral was a “master-planned, pre-plotted community” which means us 165,000 were to fit into a postmodern template where neighborhoods didn’t exist. Because the city expanded so quick with developers, most of the homes don’t have running water or sewage (instead use well water and septic systems), and because there was only a few select neighborhood developments, the majority of the homes are randomly scattered (in my case, I have 13 vacant lots surrounding my house, and an additional 5 foreclosed (empty) homes past that).
The city is much like the boats that line the canals. It is without roots and is about as stable as the water upon which it sits. You are hard pressed to find indigenous folks here with multi-generational roots (the city was started in 1958). There aren’t stories that transcend generations or narratives that shape the culture as a whole. Rather, it is like a jigsaw puzzle. The people moving in are primarily (a) retired couples from the north who have intentions to “snowbird” part of the year and perhaps move down full-time at a later time and (b) Caribbean islanders (Cuban, Haitian, Dominican, etc.) and long with other Hispanic ethnicities migrating from the east coast (Miami/Ft. Lauderdale) looking for work in the blue-collar service industry. Then there’s the investor piece to the puzzle–people who buy property with no intentions on living in the city. So in any given street, the makeup of the community could be:
house 1: low middle-class full time resident (highly transient due to low-performing economy)
house 2: foreclosed home
house 3: investment home from someone in Europe
house 4: home own by snowbirds in town 3-6 months out of the year
(and in between these homes are numerous vacant lots)
Because there are not roots, it is very unlikely for people to stay. Job security in many cases is determined by your ability to own and operate a small business in the service industry. The moment you get to know someone, you find a UHaul truck in their driveway. On my street, only one of my neighbors has been here longer than I have (four years).
As you can imagine, this journey of dwelling in this city has been a real challenge. At times, I have just waved the white flag and given up on building community. Pessimistically, I envied living in a college town, because you would at least have folks around for four years (or more). Of all the places I have lived, I have become convinced this is the hardest city I have ever lived for the purpose of fostering community and living on mission.
But, this is my mission field, I am renewing my commitment this year to be the best neighbor I can be and positively invest in the welfare of my city. One of the creative ways I’m seeking to do this is through an online platform called Next Door. Throughout this tool, I am gonna try to create a neighborhood where one does not exist and bring those around me together. Here’s a brief overview from Next Door about what they’re about:
Why is this so encouraging to me? Well, it is going to provide me the opportunity to make my neighboring efforts to “stick.” By that I mean, I am going to be able to transcend the current dilemma seen above (house 1, house 2, house 3, house 4) by networking those who are present and interested in helping one another out. I believe it will help me personally know my neighbors so that I can practically serve my neighbors so that I can genuinely love my neighbors.
Here’s another big reason I’m encouraged. People no longer come to their front door. If they do, it is with a shot gun and a threat. You are a stranger and likely a very dangerous one at that. First places (the place of the home) are fortified with fences, security systems, and blinds. However, people are open and actually want community. And they are finding this community through social media and social networking (principally Facebook). So the front door of the 21st century neighborhood is no longer the front door of the house but the social networking invite. That’s how you enter into their lives.
But here’s the difference with Next Door. Those in your online network are actually your REAL neighbors. They are people whose lives you gain access and can actually make investment in the world you are living in. The front door of the virtual world through Next Door has the potential to become the key to unlock the front door of people’s lives (and their homes).
I say potential because I’m just getting started in 2013. My goal is to have 50 neighbors networked together, forming a new neighborhood I’m calling Burnt Embers. It’s an experiment that I hope will become a precedent, perhaps for our city. We need neighborhoods, not just “master-planned, pre-plotted communities”. I’m committed to giving it my best shot, to living incarnationally and on mission so that Jesus would be magnified in my life, my neighborhood, and my city.
For those interested in this kind of thing, I will try to keep you updated. May God help me form a neighborhood where His kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.
A couple weeks ago, I argued that a gospel-driven church will have gospel-centered expectations when it comes to the Word. It is not enough that the preacher’s sermon is Christ-centered. The congregation should be trained to be, too. That entails not only expectations but also application, which is what I want to address in this post.
