Seven Churches Series- Smyrna the Brave and Faithful Church

Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them- Hebrews 11:36-38

There was no place in the ancient world where it made sense from a practical perspective to be a Christian. Everywhere in the Roman world there was always a very real chance persecution would break out. Men, women and even children were put to death simply for professing Jesus as Lord.

That said. 

There were some places where it was easier to be a Christian than others. This is because most persecution against Christians tended to center around a practice known as Emperor or Caesar worship. 

The Roman Empire was massive. Its territory covered most of Europe, Greece, all of Asia Minor (Turkey), much of the near East, Israel, Spain, much of Africa and then some. The sheer vastness of the territory created a complex problem for Roman rulers. 

Unity. 

How exactly does one unify millions of people from literally hundreds of diverse cultures and all sorts of religious backgrounds? This was a critical question. Without something to unify all those diverse people groups mayhem, rebellion and anarchy would break out all over the Empire. Clearly, none of the emperors wanted any of those things on their watch.  

This is where Caesar worship comes in. 

All adults living in the Roman Empire were obligated by law to go to a temple in their city once a year. While there they were required to throw some incense onto an altar and declare to a Roman official that whatever Caesar happened to be in power at the moment was God. If the person declined for any reason they would be transported to the nearest arena posthaste where they would be crucified, torn limb from limb, fed to a wild animal or beheaded ASAP. 

This ritual was quite effective at unifying the territories. 

However.

It also created all kinds of problems for Christians who refused to worship anyone but Jesus (Exodus 20:3, Psalm 16:4, 1st Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 4:5). 

There were cities where Caesar worship was not always strictly enforced. Christians were safer in those places. Jews were one of a handful of groups lawfully excluded from Caesar worship. If the synagogue leaders in a city allowed the church to be recognized as a sect of Judaism the Christians in the area would be given a break as well. 

The Christians in Smyrna got no breaks. Zero. Zilch. Nada. 

 The bureaucrats in Smyrna gleefully engaged in Caesar worship and were more than happy to execute anyone who refused to give Caesar his “due”. Moreover, the Jews in Smyrna loathed Christians. Not only did they refuse to protect Christians. They were so meanspirited towards the Church they would routinely report Christians as a deviant (anti-government) cult. Jewish leaders would suck up to government officials by suggesting Christians be given the “test” of Emperor worship, thus ensuring their death. The Jews were so off-the-charts cruel to Christians in Smyrna Jesus referred to the whole lot of them as a “synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). 

Further complicating an already difficult and scary situation, a person’s ability to work anywhere in the Roman Empire was always tied to idol worship. Because the Christians in Smyrna refused to compromise on this issue they were the poorest people in arguably one of the richest cities anywhere in the Roman world. There are two words commonly used for poverty in the Greek language. One means worker. It describes someone who worked with their hands for a living. The other means utter destitution. Jesus used it to describe the poverty of the Church in Smyrna (Revelation 2:10). The Christians in Smyrna were—by any measurable human standard— a rather sad and pathetic group of people. 

But. 

Jesus loved them. A lot. I don’t know if Jesus has favorites, but if He does they were for sure a favorite.  Smyrna is one of two churches out of the seven Jesus does not criticize in any way.  The Christians in Smyrna held a special place in Jesus’ heart for one reason and one reason only: they were faithful. They refused to cave to the immense social pressure they were under. They could have chosen to avoid taking unpopular stands on certain social issues. They could have chosen to pay lip service to Caesar and then told their church friends they didn’t or that they didn’t really mean it (Matthew 10:32).  They could have worshiped in pagan temples to keep their jobs. They could have lightened up on teaching Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6). Those choices would have helped them gain favor with those in power. Those choices would have allowed them to make a decent living. Those choices would have kept them alive. 

Instead.

The Christians in Smyrna loudly and proudly declared Jesus to be the only God and took the many lumps that came with doing so.  Jesus did not promise them life would get easier, in fact, He did the exact opposite. He forecasted more suffering in their future (Revelation 2:10). However. He also promised He would be with them through the trouble. He also promised He would personally and lavishly reward them for their faithfulness (Revelation 2:10-11).

 Smyrna was not the polished church (that was Ephesus). Nor was it the wealthy church (that was Laodicea). It certainly wasn’t the popular church (that was Sardis) but it was a church Jesus loved passionately because it was the brave and faithful church that was unafraid to take a stand on the things that mattered most. 

The Seven Churches Series- Ephesus

Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart- Proverbs 3:3 NIV

I have this theory that all Christian churches, denominations and organizations follow the same basic development pattern.

It always begins with a dream, desire or idea God plants in the heart of a person or a group of people.  This dream ultimately produces the birth of something new and beautiful (Isaiah 43:19, Acts 2:42-47).

Then comes childhood.  

Childhood is an exhilarating time in a church or ministry. Childhood is all about beginnings and growth. All the activity of this phase is born out of genuine love for Jesus, passion for the mission of Jesus and a desire to honor and glorify Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).   Leaders seek to obey Jesus above all else and as a result this phase typically results in an abundance of fruit. The childhood phase is also marked by some chaos. Leaders don’t always know what they’re doing, important things don’t get done and there can be disputes between key leaders (Galatians 2:11-14).  Because this stage is naturally volatile, if an organization stays in childhood for too long the ministry or church will die. No ministry or church can endure the disorganization and volatility of the childhood stage for long. 

It’s just too dang messy. 

