Archives For March 2016

My sons and I have been watching many of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament games, and one of the things I’ve been struck by is the intense teamwork. Recognizing that just one loss will bring their season to a sudden end, the players give everything they have together. They exult in each other’s successes. And they press each other hard to do things right even under tremendous pressure.

Shouldn’t church be the same way?

But when the Barna Group surveyed Christians across the country a few years ago, they discovered that “…only 5% of people say their church does anything to hold them accountable for integrating biblical beliefs and principles into their lives.”

George Barna, the study’s director, said this of those findings:

“One of the cornerstones of the biblical concept of community is that of mutual accountability. But Americans these days cherish privacy and freedom to the extent that the very idea of being held accountable by others—even those with their best interests in mind, or who have a legal or spiritual authority to do so—is considered inappropriate, antiquated and rigid.”

It’s in that context that I describe the first of many features of a whole faith church.

(As background, in Needed – A Whole Faith Church, I asserted that preserving and renewing God’s earth will only become part and parcel of what it means to live a Christian life when churches have a whole faith woven into their worship, theology, and culture. I’m beginning to work out what that would look like.)

Ironically, the first feature I’ve identified does not explicitly relate to God’s earth at all. It’s this simple thing – membership in a whole faith church would not be a casual association but a deep commitment to being a follower of Jesus, to the church, and to other members of the church.

Membership, in other words, would mean something profound in a person’s life.

An article in Leadership Journal included this provocative statement:

“The church should be less like a cruise ship and more like a battleship, says Ken Sande of Peacemaker Ministries. Rather than emphasizing their casual atmosphere and fun activities, Sande says it’s time for churches to raise the bar, to focus on a serious mission, and ensure that every person aboard serves a vital function.”

To get a sense of what that might look like, I’d encourage you to read Call to Commitment by Elizabeth O’Connor. First published in 1963, this book chronicles the beginnings and development of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC which attracted considerBook imageable attention for its unusual approach to church life and the devotion of its members to living out that faith together out in their community.

The leading figure in the origin of this church was Gordon Cosby, and one of his formative experiences was serving as a chaplain to the 101st Airborne during World War II. Cosby discovered that the average self-avowed Christian in the unit wasn’t ready to deal with moral pressure and difficulty of any sort. The faith these Christian men expressed loyalty to and the way they lived had been shaped more by the culture of their family and community than by a deep personal commitment to God.

A turning point was when Cosby led a man named Joe to profess a faith in Jesus. Cosby was delighted and anxious to see what a difference that faith would make in Joe’s life. When Cosby checked in with Joe’s commanding officer a short time later and told him of Joe’s conversion, however, he was in for a surprise.

“If Joe’s a Christian, “ he said, “nobody in the company knows it.”

So when Cosby and a tight-knit core of other committed Christians began to come together to form the Church of the Saviour in a house in Washington, D.C., fostering Christian integrity was a critical concern.

The following are key elements of what membership involved at the Church of the Saviour.

Extensive education requirements: A person desiring to be a member was required to take six courses in their School for Christian Living. In addition, as part of the process to becoming a member, a sponsor was chosen for that person who could get to know the member on a deeper level and help the member develop further in his or her spiritual life.

Ongoing growth in faith life: The School for Christian Living offered elective courses to enable people who had become members to continue to grow in their faith. Personal study programs were also encouraged.

Sacrificial commitment: Sacrificial giving was expected and all members participated in a mission group that met regularly not only carry out that mission activity but to also worship, study, and pray.

All members are ministers: Each member of the church was seen as a non-professional minister. For this reason there was a concerted effort to identify the particular ministry gifts of each member and to find ways for those gifts to be expressed in the church. Through an ordination service for laity, the church as a whole confirmed a clear role that the particular member was called to fill.

Powerful vows of membership: The book details the vows that the first members took when the church was launched in 1947. Here are just some of the statements:

“I unreservedly and with abandon commit my life and destiny to Christ, promising to give Him a practical priority in all the affairs of life. I will seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness.”

“I commit myself, regardless of the expenditures of time, energy, and money to becoming an informed, mature Christian.”

“I believe that God is the total owner of my life and resources. I give God the throne in relation to the material aspect of my life. God is owner. I am the ower. Because God is a lavish giver I too shall be lavish and cheerful in my regular gifts.”