Before I explain the difference between morality-based application and gospel-centered application, let me briefly mention substitutes for application in general. If we are not careful, we can allow substitutes that fall short of actual application of the Word. One of them is meeting a knowledge quotient. You can come for the purpose of intellectual satisfaction (new insights, profound interpretation, etc) and still not have the Word applied to your life. In this case, we are creating smarter sinners and not transformed saints. Another substitute is emotional experiences. You can have your heart-strings pulled and not have your heart transformed by truth. Mountain top experiences only mean you have to come back down to level ground at some time. Another substitute is sentimentalism. This is close to emotional experiences, but it is different in that the message “works” only if it fits in your sensibilities or self-imposed template.
Having mentioned substitutes, perhaps the greatest enemy of gospel-centered application of the Word is moralism. It is answering the “What?” question while completely ignoring the “Why?” question. It is going to the “How?” question with too many assumptions about the “Who?” question. Moralism leads to man-centered “rededication” as opposed to gospel-centered repentance and faith. One is driven on the performance of man; the other is driven upon the performance of Jesus. Just so that we can see the difference and highlight gospel-centered application, consider the following:
In my reading of Scripture this morning, I came to John 16:33, which says:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
In Jesus = peace
In the world = tribulation
Let’s invert the words of Jesus for a moment:
Outside Jesus = judgment
Of the world = acceptance
For those who are in Christ, there is peace with God (Rom. 5:1) because of the warrior king (I have overcome the world) who is to us, the prince of peace (Isa. 9:6). For those outside of Christ, there is judgment from God while there is acceptance with the world.
As I thought about this, I began thinking about all the songs from various artists that focus on world peace. The list of artists and musicians is a who’s who list for sure: Elvis, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, U2, The Eagles, and Michael Jackson. These are songs with lyrics like:
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
- John Lennon
What have we done to the world
Look what we’ve done
What about all the peace
That you pledge your only son…
What about flowering fields
Is there a time
What about all the dreams
That you said was yours and mine…
Did you ever stop to notice
All the children dead from war
Did you ever stop to notice
The crying Earth the weeping shores
- Michael Jackson
Most people think,
Great god will come from the skies,
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high.
But if you know what life is worth,
You will look for yours on earth:
And now you see the light,
You stand up for your rights.
- Bob Marley
These men have written the songs of our age–an age desperately seeking peace in all the wrong places. The words of Jesus are a calibration to our course of living in the world. What we can expect from the world is not peace but tribulation. The world is groaning for redemption it cannot produce. Jesus is make all things new, and the kingdom inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection is being established in the hearts of men who were once hostile in min and by nature children of wrath. Such men and women made new by Jesus, in whom we have enduring peace.
We need to correct our expectations so that we can have greater participation in the work Jesus has called us to do. Calibrated expectations will directs our efforts so that the peace the world is desperately longing for will be found in an old-rugged cross and empty tomb. Jesus has overcome the world so that we would enter into it with the gospel of peace.
Yesterday in my disciple-making class, we focused on developing a relationships investment plan for the new year. We plan for a lot of things. There’s financial planning, educational planning, vacation planning, retirement planning, etc. But one of the most important plans you could make as a disciple of Jesus is planning your relationships.
Jesus planned his relationships. He entered into relationships with a specific group of people with a purpose in mind. Those relationships were meaningful and intentional. Those relationships also had a stewardship to them, meaning that the exchange (giving and receiving) of life would carry on into the lives of others. Just a cursory look, for example, in the life of the Apostle Paul you see how sweet and endearing his relationships were with the people of whom he invested his life.
Relationships is the interconnected superhighway for gospel advance. The stronger the relationships in gospel community, the greater the success of the mission. When relationships are not strong (or nonexistent), substitutes attempt to fill in, such as programs, events, or classes. I am not saying those are bad things in and of themselves, but they are inadequate replacements for life on life and handicap the mission of the church when they do.
When making your relational investment plan, I am not talking about adding a superstructure to your life and schedule. Rather, the goal is to integrate your life in the fabric of community so that your relational investments can be intentionally leveraged for gospel growth and missional advance. It is living skillfully (walking with wisdom as Paul puts it) and seeing all of life along as a classroom to make, mature, and multiply disciples of Jesus.