The American Local Church: Love it or leave it?

Our Broken Local Churches

Sparked by a combination of reading Eric Metaxes’ Bonhoeffer biography that tells of one of our 20th Century heroes of Christendom not being a big church goer while growing up in a very devout family, and the eventual power struggles that seem to occur as local churches transition between senior pastors, I’m wondering what all the fuss is about local churches.

Do we need small, medium, large, or mega churches for Jesus Messiah’s kingdom to expand?

Do we need the large budgets going for mortgages from the tithes of the faithful?

There was a time that many churches wouldn’t keep a program or ministry going unless there was a committed laity who was leading it and helping to fund it. Seems like a reasonable expectation. But what about the “givens” when it comes to the local church? Got to have a Sunday morning worship time and some kind of program for every age and stage that is offered before or after the worship service. I don’t need to describe the local church to you… You’ve seen the picture many times. And gathering an offering every week is critical to fund the building that houses the activity and pays the staff who organize and create content for the church programs.

So, things are cruising along, but then your pastor gets a call from another church. Should he go or stay? Let’s say he goes. So, you have an interim situation. The deacons, elders, or board members form a search committee and look for another pastor. So, a cross-section of the church members form a group of 5-15 to begin the search. They pray, set goals, write a profile, listen to sermons on CD or online and eventually agree on the guy to call. Everyone is excited. We’re tired of the interim pastor or the assistant pastors who aren’t good at preaching. New energy, new opportunities, new people.

But, whoa, hold on a second. This new guy is not like the old guy or the guy I like online. I think the search committee made a mistake. Now what do we do? Did we call this guy or did God? Our last pastor decided to leave, but this one hasn’t.

… What happens next is a chronic problem in American churches. And it doesn’t look Christian or even communal at all. It’s a power struggle. And most pastors didn’t learn much about it in seminary. And the church leaders are not sure how to handle it either. So, it becomes an opportunity for the devil.

What to do in a local church crisis
The way that Satan works is not surprising or unknowable to us. We’ve seen him doing this kind of thing for centuries. We also know how we are wounded and how we develop protective strategies and a false self or pose. We are pretty simple creatures. Our brains receive input and we act on it. We are scared, we respond with our pose. The status quo is shaken by disagreement over direction or personnel, and we react with our protective strategy. We try to control instead of trust and things go haywire. So, my first suggestion of what to do if you find yourself in this situation is: keep inviting men and women into your discipleship or small group ministry. This is the Gospel being pressed into the psyche and our inner being.

My second response is keep living in the present. Worship our savior, today. Pray for peace, today. Look for someone to help, today. Forget the past and don’t get caught up in “what if’s” of the future.

What evil uses?

I’ve been reflecting over this one for a while. We are a culture of spiritual scientists. Since the 1950s, our educational system has been focused on teaching us the scientific method. You know, gather data, systematically analyze, and come to conclusions. A+B=C. [That is not the way of the Holy Spirit. That is not the way of the gospel]. Most of evangelical Christendom and its leadership has been built through para-church ministries. I was part of one, you were likely part of one. So, we learn to show our intelligence through criticizing or reducing things to a formula. We learn to impress others by what we know. How we can break things down. And much of para-church discipleship is build around an odd mix of apologetics, doctrine and behavior. We do this in evangelical and reformed circles ALL of the time.

The local church’s leadership is full of guys and gals who came to faith in para-church ministries, who learned a bit of doctrine, what kind of speakers they liked and came to the conclusion that A+B=C. We thought that we had Christianity figured out. God was in a box. Our box. My box. I feel bad means I need to do something good. I need to pray, have a long quiet time, invite a co-worker to lunch. Be nice to my kids. Give away some money. Take my pain to Jesus? And look like an idiot? No, thank you. Believe that God loves me anyway? I don’t think so.

My third response is take your pain to Jesus. Don’t try to do something to fix the problem. Ask God to fix it. Because by “fix IT” I mean fix PEOPLE. And we can’t fix people. Remember our battle is not against flesh and blood. It is against the unseen powers of philosophy and systems that set themselves up against God.

Many local churches are led by the same folks who distinguish themselves in the community or market place. We are led lawyers, accountants, doctors and managers. We fix problems, count things, and try to control outcomes. We live in a world of black and white. Right and wrong. We are proud of the manifold success of someone who is paid well in the market place and is a leader in the church. “Wow, we must be a cool church. We have all of these successful professional people in it.”

My fourth response is read the Beatitudes [Matthew 5]. I mean, really read them and take them at face value. Don’t use some interpretation that takes away their sting and power. God doesn’t use the proud. He just doesn’t. There’s no room for Him at many churches. Satan, on the other hand, loves pride because he knows that it has no real power.

