What If Church Isn’t Meant to Be a Weekly Cataclysm?

Chew on this:

In his wisdom, God has crafted a life for us that does not careen from huge, consequential moment to huge, consequential moments. In fact, if you examine your life, you will see that you have actually had few of those moments. You can probably name only two or three life-changing situations you have lived through. We are all the same; the character and quality of your life is forged in little moments. Every day we lay little bricks on the foundation of what our life will be. (Tripp, What Did You Expect?, 58)

This is, in my mind, one of the most helpful chapter’s of Paul Tripp’s book on marriage. Here he is making the argument that we must develop a “little-moment” approach to our marriages. And I think he is right. He goes on to say, “things in a marriage go bad progressively. Things become sweet and beautiful progressively.”

As I was thinking through the chapter I just read, getting ready for a counseling appointment, and thinking through how this applies to my own marriage, I decided to open some mail. One of the letters I received was from one of those super cool conferences that I absolutely MUST attend. Having just read that paragraph from Tripp a particular statement on that flier stood out to me: An Experience that will CHANGE YOUR CHURCH.

Why do we do this?

Given the rhythms of church life here in America, I think we are trained to think of church as moving from one big moment to the next. We move from Sunday to Sunday and Wednesday to Wednesday, with each one being a monumental moment. Think about the way we often advertise our Sunday morning gatherings. We don’t want anyone to miss out on the life-changing encounter with God….every single Sunday.

We are trained to think in big moments. We become wired to think that the way people grow, and churches grow, and pastors are encouraged, and disciples are trained, is by moving from monumental encounter to monumental encounter.

But what if that isn’t how God usually works? What if what Tripp says about marriage is also true of our church and our ministry? What if the reason why so many marriages are difficult for pastors is that we’ve been trained to think in cataclysms when our marriages thrive on the commonplace? Should we not put into the life of our church daily rhythms similar to that which should be in our marriages?

What would this look like in practice?

In What Did You Expect?, Tripp gives six commitments that mark a day by day marriage. I wonder if these couldn’t be revamped a bit and put into the DNA of our local churches.

  • COMMITMENT #1: We will give ourselves to a regular lifestyle of confession and forgiveness.
  • COMMITMENT #2: We will make growth and change our daily agenda.
  • COMMITMENT #3: We will work together to build a sturdy bond of trust.
  • COMMITMENT #4: We will commit to building a relationship of love.
  • COMMITMENT #5: We will deal with our differences with appreciation and grace.
  • COMMITMENT #6: We will work to protect our marriage.

As I read through the book of Acts what I see is something similar. What we read in Acts 2:42-47 looks an awful lot like having a day by day commitment to one another. This is why things like life groups (or small groups) is, I believe, vital to the health of a local church. It creates in us a day by day way of thinking about life together and less about just gathering with a group of like-minded people once or twice per week.

Marriages are built brick by brick, day by day, tiny moment by tiny moment. And I’m convinced that churches are the same way. What would it look like for us to adopt this way of thinking in our local church? What would change?

How Our Unbiblical View of Forgiveness Perpetuates Social Media Outrage

I’ve read quite a few articles lately about something sociologists are calling FOMO. That’s short for “fear of missing out”. It’s why you keep your phone with you all the time and are almost constantly checking out social media. But I can save you from FOMO…at least a little bit.

Here is what you are going to miss out on this week if you disengage for a little while. I don’t know the details but they don’t matter—or at least won’t matter once the next big story drops.

At some point this week somebody important is going to say something dumb and insensitive. Some people will laugh. Most will be outraged. This person is going to offer an apology. Depending on how much we liked this person in the first place, many will offer forgiveness. But some won’t “forgive” and will call for this person to face the consequences of their actions. Then they will get in trouble for being so unforgiving and not letting it go.

The cycle is predictable. I do something wrong. I say I’m sorry. You forgive me. We bury it in the depths of the sea…only we don’t actually bury in the depths of the sea and our relationship is awkward and strained for a lengthy season…but, hey, FORGIVENESS!!!!

