Scripture Study: Transforming Experience or Academic Exercise?

Almost 2 years ago, I tried to put words to something the Spirit had shared with me in one of our many conversations.  I used the term moral philosophy to describe what the Spirit shared with me what the church had turned Christianity into in reality.  Yesterday, I came across a much better term to describe the reality of much of the church’s perspective on things:

Sin Managment

Just recently, I once again came face-to-face with how way too many people approach scripture, a way that honestly I find to be a terrible and pointless approach.  This approach actually closely resembles how the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, in Jesus’ day, did it.  And, Jesus rails against this.

John 5:37-40

And the Father who sent me, he has testified concerning me.  You have neither heard his voice at any time, nor have you seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for him whom he sent, this one you do not believe.  You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that testify concerning me.  Yet you are not willing to come to me that you may have life.

It has become far too normal in western Christianity for the study of scripture to become nothing more than an academic study of facts and literature, albeit wrapped in a cloak of pseudo-spirituality, rather than what it should be and do, which is point us to Christ and then transform us by him and through him as we encounter him through scripture.  Any study of scripture that does not have some type of transformation into being like Christ connected to it is pointless, a waste of time and nothing more than an academic exercise.

But what gets me is that the view connected with this academic approach is that the information given is of intense and high importance.  Once again, if it does not have a transformational aspect to it, I believe that God considers it worthless.  (Harsh, I know, but that’s how I believe God sees it based on Jesus’ words from the above passage.)

When no real transformation is connected to it, there is something that fills that void.  Paul says in I Corinthians 8:1 that “knowledge puffs up.”  That means that knowledge not connected with transformation causes pride in a person.  And the direct result of that pride which comes from knowledge is the judging of others.

Sadly, it is my opinion that this very thing happens in far too many corners of the Christian family.  There is so much intellectual knowledge about scripture taught and that is all it really and truly is.  While some of this knowledge can be helpful in providing context and background for how God has worked throughout the years, it is not an end in and of itself.  It must only be a small piece and it must lead to an experience of and encounter with the living Christ that transforms us in some way.  Rarely does that happen, though, through this type of teaching, where it is actually nothing more than an intellectual exercise and the possession of that knowledge is somehow viewed as making a person more life Christ.

It really is the blind leading the blind.

I would like to end with this encouragement and challenge: ask yourself the reason for which you are studying a certain portion of, aspect of or topic found in scripture.  If it is nothing more than an academic exercise which will increase your knowledge of scripture in someway but have no transforming effect on you, making you more Christ-like, consider why you are spending the time doing so and whether or not God thinks it is a waste of valuable time that could be spent having your God-given identity become more of your daily reality.

 

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In the last few weeks during visits with a couple of different people, I was twice asked why I don’t put much, if any, emphasis upon the season of Lent with the culmination of Easter.  That’s a very good question.  And there are multiple reasons why.

First, growing up, I did not grow up in a liturgical faith community.  The faith community of my youth just was not liturgical in nature so there was no emphasis on seasons like Lent.  So, due to those nurturing years, I was not predisposed to observing those types of seasons.  I don’t really even recall an emphasis on the season of Advent.  I don’t recall there ever being an Advent wreath in the sanctuary of the building where the church of my youth gathered.  This reality was most likely due to a reaction against what was deemed as pious, ritualistic acts and observances by certain parts of the faith family, acts and observances which, I was taught, were just observed because of human-made tradition.

Now, I will not judge whether or not a person is sincere in his/her observance of seasons such as Advent or Lent (which are human creations), but I have experienced people that, through his/her actions during these times, have squarely placed the focus on themselves by announcing what s/he is giving up for Lent.  And, in my own mind, I have not been able to reconcile how giving up something (sacrificing), such as chocolate or caffeine, during Lent will somehow cause me to understand what Jesus experienced in those last hours which culminated in his being executed in one of the most painful ways ever created by humanity.  In my own mind, the Sun and the Earth are closer than this comparison.

There is a passage in Romans to which I hold that has directed my approach.  “One judges one day above another; another judges every day alike.  Let each be fully persuaded in his own mind.”  Also, in his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul is concerned that they have once again begun observing different feasts, holy days, and seasons in order to somehow prove their redemption,

I will not judge another’s approach as Paul says in Romans 14; therefore, I expect the same from other believers toward me.  There are two reasons why I do not place one day or season above another.  First off, I view every day as created by God.  In verse 24 of the 118th Psalm, it says, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  Everyday (and, yes, Mondays are included!) has been created by God and, the last time I checked, God doesn’t create junk.  Every day, in my mind, is an equal gift of God in which I can experience Him fully.  That makes me rejoice.