We have to go through hard times financially. It is the method of last resort by the Spirit of God. We worship what we can do with money. We love the feeling of security, of peace of mind, of success that it gives us. It does not bring us closer to God. In fact, it is just the opposite. The lack of money brings us closer to God. God loves us and will use whatever means possible to woo us back to Him and to pull us away from evil. The sooner we get to a point financially that we have no hope in money or people, the sooner we see hearts turn to Jesus and His offer of his broken body and shed blood. This is the ultimate black and white, life and death, and Jesus will stop at nothing to win back our hearts.

It’s a wonderful day to sit before our Risen Savior. It’s a wonderful day to do the work of ministry. It is a wonderful day that the Lord has given us.

Being known versus the hidden life

Several months ago, I told the pastor of my local church that I wanted to teach a series on “The Balanced Christian Life”. He rolled his eyes and said, “Please don’t call it that. Even though I know what you’re going to be talking about and it’s not that tired topic, that theme has been done to death and rarely applies to most of us. God grows us in so many different ways.”

He was right, of course, but what I was trying to put forward was the reality of our public and private lives. There is both a rhythm and necessary balance to our lives to move us toward wholeness or shalom. When Jesus came to earth to live, suffer, die and resurrect, the first 30 years of his life were “hidden” and are basically unknown to us. We know from a few mentions in Scripture that he was growing, learning, working, and interacting. In Luke 2:51-52, we read, “Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them… And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” Did those hidden years have value? Was he being prepared for an intensive three years of very public life? Of course he was. And, yes, those years had tremendous value.

So, what can we learn from Jesus about the value of balance between private and public time in our development, growth and fruitfulness as a follower of the Messiah? When we are living a hidden life we are more open to God’s Word and God’s voice. There is no doubt that Jesus enjoyed fellowship with his heavenly Father in times of quietness and solitude. And we may do the same. While I believe that the inner dialogue we enjoy with the Spirit of God in us knows no boundaries of time and place, my experience has taught me that sitting quietly in my office or on a park bench or kneeling by a chair produce times of rich communication and peace in the midst of chaos. Most of us live noisy lives and we have grown accustomed to praying while driving to work or crying out to God as we rush from one appointment to the next. You don’t have to read too far in the Gospel of Mark to see that Jesus was a man on the move. We can identify with him in that. But, even for the Chosen One of God, there were times when at the end of a busy day everyone went home, but Jesus went to a quiet place (John 8:1) like the Mount of Olives. And the next morning, Jesus was surrounded by people who wanted to hear him teach.

During his times of solitude, we know that Jesus spoke with his Father about how he felt, about his concerns and desires for close friends and family. We also know that Jesus discussed strategy and expressed his own fears. He expressed love and respect. I assume that we should speak the same way with our heavenly Father, with the Spirit and with our brother Jesus. [Every time I write that or say that I get caught up in the unbelievable beauty and grace of having Jesus as our brother. Wow.] So, there is an aspect of our lives that requires solitude and being hidden so that we can seek the healing of the Trinity, so that we can be covered with the protection and compassion of our Creator.

Personally, I believe this is so important that God will slow us down through suffering, through disappointment, through circumstances or through tragedy. And even then, sometimes, we still don’t get it. My friends, ask God to slow you down. Ask him to repair your heart. It is the way of wholeness and shalom. And ask him for ears to hear and eyes to see. My friend Henri Nouwen said, “In hiddenness, we do not receive human acclamation, admiration, support or encouragement. In hiddenness we have to go to God with our sorrows and joys and trust that God will give us what we most need.

There is also a time to be known. Now, I’m not just talking about living a public life and being in the mainstream of society. Certainly, we desire to be a good citizen and we may want to make a contribution to society. In essence, we also want to fulfill our role in God’s larger story. But, the being known that I’m speaking of has to do with being able to shed our false self or pose and being able to let a few trusted folks know who we really are and who we really desire to be. Over the past few years, I’ve seen the great value of being known by God and by some family and friends in a much deeper way.

Ever since I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together some 25 years ago, I have longed to experience the kind of togetherness he described. And in the past few years, I’ve been privileged to taste that kind of togetherness through sharing some of my burdens with others. I’ve learned that suffering is a catalyst for community and that I miss out on rich fellowship when I chose to keep my story to myself.

The Apostles teach us to confess our sins to each other so that we can be healed and we are to bear one another’s burdens. But for most of us that seems like a mountain too high to climb. The risk of shame, the fear of pain and the anxiety of being misunderstood cut us off like an 18-wheeler changing lanes on I-75. Just when we were about to ease over—boom! We’re frozen and can’t speak.