The problem with this cycle is two fold. First, sorry isn’t repentance. Secondly, forgiveness isn’t unconditional. Forgetting these two points is why so many relationships have all kinds of junk bubbling under the surface. And it’s why our media/social media is caught in a vicious cycle of dumb outrage.

“I’m sorry” is not repentance

In his book, From Forgiven to Forgiving, Jay Adams helpfully shows the difference between asking for forgiveness and apologizing. Noting that the concept of apologizing is not found anywhere in the Bible, Adams gives a visual picture:

Picture the wrongdoer holding a basketball. He apologizes saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ The one offended shuffles his feet awkwardly. It is always awkward to respond to an apology, because you are not asked to do anything, and yet some sort of response is expected. The offended party says something inane like, “Well, that’s OK.” But it isn’t. The matter has not been put to rest. When you say the wrongdoing is OK you either lie or condone a wrong. At the end of the transaction the wrongdoer is still holding the ball. (Adams 59)

In our feelings-centered culture we’ve turned forgiveness into a feeling. We assess whether or not somebody is “really sorry” by how deeply the feel bad about what they’ve done. If the person can sufficiently show that they feel terrible and have egg on their face, then we are more likely to grant forgiveness. In the mind of many, if they feel bad, they’ve done the time, and to not offer the “it’s OK” is to be far from Christ-like.

But repentance isn’t a feeling. Asking for forgiveness isn’t centered on how people feel. It’s more like a business transaction. The offending party has put themselves into the other person’s debt. Forgiveness is deciding to no longer charge them—it is to absorb the cost of the offense. Again, Adams helpfully explains:

Now, consider forgiveness. The wrongdoer comes with his basketball. He says, ‘I wronged you. Will you forgive me?’ In so doing, he tosses the ball to the other person. He is freed form the burden. Now, the burden for the response has shifted. The one wronged is asked to do what God requires him to do…The wrongdoer confessed to wrongdoing; he committed himself to that confession. The offended party committed himself to burying the matter. At the end of the transaction, the ball is tossed away and obligations concerning the matter are over and done with. Both are free to become reconciled. The matter has been set to rest. (Adams, 60)

Listen, if you are really “sorry” for what you’ve done, you do not want to hold onto that basketball. You have sinned and you put yourself at the mercy of the offended party. Apologizing doesn’t get the job done because it doesn’t actually address the problem. Repentance isn’t present. The offending party is still maintaining control in the relationship.

But we get away with this because our culture (and especially our Christian culture) has swallowed another error concerning unconditional forgiveness.

2. Forgiveness is not unconditional

It sounds so counter to everything we’ve been taught about the gospel, but forgiveness really is not unconditional. If it were then every single person would be saved. Yes, there is a posture of forgiveness that every believer must have. But we cannot fully forgive unless the other person repents. (See more here).

This is why stuff is never actually dealt with in so many of our relationships. This is why we are stuck in this perpetual season of outrage on social media. It’s because nothing is ever actually dealt with. Only biblical forgiveness provides the healing and reconciliation that we need.

Settling for apologies and unconditional forgiveness traps us in a cycle of non-resolution. The offending party is not given the opportunity to actually pursue repentance and redemption in Jesus. And the offended party is not given the opportunity to actually forgive and pursue healing and full reconciliation.

The sooner the church drops these unbiblical notions the better off we will be. And maybe then we can be a bit more of a beacon of light on social media than joining in on the perpetual outrage.

One Essential Mark of Church Revitalization

There is a type of shrewdness that is pastoral. There is another type of shrewdness that is Satanic. Knowing the difference is key to church revitalization.

Pastor Jim normally threw away all the ads that piled on his desk on Monday morning. Most of them frustrate him. He’s been pastoring this little church for a few years now. The initial growth which came from the “new pastor” is long gone and his hope is deteriorating every Sunday. They’ve plateaued and he knows it. So all those invitations to conferences about pastoring an awesome church serve as daggers to his weary soul.

But one catches his attention. He goes to the conference. He is on cloud nine as he believes he has been given the silver cattle prod to wake up his dying church. One of the conference speakers explained how his church grew from 125 people to 750 because they changed their music style, shape of their pulpit, color of their sanctuary, and the way they welcomed people.

