His Truth Will Set You Free

Listen to what Jesus says; “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)


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From Out of the Gutter

“Evangelism” – another one of those big religious words I’m not fond of. But I really like what I think it means.

I like the idea of introducing people to God and Jesus. Just show them the truth and step back, letting them decide what they will do with the truth. Showing the truth through my writing and blog posts is easy for me. It doesn’t feel pushy (I don’t want to push anyone), and the reader can easily walk away at any time. But I’m not comfortable with the face-to-face approach.

And then I recently read the story of the Prodigal Son in chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel. I love that story. It so clearly paints a picture of the unconditional forgiveness and love of God.

Imagine this: you go up to God, tell him you wish he was dead, steal a bunch of his wealth, and leave town. You then go to Vegas and party, hard and dirty. Oh, but then you get into trouble. You loose all the money you took from God and end up sleeping in the gutter. You eventually get tired of the homeless life and decide to go ask God for help. That takes a lot on humility, doesn’t it?

Anyway, before you get within a mile of his house, you see God running towards you – pretty fast for an old guy. He runs up to you, wraps his arms around you, and kisses you, with tears of joy streaming down his cheeks. He’s overjoyed to see you. He’s so happy that he throws a welcome home party for you.

This is how Jesus described God in the story of the Prodigal Son. This is the truth of the nature of God and His love for us. And this is the story I think I’ll tell if anyone asks me what I think about God. You can call it evangelism. Maybe I’ll call it helping people out of the gutter of life… helping them see the possibilities of a new life, with God and Jesus.


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Church for the Un-churched

churchless 2

Did you know that most of the people who don’t go to a Christian church had earlier in their life attended church? This is most apparent with the young adult generation, like from 18 to 30 years old. They attended as a kid, probably because their parents dragged them there, but they followed a different path when they gained their adult freedom.

I’m reading “Churchless,” by George Barna and David Kinnaman. It’s a book based on survey results of those who don’t go to a Christian church.

I just finished reading a chapter that describes the reasons young adults no longer go to church. And then this idea slipped into my mind: instead of the traditional brick-and-mortar church, what if there were an on-line church? Maybe it could be a Facebook group, where people go to talk about Jesus. Would this be more appealing than a traditional church? Might this type of church be able to avoid the turn-offs of a traditional church?

Please let me know if there is such an on-line church. What do you think of the idea? Thanks.


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Love Evangelizes

Love power

We were having a brief blog-chat about evangelism. My fellow Christian blogger was afraid that her efforts to introduce her friends to truthful information about Jesus would come across as preachy, and be a turn-off. I’ve experienced similar fears. Instead of pulling people toward Jesus, a preachy approach will often push them away.

Yet God doesn’t want us to be preachy to others. Jesus tells us that people should know we are His disciples by our love for each other, not by our preaching. As He said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Long ago, when I told my sister about my realization that I had finally become Christian, she said, “You’re not one of those Jesus freaks, are you?” Well, I didn’t answer her, but inside I answered myself with, YES!

Yet, I think it has surprised my sister that after all these years, I’ve never preached to her. But what I have done is love her more. And it has been in my ever-growing relationship with God where I have learned to truly love.

Where preachiness pushes, love pulls. Love evangelizes far better than preachiness.


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Is Relevance Relevant?

relevance

Many Christians believe that making the gospel relevant for our times will attract people to the church. Trying to “meet people where they live” is just what Jesus did, so this should be a good approach. Yet, judging by the dwindling numbers of those attending church, there must be something wrong with the drive for relevance.

The flaw of the relevance approach is when they change the message to meet the needs of the day. This takes the focus off the truth of Jesus. His message is eternal, in that it always meets the needs of the day, no matter what day it is. We always need love, always need faith, and always need hope. This is what Jesus has to offer, and it’s always relevant.

What people need is not a customized message for the day, which will loose power as conditions change. It’s not relevance that’s needed, but truth.


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The Ugliness Scared Me Away

ugliness

They made me feel like they were constantly judging my behavior and actions, always looking for some weakness to shine their spotlight on. They projected an air of superiority. They rarely hung out with anyone who was not a member of their exclusive organization. Yet they always seemed to be pressuring me to leave my life behind and join their perfect club.