Friends, there is more. There is more to life than we are experiencing today. Since the idea of a “bucket list” has become a popular metaphor for life’s greatest aspirations or fantastical experiences, add this to yours: Be known. Take the risk and trust a few friends with your pains and joys. Peace and freedom will follow.

Next time I’ll share another perspective on the balanced life: solitude, community and service.

Prayer is the language of the church

What is the nature of the local Christian church? I’ve been thinking much about that question lately as my local or visible church of over 25 years is going through some rough times. This is not new as we readily see the ancient churches in Corinth and Galatia had struggles within 10-20 years after they were started.

A church is a community that is to be growing as a body of individuals who have “the mind of Christ” and who are led with that mind to care for others. But it is easy to lose sight of Jesus and be consumed with developing our minds about what the church is and be focused upon the needs of others. And if you are successful in helping others one gains a reputation as being a good Christian. Yet, we may have more and more the “mind of the community” rather than the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 1-2).

Another challenge we face is that we develop the mind of R.C. Sproul, or John Piper or Andy Stanley, etc. And I could easily be accused of cultivating the mind of Henri Nouwen. If we allow others to mold our thinking through their persuasive speech or insightful teaching, we risk losing our focus on the work of Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds us, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?… For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:13,17).

So, why is prayer the language of the church? Because prayer, as a dialogue, is our conversation and connection with the head of the church. The church is sometimes identified as the “bride of Christ” and as such we have only one husband. We are monogamous. And our love language is directed to our husband. And with a common husband, we are brought into community as we relate to him together. Jesus creates this community and there is no greater acknowledgement of his being the creator of this community than by talking to him together.

God said through Isaiah that “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:7) And the context of this declaration is in a discussion about eunuchs and foreigners. The Lord says that there are no strangers in his community. There are no handicapped and no outsiders. All are made insiders by his calling. And how will they experience their “insiderness”? Through prayer all will speak the same language. The language of a community following Jesus is a praying fellowship. Jesus famously repeats the declaration about his house (and remember the church is people, not a building) being a house of prayer when, in contrast with the mind of Christ, his house has become filled with the minds of men.

Prayer is the recognition that God is in our midst and it is recognition that the community exists at all. Without the language of prayer, we are a social club or clan or clique that exists for itself and has it’s origin in the mind of man. But we have the mind of Christ. We do not instruct or advise him. He instructs and guides and calls us. And we respond to him in thanksgiving and amazement.

Speak to our hearts, Lord. May we only look to you for wisdom and knowledge.



Speed Trap

Ever been speeding to find a ‘word from God” for somebody else?

I was doing that just a couple of days ago and ran smack into the face of God Himself. It was a sort of “word to my son” moment. Yes, I was a little embarrassed for a moment and then, it was like I’m on a divine encounter! God is near and everything is okay.

It was late at night and I wasn’t in my room or office where I could pick up a copy of the Bible or my Kindle® to search for an appropriate encouragement or exhortation for a friend of mine that I was emailing. So, I picked up one of my son’s NIV Study Bibles and started flipping around. I landed in Ecclesiastes of all places and wondered what I might find there. Wow! God stuck my nose right into a passage that had a message for me. It was the beginning of the fifth chapter:

Ecclesiastes 5
1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.
2 Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heart
to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few.
3 A dream comes when there are many cares,
and many words mark the speech of a fool.
4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. 5 It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. 6 Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? 7 Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God.

I had made a commitment to God a few weeks ago to set aside a regular time to pray for the Body of Christ at Intown Community Church and I hadn’t followed through. I was all in a hurry to help somebody and I was starting to speed on ahead of God. His Word became a Speed Trap. There is a great reminder right in the middle of this passage. In verse 2: “…God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” Soak up all the meaning in that. Savor the deep truth of those words.

I really need to follow through on the important commitment that God led me to as I was in dialogue with Him. That’s where I need to be driving.

Why I’ve Read So Many Books by Henri Nouwen

Since September of 2009, I’ve read all of these books by Henri J. M. Nouwen. I’ve also read a couple of books about Nouwen.

1. Turn My Mourning Into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times
2. Intimacy: Essays in Pastoral Psychology
3. Beloved: Henri Nouwen in Conversation with Phillip Roderick
4. Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life
5. Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life
6. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life
7. The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence
8. Letters to Marc About Jesus: Living a Spiritual Life in a Material World
9. With Open Hands
10. A Spirituality of Fundraising
11. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming
12. Creative Ministry
13. Here and Now: Living in the Spirit
14. Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith
15. The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom
16. Home Tonight: Further Reflections on The Parable of The Prodigal Son
17. Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith

There have been a couple of times in my life when my mental or spiritual appetite was such that reading a book by one author struck such a chord that I had to read more. Just a few years ago this happened with leadership expert and allegorical business writer Patrick Lencioni. After reading one of his books, I wanted to read the next one.