If the organization or church survives the birth and childhood phase (some don’t). It slides into adulthood. Adulthood is the sweet spot for a ministry or church. There’s still a lot of enthusiasm and there is also a clear vision for where the ministry is going. The vision is firmly rooted in biblical principles and prayer. The ministry is still very Jesus centered but there’s more discipline than in the childhood phase. The policies and leadership structure developed in the early adulthood phase provide the stability necessary to keep the thing from flying off the rails. This is typically a very long phase that is even more effective and fruitful than the childhood phase. The organization or church earns a good reputation in the community and it does a lot of good. People are saved, lives are transformed and Jesus is glorified in a big way (Romans 10:9, Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:5). 

Then comes middle age.

If an organization makes it to the middle age stage everything is going super well from an optics perspective. Money is being raised, there are a ton of volunteers and the stated mission is still solid. 

However. 

There is a subtle shift that begins with leadership. Leaders become, usually without realizing it, much more focused on building the organization than they are on Jesus and glorifying Jesus. Jesus is still valued, but Jesus is no longer the main thing. He’s more of a figurehead at this point. Passion for Jesus and devotion to the mission gets lost in the day-to-day of “doing ministry”, “raising money” and “growing the church” (Matthew 28:18-20, Matthew 10:7-9, Ephesians 4:11-16). It not unheard of for shady conduct to become a common occurrence at this point, and because leaders are focused is on how things LOOK rather than holiness, righteousness and pleasing Jesus, it is also not all unusual for shadiness to be swept under the rug, rather than being dealt with.   All or most of the ministry work of this phase is centered on programs and fund raising rather than transforming people and glorifying Jesus.  On the surface the ministry activity APPEARS to be people and Jesus centered. However, most of it is focused firmly on keeping the ministry machine going, raising money and justifying the continued existence of the organization. 

This is exactly what happened to the church in Ephesus. 

The first church Jesus addresses in Revelation chapters 2-3 arrived at middle age and their love for Jesus and concern for the spiritual and emotional needs of people became lost in their desire to maintain the status quo. Jesus called this “losing their first love” (Revelation 2:4-5).

But here’s the thing: 

No one looking at the Ephesian church from the outside would have suspected there was a problem. Even most folks who attended the Ephesian church were likely unaware of the issues. The leaders were undoubtedly clueless. Leaders at this stage almost always lack any kind of real self-awareness. As a result, they thought everything was fine. And why not? All the externals looked awesome. The pastors were skillful, polished and well-educated. The doctrine was solid.  They avoided getting involved with problematic or divisive issues. The people attending gave money and willingly suffered hardship for Jesus (Revelation 2:2-3).  

But. 

Their hearts were far from God. The people stopped caring about the things Jesus cared about. The Ephesian Church was still very busy kingdom building. It was just the wrong kingdom. It was a human kingdom instead of Jesus’ kingdom.  

Jesus’ instruction to the Ephesian Christians is straightforward: “do what you did at first”.  

Jesus knew that one of two things happens at this crossroads.

Most of the time the ministry continues a slow drift further and further from the original mission. Bit by bit it loses its ability to make a spiritual impact on the world. The church remains but the power it once had to make disciples and transform the culture evaporates. The people lose their saltiness and the church or organization becomes spiritually worthless (Matthew 5:13). If it endures it morphs into more of a social service agency than an actual ministry. 

Or.

There is a spiritual awaking.  The people who attend and lead these churches recognize the problem. They see the drift. It breaks their hearts and they repent. They fully rededicate themselves to the cause of Christ. Jesus becomes the main thing once again and the church or organization continues to be a vital part of the body and a solution to the brokenness in this world (Revelation 2:7). 

However.

Spiritual awaking’s don’t just happen.  

We need to ask God to help us see the drift in our lives and our churches and our ministries. It’s imperative we pray daily for wisdom and self-awareness and a heart that is willing to see the problems and our role in those problems. Most importantly, must be eager to do what we did at first (Jeremiah 17:9-10). We have to fight to go back to that childlike state of spiritual existence where Jesus was our everything and our obedience was a gift we joyfully gave Him.  

Surviving an Unfair, Unjust or just Plain Horrible Situation-

 Nothing in all creation is hidden from Gods sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account– Hebrews 4:13 NIV 

Fairness, justice, equity are more than just woke talking points. 

They are a really big deal.

They are a big deal in a global sense. Every human being, no matter who they are or where they live wants the world to be fair and just. Civilized people want evil to be punished and good rewarded. No decent person wants anyone to be denied a fair shot at life. All people want the same rules to apply to everyone regardless of gender, race or social status (Proverbs 21:15). It’s simply how humans are wired (Genesis 1:27). 

Fairness, justice and equity are also a big deal from a personal perspective. We all want to know when someone harms us or treats us unfairly some authority somewhere will see to it the wrong is righted and the wrongdoer is punished. We all want to be treated equally and fairly. We want to be judged by the content of our character rather than by our age, the color of our skin, our gender, marital status or job title.

For Christians the longing for fairness, justice and equity goes beyond the global or even the personal. These issues are deeply spiritual. We serve a God who describes Himself as both the architect and the ultimate champion of equity, justice and fairness (Psalm 11:7, Psalm 50:6, Psalm 103:6, Psalm 67:4). As God’s people we want to know God sees us in a personal way. We want to know He is aware of the wrongs committed against us. We want God to care enough about us personally to punish those who sin against us (Deuteronomy 32:43).  

Christians rarely discuss it, but most go through a season where they struggle to see and experience the goodness of God in a personal way. Due to painful circumstances these folks can’t help but wonder if God really does see them and if He really does care about what they are experiencing. 