But they themselves weren’t perfect. In many ways, they weren’t much different than me. This hypocrisy and the judgment and the arrogance – these are the things that turned me away. Join their club? Forget it!

For much of my life, this was my response to Christians. But eventually I started learning the truth about Christianity, and how Jesus led by His example. Jesus hung out with sinners, like me. Jesus didn’t come to judge us. Jesus loved unconditionally. And He didn’t form some exclusive club. The more I learned about the truth of Jesus, the more I realized that the ugliness I had seen in some Christians came from human nature, not Jesus. My challenge is to keep my own ugly human nature from gaining the spotlight.


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Under attack from within

Truth

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Oh, I don’t reject Christ. I love Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.” It’s often Christians who push people away from Christianity. That’s why I stayed away for much of my life – what I saw didn’t appeal to me. I initially rejected Jesus because of Christians who were not a good reflection of His truth.

National surveys show Christianity declining in the United States. The published reasons are varied, but they all point to this: Christianity is crumbling because of a lack of truth. Truth is healthy and strong; untruth is sick and weak.


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Creepy Christians?

Here are some of the ways I used to feel around Christians; see if these sound familiar to your experience:

  • I felt like Christians were constantly judging my behavior and actions.
  • It seemed to me like Christians thought they were better than everyone else.
  • I felt like Christians disliked me and everyone else who wasn’t a Christian.
  • I thought Christians were flat-out weird whenever I saw them praying in public, and I’d stay far away from them, as if I didn’t want to catch whatever sickness they had.
  • The worst was that I always felt like Christians were trying to pressure me to convert and take on their beliefs. Just leave me alone and let me be how I want to be!!! – that’s how I felt.

Than I became a Christian. I remember my sister saying, “Oh no, are you now a Jesus Freak?” The answer was yes. Yet even though I had become crazy about Jesus, I sure didn’t want to become creepy. Ever since I decided that I really like Jesus and believe in Him, I’ve been searching for the truth of what a real “Christian” should look like. In other words, how would Jesus have Christians appear to non-Christians?

For all who call themselves “Christian,” here’s some advice from the experts (note, I like to put Jesus’ words in red, since He’s the best expert on the subject):

“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Corinthians 8:9)

“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” (Romans 14:13)

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (Matthew 7:1)

“Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” (Romans 14:1)

“But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12)

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37)

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men… But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” (Matthew 6:5, 6)

“Make every effort to live in peace with all men.” (Hebrews 12:14)

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29)

“Be merciful to those who doubt.” (Jude 1:22)

All Christians should pay attention to the advice of the experts.


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“Catholics Come Home” – another ill-advised ad campaign

The Catholic Church has joined the Methodists in their belief that you can bring people to God with Madison Avenue advertising techniques, with an ad campaign called “Catholics Come Home.” (to see my post about the Methodist ad campaign – click here). According to an LA Times article that was recently reprinted in my local newspaper: “Using a strategy straight from the secular playbook… the (church) is preparing to air several thousand prime-time TV commercials.” You can preview the commercials here: http://www.catholicscomehome.org/

The article opened with: “Catholic church leaders using TV ads in attempt to lure back lapsed followers.” The target audiences are those who call themselves “Catholic” yet do not attend church, and those who call themselves former Catholics.

According to the article, some of the reasons people are no longer attending the Catholic Church include:

  • Many Catholics don’t have “a sense of belonging,”
  • Many believe they can be “good members of their faith without attending Mass regularly,”
  • Many do not believe missing Mass is a sin, (Missing mass is a sin? Really?)
  • Others are too busy with family or work; “as analysts point out, (people) are more interested in material happiness than spiritual fulfillment.”
  • “About 1 in 4 former Catholics cited the church’s priest-abuse scandal as a factor.”
  • “People oftentimes lose sight of what is most important in their lives,” says a Sacramento Bishop.

I wonder how TV ads are going to address these issues. You typically cannot resolve circumstances like these with advertising, though maybe they can try to “guilt” people into going back to church by reminding them that missing mass is a sin.

My sincere concern is that the Catholic Church has been deluded into believing that advertising will fix the root cause of their attendance problems. How will advertising get people more interested in spiritual fulfillment rather than material happiness? How will advertising heal wounds caused by the priest-abuse scandal? How will advertising give people a clear vision of what should be most important in their lives (this sounds like a job for the pulpit, not the TV)?

