I recently had a conversation with a Brazilian friend who I am mentoring. He just returned from a trip to a larger city for medical tests and he shared with me his frustration with the churches in that city and with the majority of churches in Brazil. He asked me how it is possible that so many churches with Jesus’ name could be so lifeless. He spoke of the dead ritualistic religion that he sees in both evangelical and catholic churches. These churches are frequented by so many people, very few of which demonstrate any passion for relationship with Jesus or excitement/gratitude for His love and presence with them. He has met Jesus and knows the joy of relationship with Him and he feels quite unique (and alien) in his pursuit of the Kingdom of God and in His pursuit of more intimacy with his Father. Our discussion prompted many thoughts…
Churches today in both North and South America may be the most significant promoters of lukewarm religion in history. They preach and teach much from the Bible, the same Bible that says that Jesus prefers either hot or cold and that lukewarm-ness in His church makes Him want to vomit. The same Bible that says that it’s harder for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Parenthetically, there has never been a nation of richer people (and churches) than the U.S.A. of 2010 (recession and all), many of whom believe the Bible. The same Bible that implies that you can be a missionary, a pastor, give all your money to good causes, run a homeless shelter to minister to the "least of these", miraculously heal people, speak in foreign tongues, preach to thousands, lead many into the kingdom, and face Him at the end of the day and have Him say, "Leave me; I don’t know you." Religion is about works apart from relationship and Jesus’ attitude about religion was and is pretty clear.
In most people, self reigns and rules and the reason many people go to church is to help "self" feel better. People fix their hair, put on their smiley church mask, and sit in their padded chairs every Sunday while a father in India teaches his children how to properly worship the hundreds of little idols in the Hindu temple. The American family offers no sincere thanks for their abundance as an Ethiopian mother pleads for a handful of rice for her three year old son. We yawn during worship while a small group of Chinese believers surrender their lives to their Savior while huddled in a freezing shack to avoid certain imprisonment if found. The American church-goer grumbles about the length of the service while the Afghan believer meets a few others for hours, reading parts of a torn and tattered, black-market Bible. The American believer says his "prayers" while the North Korean believer listens for direction from the Holy Spirit, having considered this life not worth holding onto. The typical Brazilian church is full of people completely glazed over about three minutes after the music stops. This is because, like the American "believer", they believe in church; they believe in going to church, in being part of the social club, in hearing more of the Bible, in learning, in being entertained, in being good people, in saying prayers, and they believe in a manufactured god that will bless them if they perform well and especially if they sacrifice an hour per week "doing" church (some would accurately call this superstition while the religious call it "faith").
As I look at Jesus, I see a radical, one who abhors religion and who cherishes relationship with the broken and disenfranchised. Why? Because He so cherishes His bride (the church) and He knows that religion is lifeless and relationship with Him is life. When I look at churches today, I see Pharisees with 2010 polish, wearing their Macy’s "robes", carrying their leather-bound law (the Bible) to their architect-designed temples for 1-2 hours of public religious performance per week.
How often we are directed to our pastor or priest for help, or we hear, "I follow the Bible and this is what the Bible says." But when have you heard, "Let’s ask Jesus" and someone actually listens for His response or, "Can I talk to Jesus about that and get back to you"? Which responses give witness to a living Jesus and which to a Pharisee-like religion based on law and men?
Churches that bear Jesus’ name in 2010 are the antithesis of Christianity, and they’re on every corner. They are the great promoters of religion, self-preservation, common sense and lukewarm-ness and the majority likely make Jesus want to vomit. These churches don’t demonstrate evidence that Jesus is alive any more than the hypocritical Pharisees of Jesus’ day encouraged genuine faith in the existence of Yahweh.
So what is the solution? Certainly not to plant more of the same! Churches today lack dependence on the Holy Spirit, which is foundational for Jesus’ body (the church). Can a body function without a head? We depend on men (our pastor, our priest), on organizations, on the crowd, on what has worked in the past, on "Purpose Driven", on the presbytery, on the man in the TV, on the board, on our knowledge of the Bible, on our by-laws, etc. We teach information, not dependence on the One who is as alive today as He was when He walked the shores of Galilee and who desires to be our Counselor, our Comforter, our Helper, and our Teacher.
