Friday, January 19, 2007

Discipleship: Quality Precedes Quantity

In the institutional model of church, bigger usually means better. Leaders are always looking for programs, formats, buildings or anything else that can be used to reach more people. It's a very noble goal. The problem happens though when quantity, rather than quality, becomes the measuring stick of success. In the eyes of many, more money, bigger buildings, and most importantly, more people are the earmarks of a "successful" church. But how many of those people actually translate into true disciples of Jesus?

I don't know if we have ever really heard the words of Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20:

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)

Notice that Jesus says nothing about converts. He says nothing about getting people to repeat the "Sinner's Prayer". Rather, He says that the job of the Church is to make disciples. Now here is the interesting part; how many disciples did Jesus make Himself? (hum the Jeopardy theme with me) That's it! Only 12! Now if anyone understood the importance of disciple-making, surely Jesus did. But, by modern church standards, Jesus would have been considered a pretty big ministry failure! So, even though Jesus ministered to crowds of people at various times throughout His ministry, we only find Jesus completely replicating Himself in 12 other people.

What does this tell me? Well, it seems like Jesus cared about quality above and beyond (but not to the exclusion of) quantity. Obviously, Jesus wanted a world filled with disciples as He stated in Matthew 28:19-20. But, He realized something that the Church at-large has yet to grasp; quantity does not necessarily lead to quality, but quality will eventually lead to quantity!

If every present-day believer knew that they only had 3.5 years to make an impact on the unbelieving world, what would they do? Well, from best I can tell, they would probably go all over the world, renting stadiums and coliseums, to proclaim the Gospel message to as many people as possible. Noble as it sounds, this is not what Jesus did. Having a total of 3.5 years of "public ministry", Jesus chose to invest most of His time in a few social outcasts who would later be known as "those who have turned the world upside-down".

What did Jesus understand that we don't? Maybe that the impact of one true disciple is greater than the influence of a thousand converts.

So how can we best promote effective discipleship? I think that one decision we can make is to completely invest our lives in a few people rather than investing sparingly in many. (Multiplication Ministry and Maturity makes for some interesting reading on this subject.)

Are our efforts driven by effectiveness, or by a paradigm that makes us feel more important about "our ministry"? What do you think?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Believing The Best About God

A discussion I had with some friends last night, including Steve at Theological Musings, and Christy at Until My Last Breath led to this post. Steve or Christy, please feel free to chime in with any additional thoughts or clarifications that you would like to add to this post. And of course, I would like to hear everyone else's input as well:)

Do we love God?

Love is...

"always eager to believe the best" 1 Corthinans 13:7 (Moffatt)

Are we eager to believe the best about God?

It seems to me that this is usually not the case. When natural disasters happen, when evil seems to prevail, when children suffer, most believers tend to think that it's all part of God's sovereign will. When pressed further on how one can reconcile the idea of an all-loving God with suffering and evil, most Christians fall back on the idea that "God is in control", and therefore this all must just be a part of His will for us. But is this true?

Most believers seem to derive their understanding of the character of God more from Job than from the One who's purpose it was to reveal the Father to us; namely Jesus. While Job declares "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away" (Job 1:21), Jesus says that it is "The thief" who "comes only to steal and kill and destroy;" but that "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." (John 10:10)

Jesus seems to paint a very different picture of God for us than we have come to know. Many Christians see God in the same light as do eastern religions; as a yin-yang of sorts--both blessing and cursing those whom He loves (even if it is as some say "for our good"). It is as if we have embraced a Christian form of Karma, which limits God to acting like us--operating only by the laws of tit-for-tat and reciprocity. What of grace? What of mercy?

While, admittedly the Old Testament gives us examples of the judgement of God being poured out on sinful people, and of hard-to-understand passages such as the story of Job, Jesus reveals to us a loving Father who "did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."

So what do we do with these seemingly contradictory depictions of God? Well, in my mind, no matter what we believe we understand about God from the Old Testament, Jesus' ministry, life, death, resurrection, and ascension is the "trump card" for our previous understandings (or misunderstandings) of God. The writer to the Hebrews says as much:

"In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son... The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being" Hebrews 1:1-3 (NIV)

Jesus, Himself, said the same:

"Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." John 14:9 (NIV)

To me this means that any biblical passage that seems to contradict what we see in the ministry of Jesus is either being misinterpreted, misunderstood, or possibly has been completely... replaced.

At this point, many people want to run to the idea of God's immutability, or the idea that "God never changes". But just listen to how Jesus deals with the very words of God:

"you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all" Matthew 5:33-34 (NIV)

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" Matthew 5:38-39 (NIV)

Who said the original statements? God! Yet, Jesus totally replaces something that God had previously said with a "new and improved"--if not totally contradictory--teaching! Wow! In other words, something radically changed when Jesus stepped on to the earth.