Jim knew that such changes would be difficult for him to institute. He also knew that it would cost him a ton of relational capital to do things like change carpet colors and put in a projection system. He wasn’t sure his pastorate would survive the changes.

Thankfully, Jim had a buddy who was a seasoned worship leader with thick skin who needed a job. Together they devised a plan. Jim’s buddy would push hard for all of the changes that Jim wanted. He’d gather a paycheck for about a year, make everybody mad at him, and keep the pastor out of it. At the end of a year, Pastor Jim would have his projection system and colors changed in the sanctuary. Then he’d also receive the added relational capital of firing the music guy that everybody now hated.

Shrewd.

Also Satanic.

Jim hasn’t pastored his church toward revitalization, he’s just planted seeds of discontent and established a pattern that is going to bite him in the end. You cannot get holy results through unholy methods. It just doesn’t work. Ask the Israelites in Hosea’s day. You sow the wind you reap the whirlwind.

One could look at this and rightly accuse Jim of having a wrong focus. We could say, “Silly boy, the church isn’t changed by carpet colors and projection screens”. But what if we change carpet colors and project screens to, “hiring gospel-centered staff, moving towards a more biblical leadership structure, and healthier models of discipleship”. Is it okay for us to engage in deceptive practices and maneuverings in order to see more biblical things happen in our local church?

Listen, any unholy seed you plant is going to come back and bite you. It is true that God uses crooked sticks to accomplish his purposes. But those who are intentionally engaging in crooked practices (even in attempts to “be more biblical”) aren’t engaging in the right type of shrewdness or wisdom.

When we engage in church politics instead of faithful and holy proclamation of the Word what is really happening is that we’ve stopped trusting in the Lord. I’ve never once regretted time I spent in prayer or faithful proclamation. But I’ve regretted plenty of “wise” decisions that I’ve made. Charles Bridges is correct when he says, “Be in the habit of going to him in the first place—before self-will, self-pleasing, self-wisdom, human friends, convenience, expediency.” Trust in God’s methods.

Revitalization is a long and hard road. But it’s a straight and holy road. I’m not sure what you’d call the church replanted at the end of a crooked road—but it isn’t revitalized.

Be holy, first. Then you’ll be the right kind of shrewd.

Are Unhappy Christians a Poor Witness?

In a sense a depressed Christian is a contradiction in terms, and he is a very poor recommendation for the gospel. –Martyn LloydJones (Spiritual Depression)

I’ve labored over this quote for quite some time. I battle depression. So when I read statements like this from a pastor I revere it causes me to be a bit unsettled. Even more so when he says things like, “such people are very poor representatives of the Christian faith”. Now it’s possible that what Lloyd-Jones means by “depression” is different than what I mean by depression. It is a bit difficult to pin down exactly what he means by “spiritual depression” but he continued to use terms like “unhappy Christians” and “cast down” and “their souls are disquieted within them”. So, I think for the most part we have similar definitions of depression.

When I go through one of my seasons of darkness is it true that I’m a poor recommendation of the gospel?

I know in the midst of that darkness it certainly feels that way. And as I’ve given this some thought I have to admit that there won’t be depression in heaven. So whether it’s part of my finitude or fallenness it really doesn’t matter. It’ll be gone in the New Jerusalem. So depression isn’t the ideal state. If all Lloyd-Jones means is that the depressed Christian doesn’t accurately represent the full victory Christ has purchased for us, then I suppose I’d give him a thousand “Amen’s”.

I also know that some of the sinful responses which often accompany depression are definitely poor representations of Christ. Grumbling, being malcontent, and the like are certainly expressly forbidden in Scripture. This is not to mention that Scripture calls us to “be joyful always”. I suppose not being joyful is a poor witness to Christ.

But I’m not yet ready to concede.

I’m arguing that there is a type of robust faith that sits upon the ash heap of one like Job. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, was not a poor witness. Nor was King David and the other Psalmists of whom God used to give us a song book filled with lament. These are not miserable witnesses or poor recommendations of the gospel but beacons—though shrouded in darkness—of the redeeming Christ.