Doubt isn’t always simply due to lack of faith. 

Sometimes doubt is due to what feels like a tardy response on God’s part (2nd Peter 3:8). Times of doubt tend to occur when we really NEED to know God is attentive to our situation and cares about the details of our pain, loss or the oppression we are dealing with. I call these times “seasons of silence”. A season of silence is a time when God feels far away. Because God feels far away our pain or loss feels utterly unbearable.  In order to survive a season of silence a Christian has to have a theology of pain. We have to understand what the Bible says about God so we are not left to rely on our feelings without the guidance of His word (Proverbs 3:5-6, Psalm 119:105).  

Anytime God feels distant and uninterested in our problems it’s critical we remember first and foremost, we are not the only people to feel the way we feel. Some of God’s best and brightest, including David, Elijah, Daniel, Moses, Mary Magdalene and even Jesus went through an experience or season where they felt God had abandoned them, hadn’t heard their prayers or was simply inattentive at the point of their deepest need (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46, Daniel 10:1-18, Exodus 5:1-19, John 20:11).  We are fortunate to see those stories in the rear-view so we know God has never actually abandoned anyone in their greatest need.  

We also need to remember we live in a world broken by sin (Romans 5:12, Romans 3:23, Ephesians 2:1). On a practical level this means evil, unjust and unfair things happen all the time.  People lie, take advantage of others, oppress people and cover-up their own sin at the expense of others (2nd Timothy 3:1-4). Sometimes it appears God has chosen to overlook the sin of those who willfully do wrong. 

Justice delayed does not mean justice will be denied indefinitely with God. He promises there will come a day when every wrong will be righted and every sin punished (Hebrews 12:23, Exodus 32:34, Leviticus 26:27-29, Isaiah 13:11, 1st Thessalonians 4:6). God is so not okay with sin, evil and disobedience He punished the Israelites for their idolatry and sexual sin by sending them into servitude and exile for seventy years in the country of Babylon (Isaiah 5:12-16, Jeremiah 29). God is also not okay with injustice and the mistreatment of His people, He later punished Babylon for the sins committed against Israel while they were in exile (Jeremiah 25:12). Babylon was a very short-lived super-power entirely because God cannot bear to see injustice go unpunished. It is wisdom to remember there is nothing in all of creation that goes unnoticed or undealt with by God (Hebrews 4:13). 

 God often defers justice simply because He is merciful and good (Genesis 15:16, Exodus 34:6, Nahum 1:3, 2ndPeter 3:9). God graciously gives sinners time to get their heart right and repent before judgement comes. Our responsibility during a season of silence is to remember the goodness of God, to be merciful just like God is merciful and to pray for those who have sinned against us as we wait on God to do what he promises to do (Matthew 5:44).   

Some Advice for Christian Leaders-


Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name
– Psalm 86:11 NIVUK

Sadly, there has been a lot of failure in Church world over the course of the last forty years or so:

 The vast majority of Christians who identify as “committed believers” attend services a pathetic and measly 1.3 times a month. Fewer than forty percent of all Christians have actually read the Bible all the way through. Between sixty and eighty percent of the children who grew up in church over the course of the last three decades have left the church. Precious few of have returned in any sort of a meaningful way. Infidelity, spiritual abuse, embezzlement and tales of narcissistic behavior have become so commonplace among clergy that even Christians are no longer appropriately shocked by shocking reports of misconduct and sin.  

All serious signs of dismal failure. 

It’s simply a fact that churches have made some tragic mistakes in recent years. As a result, the Church is shrinking and the culture is floundering. Conversions are down and “deconstructing” one’s faith is trending. Thankfully, our God is not reliant on on the perfection of His people to get His will accomplished. That being said, it is always beneficial to His overall plan when His people choose to do life and ministry His way. There are at least four mistakes the Church has made that we cannot afford to keep making if we want to see health in our churches, transformation in our lives and revival in our world. 

Those mistakes are:

We have failed to equip the saints-

Biblical illiteracy is a serious issue in Church world. Few Christians can name all the books of the Bible. There are church-goers who actually believe the Bible promises God will never give us more than we can handle and that cleanliness is next to godliness.  However, lack of biblical understanding is not the only problem we have. Many Christians do not know how to define personal holiness, or how Christian maturity is achieved (2nd Peter 1:3-11, Romans 12) Nor, are most believers able to articulate what a healthy Christian life should “look like”.  These are all basic concepts every Christian should understand. 

Churches have encouraged congregants to depend on external sources for spiritual food-

For decades now, sermons have been tasty and easy to digest, but seriously lacking in any real nutritional value. Essentially, the spiritual equivalent of chocolate pudding. The goal of these Sunday morning offerings has been attracting unbelievers and keeping them in the church by not offending them in any way. At the same time many discipleship programs have all but been eliminated and small groups aimed at satisfying one’s personal preferences and helping people “do life together” were put in their place. All of this was well-intended but it produced a situation where many Christians began depending on outside sources like prerecorded Bible studies and podcasts for their spiritual growth. The unintended consequences has been a serious drop in church attendance. Many have quit church altogether, or they simply pop into an occasional service when the mood strikes them. Covid accelerated this trend as more and more churches began offering online viewing options on Sunday mornings. Human beings were made for community. We learn and grow by being with and interacting with others (Proverbs 27:17). Anytime Christians remove themselves from community they short-circuit their growth.  