During the Christmas season one of the things I was thinking about was the annoucement of the Savior's birth to the shepherds. I love this part of the Gospel story:

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" Luke 2:14 (NKJV)

I love that! "Goodwill toward men!" With the coming of Jesus, God was expressing his goodwill toward all of humanity! No matter what we see under the Old Covenant, God is forever making a statement that His intentions are only good for all mankind!

So what of passages that tell of God's wrath and judgement? They must be interpreted using a new hermeneutic...Jesus!

Instead of running to ambiguous passages to try and discern God's character and will for us, now we simply need to look to Jesus. When faced with circumstances that seem to tell us anything but that God's intentions toward us are good, we must once again focus on the perfect representation of the Father...Jesus!

So when we are confronted with the decision to either believe that God is somehow causing us harm (even if it is said to be "for our good") or that God is only ever going to be merciful and good to us, what will we believe? Will we look to the ministry of Jesus, or will we look to ambiguous passages that we feel help us "make sense" of our current circumstances? Will we believe that God is the source of our problems--somehow both our persecutor and deliverer--or will we "believe the best" of Him? Will we choose to love God as He has "first loved us" and therefore, believe the best of Him too? What do you think?

Friday, January 12, 2007

What Are You Going To Do About It?

"What are you going to do about it?"
This question was posed to me by RC in the comments section of the last post. Great question RC! It is relatively easy to pose the right questions, but it requires more of us to actually answer them. I appreciate someone being willing to look beyond good sounding ideas to practical implementations of the same.

There are two different ways to take this question. Within this one question I actually see two:
1. What are you going to do to help the Church make the shift from an obsession with orthodoxy to an out-working of orthopraxy?

2. What are you going to do personally to bridge your own gap between your beliefs and actions?
I hope that at least one of these represents RC's question to me.

First, I would like to answer question number one. For myself, I would like to think that my interaction with other people (believers and non-believers) would be characterized by love rather than by cliquishness brought about by doctrinal exclusivity. I am making the decision to "love without a hook". That is, I want to love others unconditionally just as my Father has loved me.

In the Church, love is said to be unconditional, but alot of the time I do not find this to be the case. Many times "love" is only given when one chooses to tow the party-line, or submit to whomever is in charge.

Evangelism is one area that I believe could benefit from more unconditional love. I am reminded of an example from my own life; I used to go "witness" on the streets of my local town at least once a week. While I would be "sharing the Gospel" with people, I would often say "the reason that I'm sharing this with you is because I love you." The truth, however, was that I was out there "sharing the Gospel" with them because I thought that I had to in order to keep God happy with me. I would preach, call for a decision, and then walk away. My evangelism was not motivated by love; rather, it proceeded from a guilty conscience.

I believe that as the Body of Christ, we need to grasp the fact that God loves us unconditionally prior to trying to "share" the Gospel with others. Most of what I see within the Church is a bunch of people doing good deeds (evangelism, teaching Sunday School, cleaning the church building, etc.) to try to keep God "off of their backs." As long as we are not receiving God's unconditional love, there is no way that we can give it to others. Our good works end up proceeding from a heart that is trying to please God instead of a heart that rests in a constant state of experiencing God's pleasure. This is not a peripheral problem, but rather a fundamental one. We either believe that Jesus' sacrifice placed us into a right relationship with God, or we don't. If we are constantly trying to measure up, trying to earn God's favor or love, then it seems to me that we are not trusting in what Jesus did and therefore refuse to believe that "it is finished".

If we help people only to ease our conscience, then once we feel that we have "done our part", we will drop the ball and go back to life as usual. This reveals that our good works really were more about us than about the person in need. But, if we really love people as a result of God's having first loved us, then we are willing to stick with that person as long as it takes. One question I have to ask myself is: "If I knew that this person would never respond to the call of Christ for his/her life, would I still be willing to show them the same amount of love and service?" If my answer is no, then I am really manipulating them instead of showing them love. Love is not about getting people to jump into my boat, rather it is about meeting that person's needs without regard to their response.

In response to question number two, I would like to say that while I am not doing everything I can to bridge that gap, I believe that I am on my way. My wife and I have been discussing what we can do to live this out. We are currently making active plans to impact the lives of hurting people in real ways. I wish I could go into more detail, but I don't feel that I am at liberty to do so at this time, and in reality, it isn't about "tooting my horn" for Jesus anyway. On a practical level, I believe that, as ded said, each of us has to wrestle with this question personally and hear from God for ourselves. The same mission exists for us all, but our specific directions for carrying it out can only come from the mouth of the Father. What do you all you think?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Are We Missing The Point?