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If advertising is not the fix, what is, and what is the root cause of the “lapsed followers?” I’ve watched some of the commercials, and they say nothing about what has contributed to runaway members. Based on what’s in the newspaper article, along with some of my own personal experiences, here are some guesses for why people leave the Catholic Church:

  • Lost trust: How can you trust a system that harbors abusive priests?
  • Lack of knowledge of the truth of Jesus Christ: Knowledge of the truth will help grow a hunger for spiritual fulfillment, rather than material happiness.
  • Lack of knowledge of the love of Jesus Christ: With a true understanding of the magnitude of the love of Jesus Christ, comes a hunger and thirst for more. This is what brings people to church, and keeps them coming back.
  • Lack of knowledge of what truly should be the most important thing in our lives, which is: a one-on-one, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I wonder; does the Catholic Church promote such a relationship between each member and Jesus?

Maybe I’m simple-minded, but the solution seems straightforward to me: instead of investing in TV commercials, the Catholic Church needs to get back to it’s roots, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church seems like a branch that has broken off from the vine. As Jesus said,

“No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches.” (John 15:4-5)

I’m hesitant to be harsh, but it seems to me that the Catholic Church has replaced the reality of Jesus Christ with traditions, man-made Catechisms, man-made rules, and man-made advertising. My recommendation would be to drop the TV commercials and preach the truth of the gospel.

Instead of advertising, the Catholic Church needs to introduce people to the Holy Spirit of God. Instead of relying on Madison Avenue to spread the word, how about relying on word of mouth, carried forward by the Holy Spirit himself? It was good enough for Jesus. Remember how 3000 people joined the fledgling church in a single day (Acts 2:41)? Such is the power of the Holy Spirit.

“And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” (1 John 3:23-24 NIV)

Evangelism via TV commercials, or as D.L. Moody once said, “There is no better evangelist in the world than the Holy Spirit.” I’ll put my faith in the Holy Spirit.

A final message for wounded Catholics:

Though I pray for the Catholic Church, my limited imagination is not able to truly believe that it can change. Yet I know that with God, all things are possible. Maybe one way for the church to change is for the people to change. Maybe if enough “wounded” Catholics follow their heart by leaving the Catholic Church and then finding true fulfillment and purpose in another church, maybe this will open the eyes of the Catholic Church. If you are a wounded Catholic, my prayer is for you. Please do not give up. My hope is for you, that you find another church that lives by the true gospel of Jesus Christ, the life-giving gospel; that you come to know Jesus and His Holy Spirit, and grow into an intimate relationship with them, so intimate that you are never apart. And that you come to feel more alive than ever before, by the grace and love of Jesus Christ. Amen.


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Imagine a new kind of church

I have often wondered about what kind of church Jesus had in mind, when He first set things in motion. I try to imagine how the church would look like today, if Jesus had physically stayed around to direct the growth of His church. I find myself looking back to the earliest churches, described in Acts. The church that I imagine looks something like this:

Small groups of people meet in houses. There is no paid staff and there are no church building mortgages or other expenses. Yet there is an offering. The offering from each small house-church goes into some kind of central pool. Whenever an attendee of the church has a financial need, their needs are provided for out of the church pool. And likewise, non-financial needs are also meet by the church, primarily the small group which is really an extension of the family.

I also envision no formal membership process; if you attend even once, you are considered part of the family. When the “house churches” meet, their purpose might simply be to worship God, study His word, and learn about and pray for the needs of each other. This would leave no room for “traditions” (I have a strong aversion to traditions, which tend to get in the way of having a true relationship with Jesus).

Imagine a church whose only purpose is to worship God and help each other. Imagine the magnetic power of a church that is publicly known for lovingly taking care of the needs of those who come to it, looking for help. All “members” of the church are cared for by the church. No condemnation, no guilt, just love. And the “church” would no longer be thought of as a gothic-looking building somewhere, but as a family of loving people. Jesus said that people would know we are His disciples by our love for each other, not by the opulence of the building we meet in.

It seems to me that a model like that would work. Sure there are all kinds of opportunities for unscrupulous people to take advantage of such a model. But that’s where faith comes in; with the faith that Jesus would honor and care for such a church.

