Episode 0089 for Wednesday, February 12, 2020

All this week we are asking ourselves the question, “How do I wear His coat?” This is in response to the question we often get about the church being responsible for so much injustice. There’s not much we can do about what has been done. But, we do have the power to change the way we do things now. Just because people have been acting abusively in the name of Christ doesn’t mean we have to repeat the pattern. We can and MUST change. 

Today, I want to look at the damage that is currently being done to the name of Christ by those among us who treat the church like a commodity. We’re talking about Christian consumerism. Aren’t you excited! But the truth is, just as much damage is being done to the reputation of the church by our treating it as a commodity as is being done by our divisiveness that we talked about yesterday. 

Nearly every pastor’s favorite verse about the church is Acts 2:42-47. Acts 2 contains the story about the birth of the church. The remnant of Jesus’ followers had been praying in the upper room for 10 days. On the 10th day, Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit with the sound of a violent wind and something like tongues of fire that came to rest on them. Then they all started speaking about the wonders of God in foreign languages that all the people outside the building could understand.

Naturally, everyone around assumes they’ve had too much to drink. That seems to be our go to excuse for any inexplicable event. When someone who is usually unhappy starts to smile inexplicably, we ask them, “Have you been drinking?” When your kids do their chores without being asked first thing in the morning before you wake up, you go looking for empty bottles of wine. Ok, maybe not. But, that’s what the onlookers did. 

So, Peter addresses the crowd of people and says, “These people aren’t drunk! It’s only nine in the morning!” Now, while we may not be surprised to see someone drunk at 9 in the morning, apparently it would have been a complete surprise in this time. Peter then preaches his first sermon, which was long enough that Luke felt he needed to include the phrase: “With many other words he warned them;”. As a pastor who tends to preach too long, this verse brings me great comfort. I may even get “Acts 2:40” tattooed on my tongue some day. But only on the bottom part. 

After the sermon 3,000 people accepted his message and were baptized. And that brings us to the first description of the early church. 

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42-47

It doesn’t take a world renowned theologian to be able to read this verse and point out the differences between the church today and the first church. But, at the risk of redundancy, I still want to point a few things out. 
First, noticed the phrase: “They devoted themselves.” This phrase didn’t stand out to me until this time reading through. Having been a senior pastor for 7 years and on staff as and associate pastor for 14 years prior to that, I can’t tell you how many meetings, conversations and strategies sessions we have had to try to get people to be devoted. If you want to freak your pastor out, start showing this kind of devotion without anyone pleading with you to do so. It doesn’t appear that the early church had any kind of “on-ramp” or “funnel” that they used to gradually increase the ownership and devotion of the people coming to Christ. In fact, it doesn’t look like there was an ounce of coercion that was need. The people devoted themselves. They didn’t need any high-pressure sales tactics, emotionally powerful testimonies of people who went ahead of them who were committed to the church’s discipleship process, none of that. They devoted themselves. 

I meet with pastors on a weekly basis. Sometimes multiple times a week. I listen to pastor podcasts and listen to Christian thought leaders nearly every day. What I can tell you is this: many, if not all of the problems the church is dealing with today would be solved if the people devoted themselves. We have spent (and honestly wasted) so much time over the years strategizing ways to increase the commitment level of church members. What if we all just devoted ourselves in the same way the early church did? 

Now, as a pastor, I will also tell you, I will do whatever it takes to help someone look less like Adam and more like Christ. And if that means researching strategies and methods, doing scientific research, talking with hundreds of other pastors, reading stacks and stacks of books, coming up with a thorough system based on research and writing and recording daily episodes of a podcast to try to help with that all this – then you can bet that’s what I’m going to do. Because I’ll do whatever it takes. 

The contrast to devotion is what we see going on in the church world today. The average church member attends church once a month or less. “Devoted” followers of Jesus spend, on average 15 minutes a day in prayer and Scripture. In the past, churches used to split over major theological issues. Then they started splitting over things like carpet color and pews. Now followers of Jesus leave the churches God planted them in to go church shopping and make the decision to “attend” a church over things like the aggressiveness of the greeters, the quality of the coffee, the music and the sermon. People have an unseen checklist of programs and offerings that a church must provide to even be considered. Many so called “Christ-followers” aren’t just consumers, we’re elitists who will only consider churches that offer a certain base-level of the “church product”. 

I know that sounds harsh. But, it’s the reality. And the first role of any leader is to define reality. This has been the reality in the church for the decades now. Instead of treating the church like a community to be committed to, we treat it like a commodity to be consumed. And we don’t even realize the damage we are doing to the name of Christ by treating it this way. 