The second reason is this: I celebrate what God has done through Jesus birth, life and resurrection every day!  I am whom I am today because of the victory Jesus won.  And that I celebrate every day.  For me, it is not necessary to have a special day or a season in order to celebrate this.  For me, because of the new life I have from and in God and because of the fact that through Jesus I have been given the right to be called a child of God, I celebrate Christmas and Easter every day!

Because of this, I just don’t place much emphasis upon these different seasons.  This comes out in my approach to ministry and leading a congregation.  And it is true that a congregation takes on the personality of her pastor.

I will not judge your level of spiritual maturity by your need or desire to observe certain days or seasons; I ask that you not judge my spiritual maturity by my approach to them.

But I will ask you to do one thing and it is this; ask yourself this question, “Why am I observing ________?”  The answer should give you direction in your approach as you examine why you are doing it.  Is it because of a genuine connection with the Spirit or is it because it is expected?  Is it just a outward show for others to see or is it an internal response to God?

I know there are those who genuinely and sincerely observe these days and seasons and for whom they are quite significant.  For that I rejoice.  Unfortunately, I also know of people for whom it is just another observance that somehow is suppose to prove them spiritual, but in reality, it is just a tradition and they only do it because it is expected, but it really means nothing.  In this case, I am saddened.

May you celebrate your connection with God the Father through a relationship with Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit every day of your life in and with Him.

Shalom

Emotion in Worship

Yesterday during worship, I asked, by a show of hands, who had recognized the voice of the Spirit of God this past week.  From those who raised their hands, I selected two to say how he and she had.  The first person mentioned that she recognized the voice of God’s Spirit through some reading of God’s written word this past week.  I won’t share with you what she said, but let it suffice, it could preach!  It was definitely a word from God.

The second person spoke of recognizing the the Spirit’s voice through people.  There was emotion connected with what he shared, so much, that he needed to compose himself before he could finish.  Last evening, I received an email from this gentleman, apologizing for losing control emotionally.

Here is how I responded to him:

“First, let me tell you that absolutely no apology is necessary.  Your gratefulness could not be contained and had to have release.  Your display of emotion was genuine and a direct result of how you have heard the voice of the Spirit of God through those around you.  For that I greatly rejoice.

 
Second, there are way too many times where the mindset exists which says that we are not to show any emotion in a worship setting.  I would ask, “Why not?”  I realize that there are those who might fake emotions so the focus is on him or her, but that wasn’t you yesterday or any day for that matter.  The focus was totally on what the Spirit of God had been doing through others for you.  
 
Maybe, just maybe, if we, like you did yesterday, allowed ourselves to share our emotions which come from interacting with the Spirit, the depth of our worship would be greater, the impact of it more powerful and the resulting transformation because of it, greater.  Emotions are part of God’s character and he placed them in us when he created us in his image.  Genuine displays of emotion reveal the depth of our relationship with God through his Spirit.
 
I can only speak for myself, but your display of emotion spoke powerfully to me.  Thank you for being willing to fully participate with the Spirit and this body yesterday.  It is my prayer that your emotional reactions to what the Spirit does continue to increase as your relationship and connection with him gets stronger each and every day as you recognize his voice.
 
Rejoice in him today!”
 
It has been my experience that much of the character of our worship is very stoic.  And while an individual may be experiencing emotion connected with worship, there is a pervasive attitude, an unspoken rule, that it is improper to demonstrate that emotion during the gathering.  How else can a lack of emotional display be explained?
 
Once again, as I said in that email, my response to those who would say demonstrations of emotion in this setting is improper is in the form of a question: “Why not?”  
 
God is a God of emotions!  Look through His written word; you’ll see God displaying emotions all over the place.  Look at His Living Word – Jesus; you see emotions being displayed all over the place.  I see Jesus rejoicing and celebrating.  I see him weeping over a lost city and a friend who had died.  I see him feeling and showing compassion and love to people.
 
In creating us in his image, God has given us emotions.  Why then is it deemed inappropriate somehow to demonstrate and share with each other emotion as we worship the one who created us with emotions in the first place?  Emotions speak to our spirit and is a very significant way the Spirit speaks to us and directs us.  To have the attitude or perspective, whether explicit or implicit, that showing of emotion is inappropriate in worship is, I believe, ungodly and goes against the way he created us.
 
So, as you interact with the Spirit this week, let him direct your emotions and allow your emotions to be involved in that interaction.  And then, at the next worship gathering, be willing to express those same emotions you experienced as when you interacted with the Spirit during the week.
 