In this time of economic turmoil when such a loving, self-supporting church is truly needed; I still imagine, and hope.


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Prosperity Gospel – getting rich through Jesus

Have you heard? Jesus wants you to be rich. Or so it seems, according to the promoters of a different kind of “Christian” message, that critics call the “prosperity gospel.” If you have not heard of the prosperity gospel, perhaps I can enlighten you with some selected quotes from a recent newspaper article I read.

“The idea that God rewards moral people with financial prosperity – dubbed the ‘prosperity gospel’ by critics – has increasingly drawn large crowds to churches across the United States.”

“I don’t talk about money,” Joel Osteen (a “prosperity gospel” pastor who was interviewed) explained. “God wants you to be blessed. And being blessed means having good relationships, having money to be able to send your kids to college, being healthy in your body. That’s what we talk about. I believe God wants you to live a blessed life… I don’t go around talking about God will make you rich.”

“The prosperity gospel, Butler (another pastor) said, means that “God rewards right behavior not just in heaven, but on Earth.” True enough, but don’t count on God rewarding you with money. After all, money is one of the least effective tools for advancing the true gospel.

Yet Jesus didn’t promise us health, money for the college fund, or even good relationships. But before I talk about what Jesus has promised us, let’s look at what He has to say about money…

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19) Seems clear: do not pursue treasure.

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) Think about it. Does Jesus want our heart to be focused on Him, or on our bank account?

“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. (Matthew 6:24) I think these prosperity gospel pastors are fooling themselves. They apparently think they can serve both God and money.

What else might Jesus have to say to these prosperity pastors?

“Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” Matthew 19:21

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’” (Matthew 19:23-24)

Why did Jesus tell his disciples such a thing? Perhaps because He knows that those with wealth tend to rely on their money to help them through life’s problems, more than they rely on God. After all, why depend on God when I can buy my way out of my troubles. Have you ever witnessed the faith of someone who has nothing, and compared it with that of someone who has plenty? The faith of the poor, who have no one to rely on but God, is filled with the power of God; it’s downright inspirational.

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What kind of people are the “prosperity gospel” pastors? What motivates them to preach this different kind of gospel?

“Gilbert (another pastor who was interviewed)… said that people who live morally deserve to be compensated for it.” I’ve never seen that in the bible.

“You know why I live in a $6 million house?” Gilbert said during a recent sermon. “Because I’m concerned about what other folk live in.” (I’m still struggling to understand that quote)

Another pastor lives in a mansion in Michigan and flies around in a jet, speaking at churches across the US. And pastor Osteen spent $80 million building a sanctuary.

It almost sounds to me like these guys have come up with a new form of gospel in order to justify their own personal greed. And it pays. It’s naturally so popular that it brings in plenty of money to satisfy their material desires. But is that money going to the right place? Does Jesus want churches to spend the collection basket on $6 million houses or $80 million sanctuaries?

Osteen’s church could have fed a lot of poor people with that $80 million. They could have helped a lot of widows and orphans. I wonder what Jesus thinks about Osteen’s $80 million sanctuary. Does Jesus feel more honored by being worshipped in such a grand place? All Jesus needed was a hillside; not some $80 million mega-temple.

And check the hypocrisy in this statement:

“There is just a lot of idol worship in the United States.” Gilbert said.

It sounds like he’s the idol worshipper, putting too much faith in money. Would he still be so upbeat if his $6 million house went into foreclosure and he was kicked out by the bank?

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The current economic crisis must be amplifying the attractiveness of this new gospel. It’s an age-old evangelism technique; give the people what they want, tell them what they want to hear (with little regard for the truth), make them feel good in the midst of their daily lives. But will it last? What if going to a prosperity gospel church doesn’t pay out? What if my income doesn’t increase? “Well forget this Christianity crap. It just doesn’t pay like those preachers say it will. I’m outta here.” And there goes another lost soul.

The success of the prosperity gospel depends on man-made things. It depends on the economy, money, income, and greed. After all, it’s basic greed that draws many people to the prosperity gospel. So let me ask you this; does it sound like this prosperity gospel has the power to change people’s lives, to set them on a path that leads to holiness, to take them all the way to heaven?

