Challenges, Planting Churches, C.S. Lewis, Russia…

I’m asked often about the challenges that we face in our work here.  I think our primary challenge is one common to us all: Are we doing what our Father is asking us to do (living dependently) or are we doing what we think is best (living independently)?

In evaluating our work, questions that we ask ourselves and our Father include: How do we present the Good News to the people in the Amazon?  Do we put on attractive presentations in order to draw many people (cast a wide net) or do we demonstrate small, simple gatherings that those attending will be able to easily reproduce in our absence?  Do we have gatherings in order to teach (to impart information) or in order to ask questions, connect and share (to know and be known)?  Are we planting congregations or churches?  Is the Holy Spirit’s leadership primary or are we teaching people to follow men and rules?  Are we “making” converts or disciples?  Are we communicating both cost and benefit regarding Jesus and His Kingdom?  Are we emphasizing obeying the Bible or a relationship with a living Jesus?  Are we managing well our time between family, work and rest?  Personally, am I managing well my time between teaching, mentoring and medicine?  Are our message and methods reproducible without us?  With the “remote” people our target, do we invest in people in the city, encouraging them to then “go” and plant themselves in the interior or do we invest in the interior people directly?  How are we addressing a primary cultural lie that Christianity will deliver happiness and prosperity to those who embrace it?  Is our work motivated by love or by duty and obligation?

Every ministry faces “method” decisions and we can learn from examining other ministries and their methods.  Many churches in the US have embraced the gifted teacher/preacher model and the larger, “wide net” services.  In the US, we place much emphasis on gaining information and in an entertaining way.  We gather in large groups, passively learn bible information from “experts” who we don’t know personally and whether the teacher/preacher is trustworthy and genuine, we often don’t really know.

How is the emphasis on passively learning “expert” information working for us?  Is the American Church Jesus-like?  Is it unified, gracious, full of people passionate for the Father, and known for its love for each other?  Or is it perhaps learning and learning and never coming to the Truth?  Is it learning information or is it serving and loving one another that the Truth said would characterize His followers?  I once heard a missionary say that the godliest people he knows only know a few bible passages, but they KNOW Jesus and their passion for their King is demonstrated in every humble thing that they do and say.

Brazilian churches are also much about information and performance.  They also typically have a service with much music and an educated and/or entertaining man teaching a crowd of people that sits and listens.  This “style” for church gatherings is cultural (in both countries) and even embraced, but is it producing the desired results and is it of God?  Is this the method of the Holy Spirit’s choosing?

Jesus asks us to be and to make disciples, which is done through teaching, training, modeling, connecting, and conversation (i.e. relationship).  In the US, disciples are students, often in large, non-participatory groups (churches, classes and seminaries), learning information from teachers they don’t know.  In the New Testament, disciples see and do.  They are students (they do learn information), but more apprentices, who are trained to carry on doing what the discipler is doing.  The discipler is personally known and, in the context of relationship, his words are validated by his daily life.  What methods can we use so as to better relationally connect with those we are discipling?

Generally speaking, most church-goers (especially men) are known by few people in a real, honest, transparent, connecting way and we don’t gather together as struggling Jesus-lovers to personally help, support, and encourage each other.  We could take our relationships to a whole new level if we would get together with other humble seekers to honestly and imperfectly interact, to worship, to pray, to learn from the Holy Spirit in each person, to have discussions about our lives, and God and his Word, and to share concerns, challenges, failures, difficulties, questions, and what we are learning.

We generally don’t gather in this manner but when we do get together in small groups, it is usually in a study format, to learn information (a Bible Study).  Why?  Perhaps we think that it is information that we need and studying the Bible is the key.  Perhaps because we are accustomed to these weekly performances in our christian theaters that leave us entertained but not equipped to lead (serve) a few friends as above and to live in community with the purpose of each person (believer and nonbeliever) intentionally living closer to our Father.  Perhaps we just don’t know the benefits of knowing and being known.  Have we lost appreciation for the fact that each believer is filled with the Holy Spirit of God and has something to contribute to the body.  Can even “just” the Holy Spirit (without the experts, the music and the buildings) minister to us today?

Is our method for gathering honoring those who attend our meetings or are we paternally speaking to them? Would more asking questions and interaction be fruitful? Are they people to love or potential converts? Is a “sermon” the best way to instill truth and to love those with which we gather?  I do a lot of individual mentoring and it’s obvious that if I begin to teach, for only five or ten minutes, I begin to lose my “audience”, but when interaction is maintained, attention is maintained.  It was the same in the States.  If this happens one to one, what about one to one hundred or more?  Also, I’ve often noticed at the following meeting that what stayed with the “disciple” from the previous week is what he himself shared, prompted by my questions and listening.  It is easily apparent, as well, that the more that I ask questions and listen, the more loved, honored and valued they feel.  It is interesting to note Jesus’ behavior in the temple with the masters during the three days that his parents “misplaced” him.