He likes that.

I wonder what God thinks

This morning, I read an article that spoke about how First Baptist of Dallas is preparing to open a new campus in downtown Dallas, a campus that cost $130 million.  (http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2013/03/21/first-baptist-dallas-prepares-to-open-130-million-campus-in-downtown/)  The article speaks about different things that are present on this campus like “‘We have 28 jets to shoot water up,’ Jeffress explained. ‘Its choreographed to go along with great hymns of the faith.'” 

Really?  

I know that there are those who will disagree with me and/or who think this isn’t a big deal, but I can’t but wonder what God thinks about this.  Granted, I don’t know anything about this congregation like how much it spends on missions and outreach and the like, but I can’t help but think about what an extra $130 million could do.

People are struggling economically and are hurting and this is how money is used.  To me, this screams, “Look at us!  Look how great we are!  Look how awesome we are because we have this incredible campus with amenities like 28 jets that are choreographed to hymns of the faith.”

I’m sorry, I know I am ranting, but does this leave God shaking his head in disbelief?  Is this just the latest example of many of the excess of the church in America?  Is this just one more exhibit of how, many times, the church of America has bought into shaping the church around the American ideal instead of around a simple community based upon people who have been and are being transformed by the Spirit of God and who are in relationships with others being the conduit of transformation for them?

With examples like this, is it any wonder that many in this country who have rejected the church have done so because they don’t see much, if any, difference between our culture of greed and excess and the church?  Want to know why Jesus came as a child born in a dirty stable instead of the palace where he deserved?  So he could identify with those whom he came to save.  How do people struggling in this world see churches like this identifying with them?  They don’t because they can’t.

I realize that it is easy to tell someone else how to spend their money, but I can’t help but wonder how else it could have been used to see lives transformed.

For example, take the $130 million and invest it in such a way that you have an annual return of 5%.  That’s $6.5 million dollars.  Now with that money start some type of non-profit company in which you would hire those who need work to perform, at no cost, for those who cannot afford certain types of services due to income issues.  

Hire 80 people at a combined compensation package of $70,000 (salary + benefits) to perform different types of services.  That would leave about $900,000 of the $6.5 million for materials, supplies, etc.  Now there are 80 less people on unemployment and 80 families who have health insurance.  Now they are experiencing hope where before they had no hope and those who are the recipients of those services rendered are also experiencing hope.

Here’s what I think God thinks – His church has bought into an Amercanized model of the church which is “Build it and they will come” and “Bigger is better” mentality.  I believe God would rather have us focus on relationships which transform because the Spirit is active in them and be generous when needs arise rather than focus on building these monstrosities.  

I wonder how many people will be transformed, changed, when they see the 28 jets choreographed to great hymns of the faith.  My guess? Not many if any at all.

God is just shaking His head.

The Only Number God Cares About

Whether explicit or implicit, there is a common theme in church circles as to how the success of a church is determined and measured.  It is what I commonly call the “3 B’s.”  The “3 B’s” stand for buildings, butts and bucks.  It is common for people to look at the size of the building, the number of butts sitting in the seats in the sanctuary and the amount of the offering to determine how well the church is doing.  Why else would the number in attendance in worship the previous Sunday be publicized?  In reality, it’s a way to either make us feel good (“Hey, look at us!  We had ____ in worship last Sunday.  We must be doing something right!”), or to inform how unsuccessful we are being.

At multiple occasions, I have experienced (and have, regrettably, participated) in what is known as the “pastor pose off.”  Just like a body builder posing to show how much bigger his muscles are than another, the “pastor pose off” is where pastors brag about the size of their congregations or worship attendance, the size of the offering or the size of the building in which the congregation worships.  All of this reveals a worldly mindset which the church has adopted.  The church has commonly adopted this business mindset where it’s about these “3 B’s.”

The problem with the “3 B’s” and the “pastor pose off” is that they just are not biblical.  As I look at the New Testament, as I look at the ministry and teaching of Jesus and that of the apostles, and as I continue to get more intimate in my relationship with God as I spend more and more time with Him and understand His heart, motives and desires better, I have come to the conclusion that there is only one number that concerns God – transformed lives.

Transformed lives include people who have encountered the presence and lordship of Jesus for the very first time and have given themselves to Him.  Transformed lives also include those, no matter how long ago, who have already given themselves to Him continually being transformed more into His image.  The struggle with this is that it is not as nice and neat to determine how well we are doing as it is if the “3 B’s” are used.  It’s messy.