There is only one gospel that can take people all the way to heaven. It’s a long journey and there’s only one guide who can take you the entire distance. Money doesn’t have the legs to make the trip. Only Jesus does. Only the Holy Spirit can take you all the way from the pit of sin, where our journey always begins, to the eternal home He has built for us.

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Yes, Jesus said we would be blessed, but perhaps His blessings go far beyond the material or physical kind. In this way, I think these prosperity gospel folks are selling God short. He promises blessings that are far more valuable than health, money and friends. Though Jesus didn’t promise an easy or bountiful life, He promises so much more. Here is what He promises to you:

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)

“The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” (John 6:63)

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:8)

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

The only true gospel of Jesus Christ will provide you with a peace that cannot be attained by anything material, a peace that money cannot buy.

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Finally, to all who believe in this “prosperity gospel” I say, as Paul said to the Galatians:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-10)


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Bringing people to Jesus – by throwing a bible into their face

Julie is a friend who has a passion for “bringing people to Jesus.” Her passion comes from a sincere conviction that God is calling her to this task. Her energy and dedication also come from a heart-felt concern for anyone she knows who does not also know Jesus. Her motivation is honest and completely centered on the well-being of the other person. There is no selfishness or condemnation in any of Julie’s efforts to introduce someone to the love of Jesus. She lives in near-poverty just so she can be close to the people she feels called to save.

Many people believe that we Christians are responsible for “bringing people to Jesus.” After all, Jesus Himself told us to: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,” (Matthew 28:19)

By her desire to bring people to Jesus and the salvation He offers, my friend Julie does tend to take her calling to extremes however. Packed with emotion, concern, zeal and a real sense of urgency, she tends to push pretty hard on her prospective converts. And many times I fear she pushes them right out the door.

Do you wonder; is Julie an example of what Jesus really meant when He instructed us to make disciples of everyone? Or is the truth somewhere else? I believe that it’s not my job to “bring people to Jesus;” I believe its Gods intention to do the hard work of actually bringing someone to His Son. As Jesus said…

“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37)

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.” (John 6:44-45)

He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” (John 6:65)

I believe the truth is that we are just to be a witness, to testify to what we know:

“And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.” (John 15:27)

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations,” (Matthew 24:14)

In a complex court trial, it’s rarely the testimony of just one witness that sways the jury; it’s the testimony of all the witnesses, who were paraded past the jury by a skilled attorney. In our efforts to evangelize and help “bring someone to Jesus,” we need to realize that we are just one in a potentially long line of witnesses. And God is the skilled attorney, bringing forward the right witness at just the right time. It’s God who does the hard work of bringing the “jury” to the desired conclusion.

If our efforts to help bring people to God end up pushing them away, we need to look at our motivation and methods. Compared to my friend Julie, my methods are very passive. Outside of this blog site, I’m not very outspoken when it comes to talking about the salvation of others. I never hesitate to divulge my true faith, but I try not to push my faith upon others. I like to subscribe to the advice of St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Though I like to change it a bit to, “Preach the Gospel at all times, using words only when absolutely necessary.”

I wonder if it was that kind of wordless evangelism that Jesus had in mind when He said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.(John 13:34-35)

While Julie’s motivation is based on humility and a sincere concern for others, I’ve seen other evangelists whose motivation appears to come from a different source. I’ve met many who sincerely believe they are fully qualified to be both witness and attorney; to take someone and lead them all the way from their old life, to a new life with Jesus. They believe they have the wisdom, knowledge, power and perseverance to do the whole job. Where does this belief come from?

As is the root cause of most of our problems, here again is the ego. It’s our ego and hunger for pride that draws us to the belief that we are qualified to do the hard work. After all, if all we do is the easy work, the work of just telling the truth, and letting God do the hard work of bringing others to salvation; then where is the credit for us? As a witness we get no credit, since all the credit goes to God, the attorney.

But that’s just it! Credit is not what it’s all about. A sense of accomplishment is not what we should be after. We shouldn’t witness for Jesus out of a desire for a pat on the back. We should witness out of our love for Him. All the credit for anything good that happens in our lives should go to God.

So as I’ve said before, humility is the secret. If you really want to be a servant for God, helping bring others to Jesus, then cultivate your humility first. And leave all the hard work for God. As D.L. Moody once said, “There is no better evangelist in the world than the Holy Spirit.”