If Lloyd-Jones is saying what I believe he is saying then I disagree with him about the witness of those Christians battling depression.

First, I believe in this instance MLJ is reflecting a very pragmatic understanding of the gospel. He admits this much when he concedes that we live in a pragmatic age and such folks are drawn away from the gospel because of depressed Christians. Because “Christian people too often seem to be perpetually in the doldrums and too often give this appearance of unhappiness and a lack of freedom and of absence of joy” then “there is no question at all but that this is the main reason why large number of people have ceased to be interested in Christianity”.

What he is saying is that for many unbelievers Christianity simply does not work. But what did the gospel aim to do? Make people happy? Meet our unmet needs? Or did the gospel aim to set God’s children from death to life and begin the work of total redemption? If I believe the gospel is meant to make men happy here then I have to concede that in some instances it doesn’t work. We’d have to say the gospel only partially took in the life of someone like William Cowper. But I imagine we’ll sing a different tune in glory. The gospel is meant to get people to God. Mission accomplished. But until we reach glory we might still struggle with shaking off the remnants of our finitude and fallenness.

Sure, unhappy Christians are a poor witness if the gospel is that God makes men happy. But I believe (and believe MLJ also believed) the gospel is a bit more than this.

Secondly, I question whether or not Lloyd-Jones was a bit overly simplistic in his understanding of the causes of depression. That sounds ridiculous because it is MLJ who gave us great lines like this one:

Many Christian people, in fact, are in utter ignorance concerning this realm where the borderlines between the physical, psychological and spiritual meet. Frequently I have found that such [church] leaders had treated those whose trouble was obviously mainly physical or psychological, in a purely spiritual manner; and if you do so, you not only don’t help. You aggravate the problem. (Quoted from Murray, p31)

But in my mind MLJ undercuts what he said in this paragraph by his statement concerning unhappy Christians being a terrible witness. Certainly we would not say that a person who has cancer is a terrible witness. That’s the prosperity gospel. But if my unwelcome and unhappy condition isn’t simply the result of sin or a spiritual problem but a bit more complex then it is incredibly unhelpful and aggravating for Lloyd-Jones to then stack upon guilt for such a thing.

Lastly, it doesn’t leave much room for the sovereignty of God. I address this at length in Torn to Heal, but I’m convinced that on occasion these “fits of melancholy” are a divine help to us. Would I say that God is giving us something which will cause us to be a poor representation of Christ? Absolutely, not. Everything he gives is meant to bring us into conformity with Christ.

Conclusion

Where does this leave us? Certainly, we do not want to pursue misery and being an unhappy Christian. But if you find yourself in a season of darkness don’t fake it for the sake of not being a bad witness. (And Lloyd-Jones agrees with this). Don’t take the path of the stoic. Learn to use the bible’s language of lament when you need to.

I believe this quote by Christopher Wright is true because too many have taken Lloyd-Jones quips here to an unhealthy end:

…the language of lament is seriously neglected in the church.  Many Christians seem to feel that somehow it can’t be right to complain to God in the context of corporate worship when we should all feel happy.  There is an implicit pressure to stifle our real feelings because we are urged, by pious merchants of emotional denial, that we ought to have “faith” (as if the moaning psalmists didn’t).  So we end up giving external voice to pretended emotions we do not really feel, while hiding the real emotions we are struggling with deep inside.  Going to worship can become an exercise in pretence and concealment, neither of which can possibly be conducive for a real encounter with God.  So, in reaction to some appalling disaster or tragedy, rather than cry out our true feelings to God, we prefer other ways of responding to it.  –(Christopher J.H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand, 52)

I’m not attempting to defend misery. I’m simply hoping to encourage suffering Christians to not hide in these seasons of pain because of the mistaken belief that their struggle is a poor witness. Instead I’m hoping to encourage them…us….to use these seasons to display the beauty of the gospel and a Savior who clings to us even when we’ve got hands full of ashes.