Bible teachers have failed to teach a theology of hardship-

The Bible is clear: trials and hardship are formative to the Christian experience (John 16:33, 1st Thessalonian 3:3, 1st Peter 1:6). Jesus experienced hardship and suffering in this life and one aspect of becoming like Jesus is doing the things He did and experiencing the things He experienced (Hebrews 5:7-9, Hebrews 13:11-13). Unfortunately, in an effort to attract unbelievers many Pastors and Bible teachers have taught a theology of easy believism and guaranteed material blessings. This has caused many to become disillusioned and leave the church when it became obvious (as it always does) that the Christian life is a blessed life but not necessarily an easy one.  

We have forgotten that spiritual knowledge is not the same as spiritual maturity-

Knowing what the Bible says or even being able to quote an excess of verses does not make one spiritually mature. In order to be a mature Christian we have to know what the Bible says and be able to manage our own emotions, treat people the way we want to be treated and forgive others from the heart (Psalm 119:11, Titus 2:12, Galatians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:13, Ephesians 4:31, Hebrews 12:15). If we can’t do those things we aren’t spiritually mature no matter how many verses we can quote. 

The solution to all of these problems are simple. Churches must leave behind old models and pivot to a culture of discipleship and community. Leaders must let go of the desire to make churches big at the expense of making them strong, healthy and deep. Individual Christians must prioritize biblical learning, personal growth and relationships in the church over all else. 

How does God work in a Godless Time?

Our wrongdoings testify against us, Lord, act for the sake of Your name! Our apostasies have indeed been many. We have sinned against You– Jeremiah 14:7 NASB 

A couple of months ago I concluded that I had been spending way too much of my Bible reading time in a few New Testament books. 

It was time to broaden my horizons. 

So, I dusted off the books of 1st and 2nd Kings. The first few chapters of 1st Kings is mostly just palace intrigue. It covers the death of King David and the opportunistic scheming that occurred around his passing. The book reaches a high point early on with the installation of David’s son Solomon as his replacement. Solomon started strong with a heart for God. God blessed his efforts and Israel thrived economically and militarily under his leadership.  

It all kind of goes down-hill from there.

Despite his wisdom and worldly success, Solomon was a dismal failure when it came to all the things that really matter in life. The Kingdom split following his death and both Israel and Judah wandered far from God.  Most of the rest of 1st Kings is just a glum recounting of one bad, evil, idolatrous king after another bad, evil, idolatrous king. The book gets slightly more interesting with the introduction of the prophet Elijah in 1st Kings 17 but then 2nd Kings devolves into a serious of weird and disturbing stories that cover topics as diverse as floating ax heads and cannibalism. The weird stories are interspersed here and there with more recountings of more crappy kings. In chapter seventeen Israel falls and is taken captive by Syria. King Hezekiah begins ruling Judah in chapter eighteen. Hezekiah and Josiah were the last of Judah’s even halfway decent kings. However, their leadership was not enough to keep the country from falling ever deeper into idolatry and ruin. King Nebuchadnezzar makes his first appearance in chapter twenty-four and that ushers in the Babylonian captivity and the end of Jewish sovereignty. 

Sigh. 

I was surprised by how depressed I was when I was finished reading the books. It wasn’t the first time I read either book. However, it was the first time either book hit me in such a soul-crushing kind of a way.  

I did have a couple of realizations concerning the books.

First.

The book of 1st Kings is just a sad recounting of Israel’s long slide into apostasy, unbelief and sin. 2nd Kings tells the story of how God worked in the lives of those who lived faithfully for God when everyone else had turned their backs on Him.  The books hit me hard because I am also living in a season of apostasy. We don’t call it that, that of course, we call it “living in a post-Christian culture”, which sounds way nicer than “apostasy” but it’s the same thing. Whatever you call it, it sucks. It sucks living in a declining culture. It sucks watching the whole stupid world devolve into moral and intellectual chaos. It sucks seeing people degrade themselves with stupid ideas and even stupider behavior. It sucks watching people do everything possible to deny the reality of God. Most of all, it sucks feeling overwhelmed by the darkness and ugliness of a post-Christian world. 

That being said. 

We are not without hope.

We aren’t Israel and God hasn’t left the building (metaphorically speaking of course). He’s still on His throne and He is still working in the hearts of His people, which means He is still working in our culture. Revival could be just around the corner. In the meantime, following are four lessons I gleaned about living in a post-Christian culture from 1st and 2nd Kings.  

Community is critical in a season of apostasy– 

In 1st and 2nd Kings God works most powerfully through little communities of prophets who banded together to support and encourage one another. Community, connection, partnership and close friendship is an ongoing theme throughout the book. The takeaway for contemporary believers is clear. The key to remaining spiritually strong and emotionally healthy while the world is literally going to hell around us is making Christian community a priority in our lives. 

When the going gets tough God shows off– 

All the depressing historical truths aside, one of the high points of both books is seeing God work among the believing remnant in 1st and 2nd Kings. From Mt. Caramel in 1st Kings 17 to the ax head incident in 2nd Kings. God showed His power and provided for His people in fresh new ways. We should have hearts of faith that expect Him to do the same in our time. 

 God works in surprising places in dark times- 

One key theme of both 1st and 2nd Kings is provision for gentiles in general and gentile women in particular (1st Kings 17:9-20, 2nd Kings 4:1-37). Both books make it clear that when previously believing people turn their backs on God, He shows Himself in mighty and life-giving ways to people groups we wouldn’t necessarily expect Him to work through. I believe with all my heart we should expect a movement of God in unexpected places in the coming years. 