We don’t grow up because we never leave the breast. In the churches’ effort to help young believers, they err in the same way that the early catholic fathers erred in that they made it possible to be "in church" without dying, without abandoning our pursuit of security and pleasure (forsaking that which harms us!), and without the suffering that is necessary to live dependently only on Jesus for sustenance. What did Jesus say to Paul? I will show him how he must suffer for my sake. How did Jesus learn obedience? Through the things that he suffered. Forsaking this life for the Kingdom of God always hurts! Why do we constantly strive to make walking with Jesus appear easy and tell others that it is a life "full of blessing and prosperity"? Jesus didn’t call people to Him because their life would become easy, but because He was true!
The Kingdom is about dependence and surrender. Dependence on one Head, one Chief, one King, one Master. Any other dependence needs pruned. Our modern "churches" are about dependence on so many things other than God (the band, the music, the experience, the feelings, the speaker, the pastor, the church, money, the program, the building, history, hierarchy, the name…)
I believe a solution for Jesus lovers is to meet in homes, apart from the church structure that we currently know. Our religion-loving flesh will cry out its objections but we will return to dependence on God and to relationships that are narrow and deep. We will not seek to please or impress the crowd , as our audience will be but One. There will be a return to conversation, to transparency, to asking questions, to sharing what God is saying to us, to confession, to a profound need for the Holy Spirit to speak and to lead. We don’t need to leave our "church" (we can still meet together in larger meetings), but we can ourselves be transformed and we can play a role in our churches becoming Christ’s bride, with an emphasis on small, intimate, personal, conversational, relational low-key gatherings with the One we love. The hungry meeting with others who are hungry. Small gatherings where all can participate rather than sit passively, listening to one elevated "leader". In Brazil, as in the States, the concept of a church leader being a servant is as foreign as it was when it was spoken by Jesus.
The lukewarm will hate (and avoid, mock, and criticize) the home group setting. The religious spirit cannot abide there. There is nothing for the flesh in the meeting of two or three (or 6-7). Those who cherish interacting with a living Jesus love meeting with other Jesus lovers, especially in settings which are small and intimate, where sins can be confessed, where weaknesses are understood and where each person is equally valued, as they are. Those who need an audience or who need entertained will be bored stiff in such a setting and the self-confident religious will consider listening to the Holy Spirit as foreign, risky and unnecessary.
Change must begin with me. Will you join me in fleeing lukewarm in order to pursue the intimacy and power that comes only through radical dependence on the Holy Spirit? Let’s meet with a few people who want to radically depend on Jesus, who want to radically surrender, who want to leave lukewarm and know the radical affection of their Father again. Let’s share what we are learning, how we are failing, what we are dreaming, how we can serve, etc. Let’s encourage one another toward intimacy with Jesus. Let’s pray together. Jesus made it pretty clear that He is not after congregations of people who do services (In Brasil, you can put up a building (especially if it’s nice) and people will show up for services. Is this a church?). He is rather after the few, the hungry, the broken, the radically forgiven, who desire to abandon everything that this world offers in exchange for a suffering intimacy with Jesus that will spend itself on loving people and loving their Father.
My friend is among many in the Vineyard Church in Porto de Moz beginning small groups in their homes to radically pursue Jesus with others of the same heart.
*** "Body" proverbs (physical body vs. Jesus’ body, the church):
If a part of the body acts independently of the head, no matter how skilled it is, the body becomes uncoordinated and will either fall (and be injured) or lose its effectiveness to function as a whole.
If the body acts without thinking (submitting to the head), injury to itself or another body will likely result.
Coordination of a body occurs simply when the various parts of the body work together for the same purpose, directed by the head.
Many parts of the body are quite humble in appearance or function, but a wound to the same, affects the whole.
When one part of the body is wounded, the head uses another part of the body (often the hand) to provide comfort, while other parts are used to assist in healing.
The function of many parts of the body is to serve, build up, repair, maintain, or protect the whole.
The eye sees nothing without light.
The senses appreciate both beauty and danger outside the body.
Certain parts of the body are more significant to survival than others.
Some parts of the body are not needed for survival (tongue) but their roles are highly significant in the effectiveness of the body’s work.
Many parts of the body are directly dependent on another (heart, blood; brain, nerves; muscles, bones, etc), but all parts are interdependent on the others.
The organs most needed for survival are unseen.
Body parts must focus on playing their individual part well, as directed by the head, without concern for how the other parts are performing.
One part can admire and appreciate the work of another, while maintaining focus on performing its own task well.
Desiring to be another part of the body is never beneficial.
Gratitude for the life and work of other parts will always be present in a healthy body, with the acknowledgement that not one part can function independently of the whole.
The parts of the body are created, not self-chosen.
Pain is a necessary and healthy signal to alert the rest of the body as to the need for assistance.