I believe that in every church that holds a typical weekly performance of singing and a speech, the majority of the message slides off and little remains with the listener the next morning?  Why?  Perhaps because of the lack of active participation by the rich minds and hearts, full of the Holy Spirit, quenched at the door. Which has had the most lasting impact and influence on your walk with Jesus, sermons or people? There is nothing wrong with teaching, but if your answer is people, shouldn’t we have more meetings with genuine interaction and less teaching?  Does this apply to all cultures?  How can we facilitate this in our work here?

We must continually evaluate what we are planting and the fruit that is yielded by our efforts.  For example, are we planting congregations or are we planting churches?  Is there a difference?  Are we planting organized groups of people (congregations) who meet regularly together for various reasons (social interaction, duty, obligation, improved status/acceptance, to learn about God, etc)?  Or are we gathering Jesus-lovers (church) who unite for the purpose of being further equipped and supported in their relationship with their King.  Is it better to “plant” a few real believers in each location who will learn how to gather and encourage one another to live surrendered to Jesus (the activity of a church)?  Or do we want to transfer in trained and gifted leaders who will teach profoundly and conduct culturally embraced services that will gather many people, from which a few might believe?   Do we want people learning to depend on the leading of the Holy Spirit or do we want to put gifted leaders in place that the people will follow?  Do we “both and” or “either or”?  How do we know when which is best?

It’s fascinating to me that the qualities that Jesus desires in His people (humility, brokenness, dependence on God, genuineness, servant) are typically not found in people who relish in performing for a crowd.  The performers are typically gifted and charismatic on-stage but do they love their wife?  Does their life demonstrate indifference toward their own pleasure, comfort, or success?  Do they love their neighbor?  Are they servants or do they expect to be served?  Is walking humbly with Jesus or growing their ministry most important?  Who are they when they aren’t on the pedestal and the crowd is gone?  As a mission, are we to be and train gifted performers who can gather and lead or are we to be and train people who perhaps can’t perform but can serve, love and listen?  Are we to train leaders or servants? How we need our Father’s wisdom and perspective.  How dependent on Him we must remain in every aspect of our work.

Jesus made it pretty clear that there will always, only be a few real Jesus lovers.  If we’re not wise and surrendered to the Head (it is HIS work, after-all), we very much can plant a congregation with a gifted leader and regular meetings about Jesus and the Bible that isn’t a church at all. The people of this congregation may even have said an “accept Jesus” prayer and have improved lives since joining and still not be part of His body.  I wonder if the biggest Kingdom red flag for a “church” is a large crowd every Sunday.  Regular meetings as a congregation can inform and entertain but can they equip and train its members for the intense battle involved in maintaining primary allegiance to Jesus?

I have been so blessed for all of my 30+ years as a struggling Jesus-follower to be a part of small groups of Jesus-lovers whose lives have constantly encouraged, motivated and challenged me.  I have loved the emphases of the Vineyard Churches of which I’ve been a part as to the benefit of both learning God’s wonderful word and meeting regularly in small, interactive home groups within the body.  One of the best descriptions that I’ve heard (and imitated) of a healthy church gathering is what C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien did regularly with several others in a pub.  They got together and shared their lives, their work and their thoughts with each other and each learned by what God was teaching and doing in the others.

It appears to me, that passively meeting often and listening to so much (good) teaching has played a large role in creating many large, lukewarm, superficial, congregations built on sand. In so many congregations there is a remarkable lack of passion for Jesus and His eternal kingdom, relationships are shallow and plastic, and faith is abandoned by “storms” and circumstances not understood.  Through John, Jesus offered a pretty strong opinion about congregations like this.

Richard Wurmbrand was imprisoned in Romania in the late twentieth century for fourteen years and tortured almost daily.  He was not alone as thousands of believers in the 1900‘s experienced the same in Russia and other nearby countries.  He said at the time that there “are no lukewarm Christians in Russia”.  This in a thriving underground church without buildings, microphones, musical instruments, weekly gatherings, seminary-trained pastors… Like the imperfect early church, the underground church in many persecuted countries today is made of people who gather only in small groups, who have comparatively little Bible knowledge and yet are passionate in their love for Jesus, who are deep in their faith (persecution and the cares of this world do not uproot it) and in their relationships, who are outward focused (constantly sharing Jesus with others, even to their detriment), and whose faith stands through constant storms.