And finally: 

Relentless leaders bring hope and healing to a graceless age – 

Two bright spots in 2nd Kings are the stories of Hezekiah and Josiah. Both men were hardworking, tenacious, God-fearing leaders who had the insight to recognize the serious nature of times they lived in and the grit to do something about the problems at the root of Israel’s trouble. They understood it was idolatry and the sinful practices that accompany idolatry destroying the people they loved (2nd Kings 18:1-6, 2nd Kings 23:1-24). Their love for people, steadfast leadership and determination to serve God wholeheartedly resulted in revival that brought social change and kept judgment at bay. 

So. 

All that to say, one of the key takeaways from 1st and 2nd Kings is that God is always at work even in a post-Christian world that feels like it’s going to hell all around us.  Usually in ways we least expect. 

Rethinking Church Post-Covid-

Be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord– Colossians 3:15b-16 NKJV

By any measurable standard the Covid-19 crisis was bumpy for everyone. The world was collectively awestruck at how quickly a weird little virus could lead to compulsory lockdowns, financial uncertainty, social unrest, church closures and the shutdown of most schools. The gloom brought on by those unwelcome changes took a heavy toll on everyone, including most Christians (James 1:2-3). 

These realities swiftly exposed a host of systemic and potentially lethal problems lurking in Western churches. Most believers lacked the spiritual tools and community support necessary to keep their faith vibrant over a year of forced isolation. Even fewer Christians were prepared to answer the questions that surfaced out of the COVID crisis. Questions like: where is God when we suffer? What role should government play in faith communities? What does honoring authority look like in a global pandemic (Romans 13:4-6)? Is online church a suitable substitute for the real deal (Hebrews 10:25)? Furthermore, local churches struggled with an unprecedented loss of attendance and financial support. Many pastors suffered a crisis of identity when they learned exactly how expendable most political and public health authorities felt their contribution to society was.

Sigh.

Thankfully, the worst seems to be passing. I am personally overjoyed, no one hated COVID world more than this girl. That said, we should all have some very real reservations about churches returning to the “normal” we foolishly embraced pre-COVID. Our Western Church version of normal has been proven to be a lot less than healthy and live-giving. The last thing the church needs is more of what created the problems that became evident during COVID.  Instead the church needs a twenty-first century reformation that begins with:

An end to the Christian celebrity culture- 

Little good has come from idolizing Christian pastors, musicians, and influencers. Most of the men and women put on pedestals by the Christian community have become prideful and arrogant and proven themselves to be completely unteachable. Too many “celebrity Christians” have embraced a life of sin and destroying the reputation of Jesus and other Christians in the process.  Some have become so addicted to media attention that they eventually denounced Christianity altogether to keep the spotlight on them. It’s time for Christian to say “no more” to the celebrity culture.  Instead we must be intentional about looking within our own local churches for faithful men and women to hold up as examples of the faith (1st Corinthians 11:1, Philippians 3:17). 

No more shallow teaching-

A shocking lack of doctrinal depth has become standard in many churches.  Like most of our mistakes this one was made with good intentions. Dumping discipleship programs (Adult Sunday school) and replacing them with small groups was intended to build community and make unbelievers more comfortable in the church. It did neither. All it did was shrink the Church and produce a generation of genuinely ignorant and spiritually immature Christians. If we want to save the Western Church we need to find ways to make Sunday school cool again. 

Theology that empowers the church to deal with secular authority in a biblical manner- 

It’s simply a fact that Christians are called to obey secular authorities.  However, early Christians continued to meet together (sometimes daily) despite the fact it was forbidden by “authorities” on and off for more than three centuries.  If they hadn’t the church probably would have disappeared altogether early in the first century. Leaders and individual Christians need to do some soul searching and decide what sort of edict is worthy of violating the command to “gather together” before the next round of shutdowns. 

An openness to a movement of the Spirit of God- 

Sadly, there are two equally stupid views of the Holy Spirit that have prevailed in most denominations over the last century. On one end of the spectrum there is a history of gross excess. This group has taken 1st Thessalonians 5:19“Do not quench the Spirit” to mean that almost anything done in the name of the Holy Spirit goes with or without any biblical precedent. Period. This has been a huge turnoff for those on the other end of the spectrum who have declared anything they see as out of the ordinary (speaking in tongues, raising hands in worship, prophetic utterances) as evil and “of the devil” even if that thing has biblical precedent. Both attitudes are wrong, Truth lies in the middle. It is not our job to manufacture the work of the Spirit in the name of “having an experience”. Neither is it our job to dictate to God how He can or cannot work. Our job is to seek the Spirit with an open heart asking Him to reveal more of Himself and His truth to us. However, we also need to understand that any genuine work of the Holy Spirit will be accompanied with a greater desire to obey God. The God of the universe doesn’t do anything without the purpose of bringing about transformation. 

A return to community based church- 

We are made in the image of a relational God (Genesis 1:26). We need each other. Period. Churches have to figure out how to create authentic faith communities in the midst of twenty-first century busyness. If we don’t the church will continue to lose people. 

It is the churches responsibility to be ready to offer hope, help and healing when the worst happens. Most churches weren’t ready for any of that with COVID. Welcoming a movement of God, building community in the church and being prepared to answer  tough theological questions is how we get ready for whatever comes next. 

Why we all Need to get our Butts Back in the Church Building-

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  – Acts 2:42 NIV 

According to Pew Research Center as of March 2021 almost half (forty-three percent) of church members have yet to return to in-person church services. A forty-three percent loss of almost anything is at best unsustainable. At worst such a loss could prove fatal. 