Each year, by the way, existing members renewed their membership vows as a way to remind each other of what they are committed to and their commitments to each other.

Living a Christian life: Members were expected to live a Christian life. Here’s how Gordon Cosby put it in one of his sermons:

“It is fundamental to everything which we do as Christians, that we personally develop a style of life which is recognizably Christian. This means that in our family groups, in our businesses and our government offices, when we walk in, a light goes on.”

In other words, a deep commitment to God will lead to a common Christian culture that is expressed by Christians in everyday life decisions 24/7.

The only way a church will be strong enough, however, to be a community of people where God’s ways are lived out in every phase of life (including the cherishing of God’s world) is if being a member of that church really means something.

An early brochure about membership in the Church of the Savior highlighted the danger of being a fully committed member of their church along with other disciples of Jesus: “It is indeed dangerous for if one becomes committed to this way, all life will be different and every sphere of one’s existence involved in the change.”

When was the last time your church described membership as a dangerous thing?

I realize as I write this that a sense of intense mission is one of the things I find missing in the churches my family has visited as we look for a church home.

On the other hand, I realize, too, that intensity and deep commitment to church have too often given birth to cults, abuses, and narrow, harsh interpretations of the Christian way.

Nevertheless, the Bible and many Christian thinkers have long asserted that becoming who God wants us to be happens best and most thoroughly when we are in close, committed, loving fellowship with others.

And for everything else in a whole faith church to work, that closeness, that commitment, that willingness to be accountable to each other must be present.

This is a leap of faith we must be willing to take.

In the last blog post, I asked this question – when will preserving and renewing God’s earth be part and parcel of what it means to live a Christian life?

Here’s my answer – that will happen when churches have a whole faith woven into their worship, theology, and culture.

This is a radical thing to propose.

Many Christians would flatly deny that caring for God’s earth is an essential part of being Christian. Others would give lip service to that ideal while recoiling from any call to tangible action that might inconvenience them, much less challenge them.

You will find Christians, of course, who care deeply for God’s earth. You are likely one of those already. You live in thoughtful, self-sacrificing ways outside of church. You may even lead or support activities in your church – like recycling or improving energy efficiency – that move the church toward collectively being more responsible in its stewardship of God’s earth.

These are all good and worthy of honor. That has probably not always been easy in your church community.

But if we look with eyes wide open at the state of God’s earth around the world and the lack of concerted action by churches and Christians in addressing the earth’s desecration, then it is painfully clear that what is being done is not enough.

Earth stewardship too often is one of a number of activities that are in orbit around the core life and culture of a church. In no fundamental way is a loving concern for the life of God’s earth integrated into a church’s DNA.

It is like a mother and father who take their family on a two-week summer vacation trip each year but otherwise neglect their children and rely on nannies and school activities for engaging their kids. For years the parents are able to pursue their professions, interests, and hobbies unhindered. They are dramatically successful and accomplished in every way. But they eventually reap what they have sown. Their kids have troubled adolescent years. Later, to the parents’ surprise, the children turn out to be selfish and uninterested in visiting the nursing home where the parents end up, alone and full of regrets.

What those parents needed to do was not plan even more special vacations or even better birthday parties. They needed a whole different value system that permeated the way they lived and the way they interacted with their children every day and every moment.

Similarly, what church communities need is an awareness deep in their culture and worship that the salvation God ultimately offers is the healing of all Creation. They also need an urgent, church-wide commitment to protecting and healing God’s earth as part of their membership’s united efforts to help make God’s will be done.

Can this completely happen in existing churches? I’d like to think so, but I don’t know.

Established institutions have a hard time changing. It is difficult for all of us imbedded in our culture to distinguish what about our values is cultural and what is the fruit of hearts and minds fixed on God. It will be much easier and instinctive for denominations, theologians, pastors, and long-time believers to dismiss these concerns as secondary or even heretical based on long-standing theologies.

For those reasons, I can’t help but believe it is time for new wineskins.

It is time for new whole faith churches.

These wouldn’t be churches for everyone. They would be, however, cherished church homes for people who have been spiritual nomads to this point. They would be homes for people who love God so much they find it hard to worship when they can hear the cries of people and the non-human life of this world who are falling, metaphorically, into a pit that we ourselves have helped dig. They would be seeds of larger change as well.

I write all this with trepidation. Yet, I see no other way.