Lately I've been wondering if we, as believers in Jesus, are really missing the point. I've been seeing alot of coverage of Oprah Winfrey's funding of a $40 million dollar school for South African girls who have been sexually abused, neglected, orphaned, etc. Also, I've seen coverage of Hollywood star Angelina Jolie adopting orphans from impoverished countries and trying to educate people on the great need of orphans in third-world nations. These are two people who would definitely be considered "outside of the fold" in Christian circles, yet here are two persons who are giving of themselves to help others in need. Meanwhile, many in the Body of Christ are too busy debating theology, sharpening apologetic skills and preaching to people to actually be Jesus to hurting people.

Sometimes I wonder just how important having all of our "doctrinal duckies" in a row really is. While much of the thrust of the contemporary church is on understanding, mentally assenting to and defending the right doctrinal positions, the thrust of Jesus' ministry (both then and now) seems to be more focused on helping and healing hurting people. In speaking of this, James said

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27 (NIV)
Pure religion...not characterized by having it all together doctrinally speaking, but rather determined by our actions toward our local and worldwide neighbors. At times, we have interpreted the phrase "and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" to mean "don't cuss, don't drink, don't chew and don't run with those who do". But, could it be that not allowing ourselves to be polluted by the world rather means refusing to play the worlds game of "loving those who love you", and instead choosing to give to those who can't give back and choosing to love those who would even be considered our enemies? Have we really bought into the pollution of the world while seemingly refusing to give into it?

Tonight, while thousands of children have been orphaned because of the AIDS pandemic in Africa, while many more are suffering from malnutrition and disease, and while thousands of people don't know where their next meal is going to come from, we American Christians are preoccupied trying to prove pre-trib, mid-trib or post-trib; Calvinism or Arminianism; etc. Are we missing the point?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Tag...I'm It!

Well, something just happened to me for the first time in a long time....I got tagged! Steve at Theological Musings tagged me to answer 5 questions. (You know I have a bad memory of playing tag. I broke my ankle playing this silly game once. Well, I guess there's no real threat of breaking anything just typing, huh?) So here goes...

0) What’s your name and website URL? (optional, of course)

Easy enough. Raborn Johnson. So far, painless.:)

1) What’s the most fun work you’ve ever done, and why? (two sentences max)

Well, I enjoy the job I currently have a whole lot. I work at a Christian bookstore which allows me to talk about God and theology alot without repercussions. I get to help people find things that, hopefully, will help draw them closer to the Father.

2) A. Name one thing you did in the past that you no longer do but wish you did? (one sentence max)
B. Name one thing you’ve always wanted to do but keep putting it off? (one sentence max)

A. Play basketball a couple of times a week. I loved playing basketball and benefited alot from the excercise. Basketball is greeeaaat!
B. Read more. I have shelves of books that I have never read, but some that call out my name..."Raborn, read me Raborn"

3) A. What two things would you most like to learn or be better at, and why? (two sentences max)
B. If you could take a class/workshop/apprentice from anyone in the world living or dead, who would it be and what would you hope to learn? (two more sentences, max)

A. I would love to learn Greek. I would love to get better at playing the piano and the bass...and of course I would love to get better at basketball.
B. Hard to say; I have a whole lot of interests (no chance at two sentences). I would love to shoot some hoops with Raymond Felton, throw some football with Steve Smith, ride to outer space with NASA, talk to NT Wright,...I think I would rather just hang out with these guys instead of taking a workshop or class. I think learning comes more from time spent together than from formal classroom type settings.

4) A. What three words might your best friends or family use to describe you?
B. Now list two more words you wish described you…

A. Silly, funny, sportsnut
B. slow to speak, punctual, taking initiative...okay, it's more than 2!:)

5) What are your top three passions? (can be current or past, work, hobbies, or causes– three sentences max)

Okay. The obvious answers here for me would be 1. God 2. My wife 3. Theology
But...I would like to skip over those obvious answers and give you the next three.
1. Sports 2. Music 3. Video Games--Yes Video Games!:)

6) Write–and answer–one more question that YOU would ask someone (with answer in three sentences max)

My question is usually "Why?". My second favorite question would have to be "How's it working for you?"

[Bonus: What is one question you wish people would ask themselves?]

Why do I do what I do, believe what I believe.....basically "Why?". And, "How's it working for me?"

Well, that is the easiest post I've ever written! Good to be blogging again...thanks Steve!:)

Now let's tag someone who's answers I really wife! Her answers never cease to amaze me!!!