As a pastor, I continually ask myself how well we are doing.  In one way, it’s easier to determine part of this number – how many are making initial decisions to give him/herself to Jesus?  The second part, that of continual transformation into the image of Jesus, is much more difficult to determine.  I often wonder how much transformation has occurred in those who many years ago gave themselves to Jesus.  Even I, as a pastor, continue to ask myself what kind of transformation have I personally experienced recently.

It is my fear that there are many who sit in a pew in a sanctuary on a Sunday morning who have not experienced any transformation in a long time.  I’m sure a variety of reasons are the cause of this, but, nonetheless, the lack of transformation is there.  This is why I think that many churches have, for all intents and purposes, have become in reality nothing more than a service club.

It is time that the focus of the church truly becomes lives being transformed, both initial transformation and continuing transformation, not on some other numbers that make us feel good, but give a false indicator as to how well the goal is being achieved.

So, let me end with a question for anyone reading this.  How have you been transformed by the Holy Spirit in the last week, or last month, or last year?  I’d be interested in hearing your answer if you so choose to comment.

Shalom

Actual Worship Service or Just a Performance Watched?

The event that happens in many sanctuaries every Sunday morning is called a “worship service.”  The Spirit is convincing me more and more everyday that this is not an accurate description of what actually occurs during that time, at least not in the biblical sense of those two words.  For a few it is a worship service in the biblical sense, but for many, it is not.

What is it called when I take my car to my mechanic?  It is called getting my car serviced.  My mechanic is the one performing the service.  Service is action and participation by a person or group for a goal.  I am not part of having that service completed, unless of course you consider payment as participation.  Actually that money is payment for “services rendered.”  Payment is not part of the service; it happens in response to the service performed.

What if I offer my mechanic some suggestions of what might be the problem with my car.  Would that qualify as participation?  Maybe in some small, very minor way, but not really.  The only way that I would truly be participating with my mechanic is if I were there at his side helping him accomplish the goal of fixing the problem with my car.

In order for a gathering for worship to truly be a service, those there must be actively involved in seeing that the goal for worship is accomplished.  What is the goal of worship?  According to I Corinthians 14:26, the purpose for the gathering of the body is the “building up” of the body.  This is accomplished through the Spirit sharing with and through His people in a variety of ways.  Inside this goal is praising and glorifying God as we encounter Him and what he is sharing with us. 

Now, in light of the last three paragraphs, evaluate the worship event at which you were present yesterday morning.  Was it truly a service by you?  Did you render a service to the body by participating in accomplishing the goal of having the body built up or did you go, sit in a pew, chair or seat, sing a few songs, listen to someone else pray, listen to someone else sing, listen to someone else talk for 20-30 minutes and put some money in a plate as it passed by you?

That question is the difference between being at what is truly a worship service or just being at a performance.  Saturday night, I was in attendance at a combined concert of the Fort Dodge Senior High A Capella Choir and the Nordic Choir of Luther College.  It was a wonderful and moving performance, but as wonderful, moving and powerful as it was, it was not a worship service; it was a concert, a performance.  I watched; they sang.  I appreciated; they rendered a service to my heart, mind and soul.  Their part required preparation; mine required just showing up and sitting down.

Sadly, what has become known as today’s normal and typical “worship service” is a performance, a service rendered, by a few in attendance.  Those few have prepared and bring something.  Everyone else needs no preparation for this time because all that they do is sit in a pew, chair or seat, sing a few songs, listen to the few and maybe put some money into the collection plate.

It is time for the worship service to be returned to the character of the New Testament.  Everyone prepared beforehand as the Spirit spoke with him/her in order to know what it was the Spirit wanted him/her to bring for the building up of the body.  It might have been a word of encouragement, a word of comfort, or a word of exhortation.  It might have been the sharing of a song that touched the person’s heart deeply as the Spirit spoke through it.  The list could go on for a long time.

For a worship service to truly be a worship service, active participation of the body, the whole body, is required.  Otherwise, what we have is a poor substitute which in reality is a performance, a type of concert, by a select few.

I wonder, if Jesus showed up a “worship service” as it is defined and done today and he wanted to share something for the building up of the body but he was not one of the few scheduled to participate, would he be allowed to share?  Or, would he not be given the opportunity to share?  And if he tried to do so, would his actions be frowned upon and cause eye-rolls by those in attendance because they view his actions as inappropriate?

If you think that would never happen, remember this: because of the presence of His Spirit, Jesus is with and in His people.  He speaks through us.  When people are not giving others the opportunity to share what Jesus is sharing with them and such activity is actually discouraged and frowned upon when someone actually dares to share even though they were not of the few scheduled to do so that particular day, is not the same thing occurring?