Is what we today consider normal and necessary in the States producing many, large congregations and killing the body of Christ (and killing the passionate devotion to Jesus that can withstand persecution and hardship)?

In both the States and the Amazon, does our tradition of large weekly Sunday gatherings need to be re-evaluated?  If the church is an organization led by men, large meetings are certainly more controlled, more organized, more orderly, more conducive to imparting the same information to many, and quite advantageous.  If the church is led by the Holy Spirit of God, have we asked Him which types of meetings He desires for His church in each location?  Which type does He want us to lead?  In which type does He want us to participate?  Is it always the same?  Have our current meeting methods been chosen because of results, because they are “the way we were raised/taught”, because they are “easier”, because they are “biblical”, or because our Father has told us to gather as we do?

In the Amazon cities, on the rivers and in the interior, these are some of our questions.  A primary cultural challenge that we face here is that generally the people of Brazil are interested in Christianity because they see it as a way of life (learned from the Bible) that, if added to their lives, will lead to more prosperity and happiness.  This is, of course, exactly opposite of the message of the Kingdom of God.  So we ask ourselves, “Are we planting congregations like these or are we planting Kingdom churches?”  Are we, like many of our American counterparts, entertaining and performing to draw more people and make more (lukewarm) converts, or are we seeing disciples made who love the King and each other first and foremost, forsaking the pursuits of this life?

I’ve heard it said that what is required to draw a person to Jesus will be required to keep him/her there.  I think of our musical, romantic, “repeat after me”, altar calls…  Is this why so many spring up like the grass and last but a season?  We must ask if we are planting grass or trees?  Are we placing much emphasis on conversion while the reality and pain (the cost) of discipleship isn’t communicated.  We must constantly evaluate what gospel we are communicating.  A better life?  Happiness?  Peace?  Healing?  Victory?  Are we highlighting only the benefits of the Kingdom?  What did Jesus do?  When you love someone, you would never tell them about only the positives that they will encounter in their upcoming marriage.  If they are completely focused on the wedding, we would say they are immature, and yet in ministry we can encourage something similar as we “persuade” someone to “accept Jesus”.

So, we ask ourselves if we are focused on making converts or on seeking out the hungry, the broken, the mourners (those God is preparing), and the Jesus-lovers and demonstrating how to meet together, how to walk with Jesus and how to help others do the same (in a reproducible manner) over the long-term?  It is both challenging and wise to often ask ourselves and our Father about our methods, fruit, etc.

We must remember that we don’t make converts or lead people to Jesus. He doesn’t need us, our mission or our church. We can take NO credit.  If we don’t “play”, He’ll use another means.  Our Father and His spirit lead people to Jesus and we are privileged to be used in the process. ALL credit and glory are His.    The self-importance of so many church and ministry leaders will look a bit differently when they meet our Father in His glory.

Must we “cast a wide net”?  Of course, at times (to serve and to seek out the hungry, not to make converts).  But we must often ask if we are neglecting the making of disciples for the crowds and “growing” our ministry in the short-term while sacrificing the long-term (exactly the opposite of Jesus’ method!).  I am convinced after walking with Jesus for many years that path to the Kingdom is narrow and few find it.  Our job, like Jesus’, is to “not lose one of those you (Father) have given me.”

You and I are missionaries and we all face these similar challenges; only the location varies.  We seek to love those who know Jesus and those who don’t, and there are so many ways to do so.  Because we are human and have a tendency toward blind spots, we need often to evaluate and reevaluate our message and our methods.  We need to often interact with our Father to see if we are working in the location of His choosing, with the people of His choosing, and if we are loving and serving in the manner that He prefers.  We need each other’s input and evaluation, as well.  Are we asking for it?

So, how do we address such questions?  We walk with our King. Always firstly, we know His pleasure in us.  We know it is ALL HIs.  We love.  Our Father will not praise success.  IF we are surrendered to our Lord, interacting with our Father, and doing whatever the Holy Spirit is asking us to do, whether humble or grand, we will one day hear, “Well done”.

Please pray for us.

We teach what we know; we reproduce who we are.          John Maxwell

It’s not difficult to separate from the vine.  The challenge (and the fruit) is in remaining connected.

One comment

  1. This blog particularly impacted me this morning as I read it. I will be sharing it with my friends here in “Cleveland” who are pastors, students and lovers of Jesus. Thank you for writing Tim. The blogs always provoke me(in a good way).

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