Think about it. 

If a family were to suddenly lose forty-three percent of their savings, the loss would create untold chaos in their financial future. If a nation were to lose forty-three percent of their population the nation would inevitably become weak, ineffectual and find themselves at the mercy of their enemies. The church is no different. A forty-three percent loss of regular attenders is no small deal. 

I totally get that there are some individuals who cannot or should not go back to in-service church attendance at this time.

For the record; 

Elderly folks unable or unwilling to get the COVID vaccine, get a pass on returning to in-person services. The immune compromised, or parents with an immune compromised child are also exempt from returning to in-person services at this time. Those with serious comorbidities who cannot or do not wish to take the vaccine, get a pass on resuming in-person church attendance at least for now. 

Everyone else needs to get their butts back in the church building. 

Pronto. 

Here’s why:

It’s not necessarily going to be smooth sailing from here- 

I do not fancy myself a prophet. That said, the culture has taken a turn for the worse and every fiber of my being tells me that the shaking God has given our world over the course of the last fifteen months is not even close to being over (Hebrews 12:25-27). God will continue to shake our world until people respond to Him in repentance (Revelation 9:20). What the shaking will look like and where it will end are questions far above my meager paygrade.  Nonetheless, it’s not over. More trouble and hardship is coming and the body of Christ will likely not be exempt from the trouble (1st Peter 4:17). If I’m right Christians will need the encouragement and connection they can only get from the body of Christ in order to continue their growth as believers (Hebrews 3:13, Hebrews 10:24-26) When Christians fail to grow spiritually they run the risk their faith will die a slow and painful death that could end in apostasy (Hebrews 6:1-9, Matthew 24:9-11).  Church community is critical because it prevents apostasy.  

The church needs all hands-on deck to accomplish the mission of the Church- 

The mission of the church is clear (Matthew 28:18-19). The church is to proclaim the gospel and make disciples. To accomplish this end church leaders are commanded to teach and train all believers to live out the truth of the gospel so they can reach their unsaved friends and family with the gospel (Ephesians 4:10-12). This task is massive. It demands the whole-body work together to accomplish the mission (Romans 12:4-6, 1st Corinthians 12:17). If one person stays home or refuses to do their part a ball gets dropped that ensures the whole body is less effective than they could have been. 

Christians need the church to stay anchored and spiritually healthy-

Without a solid church to anchor a person to the faith individual believers either drift away from Christianity altogether or they begin to adopt strange theories and attitudes regarding God and Scripture. Strange beliefs make it very difficult to reach others with the gospel. These things happen without the person even realizing they are happening. Regular community involvement in a local church is the only way to prevent drift from taking place and eccentric beliefs from taking root. 

There are some things you cannot experience while watching a screen- 

Online attendance has its limits. It is possible to get the essence of a sermon from an online format. That said, it is impossible to experience unity and connection with other believers alone in your living room. It is also impossible to experience the knitting together of the body that takes place when the whole church worships their God in one accord (Acts 2:42-47, Revelation 7:9-10). It is also impossible to effectively use one’s individual gifts to grow the body of Christ while isolated from the body of Christ. We need each other for all these things.  

This pandemic is winding down- 

An estimated thirty percent of the population has recovered from COVID-19 and has natural immunity, another fifty percent of the population has had at least one COVID vaccination. This is a clear indicator it is time for God’s people to ditch their fear and get back to the business of living hard for Jesus.  

The bottom-line in all this is that we go to church because God tells us to and it is the pattern we see throughout the entire Bible. We cannot say we love God and refuse to do what He says (John 14:15, 1st John 5:2, Hebrews 10:25) at least not without experiencing dire consequences. In this case consequences could include a slow separation from God that gives the devil a foothold in our lives and place for sin and even apostasy to take root. Nobody who really knows Jesus wants that. In order to prevent it we all need to get our butts back into the church building. 

Now.  

Why Christians Still Need Corporate Church Services in the Age of COVID-19-

Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching- Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV

 One unexpected result of the Coronavirus pandemic has been the emergence of two distinct viewpoints on the subject of church amongst church people.

 Many, including mega-church Pastor Andy Stanley feel there is little need for churches to meet corporately in light of the health issues our society is grappling with. They believe worship is more-or-less a private matter and online church is a perfectly adequate means for delivering a Sunday morning message. This group is convinced Romans 13:1 is the end-all-be-all in this situation. They believe STAYING HOME is the SAFEST and BEST way to honor God and be a credible witness to the culture at this point in history.

 Others believe CHURCHES SHOULD BE OPEN NOW.  Christians have a RIGHT to be in church and rights are meant to be exercised. Many of these same people feel it shows a lack of faith to wear masks in church or follow CDC COVID-19 guidelines.

 Never has there been a greater need for wisdom.

  If church attendance is a statement of your political values you are attending for the wrong reasons. Period. Furthermore, Christians should not abandon good sense when they meet together. It is not anti-faith to wash our hands and avoid close physical contact with people in the middle of a global pandemic. Seriously.

 That being said.