The word used for the gathering of believers (inappropriately translated church) is Ekklesia. It means “called out ones”. It means to be called out of darkness and into the light. It means that we are called out of our lives of sin and into God’s holiness. It means, that we have died to our old lives and have been resurrected to a new life in Christ. A key component of this calling out is the community God calls us into. The word uses in Acts 2:42 for fellowship is koinonia. And it doesn’t just mean shaking hands for 30 seconds while the pastor gets set up for the sermon. It means intimacy, the share which one has in anything, participation, communion. It’s even more intimate than that, but in case there are kids listening with you, we’ll leave it at that. You get the idea. It’s not just showing up when it conveniently fits into our schedule. We’ve been called out of the darkness and brought into the light.

1 Jn 1:6-7 says: “If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” The same word, koinonia is used here for fellowship. Fellowship with one another is part of walking in the light. 

As with many things, we’ve taken the Bible and translated it through the lens of our modern American culture instead of seeking to understand what is really being taught. Let me illustrate. 

Let’s say I give one of my sons a tool set for their birthday. The kit includes a screwdriver, hammer, tape measure and pliers. He’s excited about it, but has no idea how to use it. And instead of asking me to help him learn, he wants to figure it out on his own. So, he takes the hammer and instead of pounding nails with it, he’d rather pound his brother. He takes the screwdriver and instead of using it to loosen screws he uses it to stir sugar into his tea. Instead of using the tape measure for measuring, he uses it to run his hot wheels down and with the pliers he tries to cut branches off trees. I see him doing these things and try to correct him. “That’s not how you use the hammer, son. It’s for pounding nails not people. Screwdrivers are for loosening and tightening screws not drinks.” And so on. But, he responds by saying, “that’s not how I use them.” And he goes in search of someone who will either agree with him or allow him to use these tools the way he wants. Instead of trusting the giver of the gift and seeking understanding from the one who gave it, he goes looking for someone to support his wrong ideals. 

This is how many in the church are treating God. God has given us an incredible gift of grace. To accompany and bring this gift to completion, God has also given us tools. Tools that, when used the way God designed, will provide the support, training, encouragement and opportunities to see the grace God has given us grow into a tree that produces the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. But, instead of going to the giver of the gift to learn how to use this gift, we decide we want to figure it out on our own. Instead of using the “apostles teaching” as a part of God’s process for grace development in our lives, we use it as a tool to reinforce our preconceived notions of what is right. Instead of using the tool of fellowship as a part of that process, we use it to make ourselves feel better about ourselves, get what we want from people to help us in in our own individual pursuit and then throw people away when we’ve gotten all we can get out of them. The same is true with breaking bread and prayer. We don’t use the breaking of bread as an act of communion and unity, we can’t. And we generally only use prayer to try to manipulate God into giving us what we want instead of as a means through which we connect with the giver of the gift. 

The definition of a consumer is someone who purchases goods and service for personal use. So, I guess I’m wrong. Some of us are consumers. We think that the giving of our “tithes and offerings” is what gives us access to the programs and services we wish to consume. But, in America, only about 2.5% of the people tithe. For a little context, during the great depression, people gave at 3.3%. (Source: https://nonprofitssource.com/online-giving-statistics/church-giving/) Of course, when asked, 17% say they tithe, leaving a 15% gap. Not only do the majority of americans not tithe, the ones who do often use that act as an entitlement. This makes us, at best consumers. But, what about those who never give a dime but treat the church in the same way. What does that make them? 

I know I’ve been pretty blunt today. Again, it’s only because this is a problem that is on us to fix. Our church is a bit of an exception to these statistics, but we still have lots of room for improvement. Approximately 60% of our people tithe. Maybe more. Probably 75% or so of our people are serving and about the same number are in attendance 3 out of 4 Sundays. But, for the church at large, this is not the case. 

And I would argue that in treating the church this way, we are communicating message to the world surrounding us that we don’t actually believe in the gospel. 

The gospel is all about denying ourselves, sacrifice and surrender. A major theme of scripture is humility. A verse that is quoted multiple times in the Old and New testaments says that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” We literally cannot receive God’s gift of grace if we are proud. And pride is the thing that take the gift from the giver and says, “I don’t want you to tell me how to use it, I’ll do it my own way.” And we have. Not only has the church suffered greatly as a result, but so has the testimony of the church.

What do we do? How do we wear his coat well? By devoting ourselves. It really think it could be that simple. If we just devoted ourselves to God’s process of transformation and the community He birthed on pentecost that serves as the primary conductive resource to produce that change, how different would our lives, our churches and the world be? In light of our current state, that sounds ludicrous. But, I have to tell you, it would be absolutely amazing to see. Can you imagine being a part of a church that devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, devoted themselves to fellowship, devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and devoted themselves to prayer. It would be uniquely radical. And it’s exactly what is needed. 

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