With Henri Nouwen, there was something deeper happening. Nouwen’s words spoke to my soul in a rare and powerful way. His experience with God raised a recollection in my spirit. A recollection that I had only begun to experience again after several years of dormancy. Dialogue with God.

Having the need for a spiritual coach, director or mentor is real throughout our lives. For many, the local church does not provide the level of tutelage we need. Ultimately, we rely upon the Spirit of God to speak to our true self. But where do we start? How do we open ourselves to the voice of God? The community of faith is a community of sharing. Experiences, resources and stories are shared like the proverbial beggar sharing with his fellow travelers where to find bread.

In a future post, I’ll share how God led me to a Nouwen book that helped shape my experience with God and my openness to Him. And, then, how my resonance with Nouwen’s writings led me closer to the heart of God. Suffice to say that God is near to us and desires to open our ears and hearts to His voice of love.

House Castles – circa 2009

A man’s house is his castle,
Unless he lives urban residential.
House after house goes down
making way for manors of destiny.

Living on a Cul de sac is the way to peacefulness,
But trucks and trailers live here too.
Nomads of modernity that park overnight and are gone at dawn.
Laborers come and go as bidden by the chariot drivers
With their two-ways beeping and radios blaring.

Who owns this neighborhood?
Pay three thirds to feather his nest.
Developers have replaced bounty hunters?
Realtors put up the posters.

Electric-powered hammers and saws
Replaced the crickets and birds.
Yellow 4WDs have overcome the daffodils.
Whippoorwills overshadowed by sanders and mixers.

Another’s property rights have taken away our living rights.
Day after day, week after week, month after month
and year after year. The drone and dirt of construction 24/7.

We moved to a bigger house and a bigger yard in a nicer neighborhood to have a better life.
To raise our children and help them through school we wanted
A peaceful place, a retreat from the battles of life.
We expected it for more than 5 years.

© Jimmy Locklear 2011

A Reason to Take Action

I recently listened to a sermon by Rev. Bill Hybels, Willow Creek Church, titled “Holy Discontent” and was powerfully inspired by stories he shared. Here’s a link to the free download I believe the purpose of the talk was to connect us to what God is calling us to do vocationally through a powerful emotion: anger. And by vocation I don’t necessarily mean our job or work, but rather what we must do to fulfill the role God has for us in His story. It’s bigger than a job, but it might be a part of your job.

I was attracted to Bill Hybels website since I had recently read his book The Power of a Whisper. I’ve read others of his books, listened to sermons and actually worshipped at Willow Creek Church several years ago. In reading “Whisper” it became apparent that Hybels listens to God and that has made all the difference in his life and ministry. So, it was doubly interesting to me that Bill’s sermon is anchored in the story of the anger Moses felt at the oppression of his people, the Israelis, by the Egyptians. And the sermon is co-anchored in, well, the cartoon character Popeye the Sailor Man. So, I commend the sermon to you.

Here’s what the message brought to me as the Holy Spirit applied the stories and images to my own experience. The Lord helped me see that I am angered that Christians don’t feel how much God loves them and know that He has a role for them to play in His larger story. And non-believers don’t realize or know that God is very near to them. Part of the reason that I know those are passions of mine is because I begin to weep when I share them with someone. It stirs my soul because I’ve experienced that unconditional love.

In reading Exodus 3-4, I see this amazing story played out in living color. A couple of things struck me. Moses passion to see his people set free was burning deep within his heart for decades. I’m sure he must’ve wondered if he was ever going to get to live out of that anger and emotion. Finally, it would become clear that God shared his concern for the Israeli people and He heard their groaning and their cries for help. So, God had to break into Moses’ routine to get his attention and whisper His message to Moses. God is so creative and puts a flame in a bush near where Moses was working and speaks from it. Then there is remarkable dialogue between God and Moses that leads to a negotiated action plan.

So, here’s a formulaic analysis of what we see here.

Moses’ anger x Time + God hearing cries of Israelis (remembering His promise) = Action plan

Pretty amazing story. Nothing exciting going on in your life? When was the last time you got angry about injustice or something lacking in your domain? When do you see a lack of understanding or love or food or water or clothing or God’s Word? Want to see some action in your life? Get angry about something and take that anger to God and see what He does.