  Without private worship corporate worship devolves into a hollow exercise. Nevertheless, private worship is not a suitable substitute for in-person gatherings. Church attendance matters (Acts 5:12). When Christians meet together for the sole purpose of honoring God something sacred and beautiful takes place, therefore Christians should not be too quick to accept the online experience as the “new normal”. Christians should seek out some sort of corporate church experience (more on that later) for the following four reasons:

 People do not grow in safe, comfortable environments-

 It is human nature to seek out and create environments we feel completely comfortable in. Church at home is without a doubt the most comfortable church experience on the planet. However, people do not grow personally or spiritually when they stay in situations that are exactly to their liking for too long. God knows this. Therefore, He makes a practice of placing His people in situations that feel super uncomfortable and even unsafe. Joseph, Naomi, David, Daniel, Esther, Elijah, Peter and Paul all flourished spiritually when were thrown into situations they undoubtedly found personally challenging and even terrifying. The early church started as a near-perfect church experience (Acts 2:42-47). However, it did not take long for God to disperse His people into the unknown and uncomfortable.

 Online church and other exclusively private forms of worship give sinful human beings far too much control over their experience-

 In recent years Christians have had more choice about where they attend church and more access to spiritual resources than at any other point in history. Inexplicably, the end result of all this freedom has not been an overwhelming success. Christians are not exactly setting the world on fire. This is because people grow most when they are forced to do things and hear things they don’t want to do or hear. Internet church is fundamentally unhealthy because sitting in our living rooms alone does not require us to make a single concession to anyone else’s needs. It is also way too easy to give in to the temptation to fast-forward through music we dislike or the “boring” parts of the sermon. Corporate church is necessary because it forces us to sacrifice for others and challenges our thinking on critical spiritual issues (Proverbs 11:14).

 The biblical model is primarily one of corporate worship and learning-

 Corporate worship and study are the standard pattern in the Bible. This is true in the Old Testament, the New Testament and the future we are shown in the book of Revelation (Psalm 35:18, Hebrews 2:12, Revelation 7:8-9).

 The Christian life will get harder and community is vital when life is hard-

 Overnight it has become harder to be a Christian. It will not get any easier anytime soon. When life is hard relationship becomes essential. Online community is not wrong. I have formed some valued friendships online with people I will never meet this side of heaven.  However, online communities have some distinct disadvantages over in-person community. Christians who live in communist countries will tell you that online community can be undone in a few brief minutes by a determined government authority. Neither does online community allow for the meeting of other’s physical needs. Furthermore, it is all-too easy to “love” online community members who never have an opportunity to rub you the wrong way.

 Churches that refuse to take reasonable safety precautions do not love their neighbors (Matthew 7:12). They should be avoided. No one who is at high risk place themselves in a mega-church environment. That said, self-examination is key if you feel safe going to restaurants and malls you should stop making excuses, take some precautions and get your keister back in church.   

 Those who cannot attend a church service for legitimate health reasons should seek to create a small group of Christians outside their immediate family and watch the service with them. This should include participating in the worship portion of the service and there should be time set aside to pray for one another’s needs.

 No one should be doing the Christian life solo right now. We must find a way to participate in authentic Church community.

Will Churches Survive the COVID-19 Crisis?

 Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching- Hebrews 10:24-25 NIV

  I hate COVID-19.

  I hate the trouble, awkwardness and expense this idiotic infection has created for the whole world. I despise the suspicion I see in people’s eyes at the grocery store. I hate the look of panic I see when people realize they have accidently broken social-distancing rules. I hate that I feel the need to reassure people who are clearly terrified I am going to scream at them I am not afraid of them. I despise the cold plastic walls we’ve erected everywhere.  I hate that COVID-19 has made it clear to me that I am still in desperate need of sanctification as revealed by the level of aggressiveness and cynicism I feel about this whole thing.

 I also hate what the virus is doing to the body of Christ. In the early days of the pandemic I wondered if Coronavirus might turn out to be a net-positive for the church. In some ways, it has been. Many once apathetic Christians are seeking God on a deeper level and praying more and harder than they’ve ever prayed in their lives (Revelation 3:15-17). Sales of devotionals are up and Bible aps have seen a marked increase in users. The forced separation from church family has made many believers more grateful for their local Church and the community it provides. These are clear wins for the church.

 However.

 It’s not all sunshine and roses in church world. Online attendance of services was good early on but there’s been a sharp decline in recent weeks. Some have made online commitments to Jesus. However due to circumstances beyond their control leaders have been unable to follow-up on those people in a meaningful way. Sadly, most of those baby believers are MIA. Even some mature Christians have lost connection with their church family. Some have taken to bouncing from online service to online service. Churches are closed almost everywhere. In some areas they will stay closed for the foreseeable future.  Some Christian leaders have begun to hold what are essentially illegal gatherings. A few have even been arrested for doing so. More moderate Christians cite Romans 13:1-7 and contend it’s simply wrong to disobey government authority. Other Christians have decided that online church is just as good as meeting together in person. They believe Christians should be content to worship alone in their homes until the authorities give us permission to do otherwise.

 What is a Christian to do?

 The church is not a building (1st Corinthians 12:27, Ephesians 3:6). The church is individual people from divergent backgrounds and races who come together to make up a living, breathing organism called the body of Christ. (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).  No one has to attend church in a building to be a Christian.  However, it could be argued that one very effective, albeit slow way to kill a body, especially a spiritual body is to separate the parts.

 It is not healthy, wise or biblical to replace the freedom, fellowship, accountability and warmth of in-person meetings with technology. There is no accountability with a computer screen. Sin, bad doctrine and complacency all breed in secret.  Furthermore, the longer one goes without church the easier it is to forget that Christians are commanded to meet together on a regular basis (Hebrews 10:25).

 That being said, law-breaking should never be our go-to as Christians.

 Therefore, if you live in an area that’s prohibited church gatherings, it is imperative you exhaust every legal avenue available to get the right restored. Contact the office of your governor, state senators and legislators as quickly as possible. POLITLEY, GRACIOUSLY and RESPECTFULLY ask for an exception for churches on large gathering bans. Use Daniel’s interactions with Arioch in Daniel 1:1-8-16 as a guide for dealing with government officials. If your church is granted an exemption, members and leaders should cheerfully follow any and all rules mandated by the state (masks, hand-washing, social distancing, hand sanitizer stations). Every rule should be followed to the letter. Even if people believe the rules are stupid and/or unnecessary.  This isn’t about what we think or feel. It’s about the greater good.

 In the meantime, Pastors and church leaders must assume the current situation will continue for a while or will return sometime in the future. Pastors should develop systems to train lay-leaders so they are able to provide teaching, support, accountability, fellowship and pastoral care to groups of fewer than ten. Even if the system is unnecessary at this time this will not be the last outbreak of COVID-19, so it will probably prove useful in the future.

  Individual Christians should realize the current situation is part of a much bigger spiritual battle and do everything in their power to build themselves up in the faith. Bible reading, prayer and daily self-examination are not optional activities for Christians at this moment in history (Matthew 26:41, 2nd Corinthians 13:5).

 They are our greatest need.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alcohol, Psychology, Environmentalism and Other Awkward Relationships I Have With the World-

Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight- 1st Corinthians 3:18-19a NIV

 Christians are commanded to live in this world without wallowing around in the worldliness of the world (John 17:16-18, 1st John 2:15-17, 1st John 4:4-5). For mature believers this means having an awkward and uncomfortable relationship with a lot of the things in this world.

 For me, the list of worldly things I am at least somewhat uncomfortable with is long. Some highlights include most government funded poverty programs, modern environmentalism, public education and most of the stuff that comes out of Hollywood.  The enemy has gotten a firm foothold in every one of those arenas and found clever ways to use them to mislead people.

 Alcohol is yet another example of an awkward and uncomfortable relationship I have with the world. There is a little too much sanctioned alcohol use in the Bible for me to completely buy into the idea it’s a sin to drink alcohol (Song of Songs 8:2, Proverbs 3:10, John 2:1-8, 1st Timothy 5:23).   That being said. As the adult child of two raging alcoholics I have experienced firsthand the devastation and misery that comes with excessive alcohol use. Therefore, I am uncomfortable with anything other than infrequent alcohol use.

 Anyway.  

 Perhaps my most uncomfortable ongoing relationship with the things of this world is with psychology.

 I am not opposed to psychology.  

 My husband occasionally jokes I was raised by wolves. It’s a bit of an exaggeration but not completely out of line with reality. I credit discovering psychology in my early twenties with helping me make sense of my parents, myself and why they were the way they where and why I am the way I am. I credit Jesus with saving me and changing me but without the aid of some Christian counselors and Christian psychology books it probably would have taken a lot longer for me to work out the kinks that a sketchy upbringing created in my personality (Romans 12:2, 2nd Corinthians 3:18, 2nd Corinthians 5:17).

 If psychology is kept in perspective, it can be helpful to the church. Psychology is the science of understanding the human mind. It helps explain how past experiences influence human behavior.  When leaders understand the “why” behind human actions it enables them to help people get free of the bondage that comes with bad choices. Psychology helps people to better understand themselves.  Knowing the “why’s” behind why we do what we do is key to making changes that help us become better more effective followers of Jesus.

 However.

 Like all human wisdom, psychology has very real limits and should never take priority over the Bible (1stCorinthians 1:25). It’s important to remember that with the exception of Christian practitioners, psychology does not acknowledge God or the sin nature of humanity (Isaiah 53:6, Romans 3:23). As a result, the science of psychology can never fully explain exactly how and why the human soul can become completely twisted and evil, nor does it empower people to fully transform into a better version of themselves (2nd Corinthians 5:17). Only Jesus can do that.

 Secular psychology relies heavily on behavior modification which some people (including some Christians) confuse with the Christian act of repentance. Repentance is usually a process.  It begins with the Holy Spirit working in a person’s life to convict them that their choices are wrong. The person recognizes their behavior is wrong, not because it bugs other people or because it creates chaos in their lives but rather because it is offensive to God. Then the person makes changes to please God rather than people. These kinds of changes tend to last.

  Conversely, behavior modification is usually motivated by social pressure. A spouse or friend says something judgy and it becomes apparent that relationships will be threatened if something doesn’t change. The individual then changes their behavior just enough to please people and get them off their back. Sometimes this happens without the person concluding that there was anything wrong with what they were doing in the first place.  

 Without true heartfelt repentance it is impossible to be saved because repentance is the fruit of faith (Acts 20:21, 2nd Corinthians 7:10, Mark 1:4). Unfortunately, psychology sometimes enables people to change just enough to keep them from feeling like they need to turn to God and repent. Psychology can make a person aware of their shortcomings and flaws but it can never bring anyone to a saving knowledge of Jesus.

 By far my biggest issue with psychology is that it places limits on compassion and forgiveness that God does not. Psychology tells us that no one is obligated to forgive a wrong and that no one should do anything they don’t really want to do.  God wants His people to be like Him. This means Christians are called to a radical level of living that sometimes demands we go further with grace and forgiveness than psychology tells us is healthy or wise. It means there are times in life when we look beyond worldly wisdom and love in ways that make no sense at all from a human perspective.