June 24, 2012

Myopia in the Church

Earlier today I imagined myself speaking before my home church giving a powerful illustration to them about myopia in the Christian community, and I felt it was worth sharing, so here it is.

This is a picture of a church sanctuary. And I have never been outside of it. All I know is from what I have seen in that sanctuary. All I can ever speak on is based on what I have seen in the sanctuary. And so here’s what I can gather as I stare out at the crowd from the pulpit:
  • I know what carpet is and how it decorates the floor.
  • I know that wood can be used for building furniture and framing the building.
  • I know that paint can be used to decorate the wood.
  • I know that lights make it easier to see, and that there is even more light outside, depending on the time of day.
  • I know what stain-glass windows are.
  • I know that people grow older over time by looking at the people that come in the building over a period of years.
  • I know that most people who come here bring Bibles and that we study from it.
  • I know that microphones and speakers amplify my voice.
  • I know what music sounds like when the choir sings and the musicians play.
  • I know that upholstery makes the wood pews a little more comfortable to sit on.

Judging by that list, I know a lot, don’t I? However, a full life inside the sanctuary with no exposure to the outside world (or even the rest of the building) would be a miserable existence. So imagine that one day I decide to explore outside the sanctuary. I would see that there are rooms where people gather to eat food together. I would see and get an idea of indoor plumbing and waste disposal. I would also get an idea of different types of flooring.
Wow. What a new series of revelations, huh? But let’s take it a step further. 

Let’s say I start looking out the windows to see what the outside world looks like. Stepping into the church lobby where I can see outside the building, I notice it’s very bright outside, even brighter than inside the sanctuary. In fact, there’s just one big light that shines down and lights up everything I can see. I can also see that there is a different type of flooring outside that isn’t nearly as decorated as the carpet. One of them looks really hard and rocky, while the other is strange and green. It seems so green that it’s inviting. I wonder if it’s plusher than our carpets.

Looking outside, I can see the outside walls of our sanctuary. It looks like our building is one of many! So many other buildings surround ours and I wonder what each is like. Off in the distance I see these tall brown stalks with lots of green stuff on the top. They cast a lot of shade and I even see people standing under it as if seeking shelter from that one big light up at the ceiling. By the way, the ceiling is really high and looks blue. It has white splotches all over it, but they can be seen moving. So it’s like a moving paint job. I don’t know how high they go up, but maybe there’s a tall ladder for that.

The last thing I saw as I looked outside the windows at the world beyond was a shiny thing with paint on it that moved back and forth, seemingly on its own. I could see a person inside it, and there was music coming from it as it moved. As far as I knew, we didn’t need those things because we have legs. How big could this outside world be?

The last thing I saw as I looked outside was people who didn’t look anything like the people I saw inside the sanctuary. Some of them looked like they were poorer than those in the church, some richer than those in the church. Others, though, even just in passing, sometimes displayed character traits that didn’t seem to reflect the character of God or Christ at all. And seldom would one ever step foot in this building. But what will happen to those people? Will they go to Heaven? And if not, what are we going to do to get them there? Are we, the people inside the sanctuary prepared to do what it takes to reach them? Can we get them inside these doors? And if we can’t, can we still give them the message of Jesus Christ?


Now, I know this illustration isn’t very realistic in literal terms, but it’s quite real in practical terms. Unfortunately, even though our society has changed a lot over the last hundred+ years, we in the church have not responded in strong enough fashion to keep up with the times.

What I mean is this: We’ve gotten locked into a tradition that prevents us from seeing the need for change with the times. Currently we live in a postmodern society. But we in the Church are still holding onto tenets of Modernity. So, when the people respond more to seeing the people of God in daily life or experiencing the love of God through their interactions with Christians, we’re stuck on reaching out to them with apologetics or factual matters as to why they should receive Jesus Christ. When the people have a hunger to see the God of the Bible in action with healings and other miracles, we settle for showing them Scriptural truths expressed in our sacraments and doctrines. Or when people want deeper knowledge of God and the Scriptures and we give them booming music, praise dances, and clich├ęs. Instead of giving the people a full vision for their lives and how they connect God to daily life, we give them “When praises go up, blessings come down.”

We have lost sight of the world passing us by, and it has harmed and will continue to harm our ability to reach the lost. But I can understand why such traditions have taken on lives of their own. They usually stem from some success of the past. Once we find something that works, we stick with it, hoping it will continue to work for us. However that usually comes at the expense of retaining its original meaning. Case-in-point: When Black women wore long dresses down to their ankles in church, during slavery, the reason was because they were able to control their bodies and not be raped by their slave master. This gave them a sense of dignity, however brief it may’ve been that Sunday morning. Applied today for a younger woman, the long-dress-standard may come off as awkward to them, uncomfortable and needless. One could wear a shorter dress and still have a godly carriage about her. This example shows us how important it is to recognize why our traditions exist in the first place, and when to let them go. Once you lose sight of it, you attach meanings to them that were never intended and perhaps detrimental.

One of the biggest advantages Christianity had through the millennia was its adaptability. Missionaries had a practice of moving into a new territory, and spending their first months there just learning the culture and the finer points of where they lived. They had to learn the language, for starters. They had to learn the geography. They had to learn the people’s values. And only then after getting a good idea of what these people’s lives were really like did they open their mouths and speak the Gospel. But the Gospel always had different points of emphasis, according to where the people were at spiritually. It was never altered or changed, just positioned differently so the people could grasp it.

So for the people outside the church walls, instead of trying to constantly bring them in, it’s our responsibility to go out to them and learn how they think, and position the Gospel accordingly so they can understand it. Otherwise we’re just wasting our time. But the good thing is the Gospel has the versatility to reach any culture, any people group. If only we’d go out to meet them.

The problem is, however, that we ourselves are oftentimes not properly equipped with a strong enough understanding of the Gospel to be able to share it with anyone else.

Question: What does it mean to say Jesus died for our sins? What is the significance of that? How does that work out on a practical level?

We all grew up hearing that phrase “Jesus died for your sins”, but we can’t articulate why. Here’s why: Because God is merciful, He wants to save us. But because He’s also just, He has to punish sin wherever it’s found. So what Jesus did in living a perfect life without sin is He set us up for a blockbuster trade. He had earned Heaven Himself. He earned the rewards that come with obeying God, and He could have cashed in. But He instead took on the wrath that should have come our way for every time we sinned. He took our punishment that we deserve, satisfying God’s justice. Because sin has been punished, we’re able to receive God’s mercy which comes from trusting in the sacrifice of Jesus. So we get to Heaven with the righteousness of Jesus, but Jesus took on the wrath from our sin. What a trade.

So by understanding justice and mercy and the character of God, you were able to grasp why Jesus had to die for our sins for us to be forgiven. And I even used a bit of sports terminology.

In evangelism, just like missionary work, we have to be willing to listen to people and get an idea of how they think so we know how to shape our presentation of the Gospel. It’s not an inherently bad thing that people like music. Some or most of it may be broken, but it can also be used for God’s purposes. Video games may also be broken, but they too can be used for the spreading of God’s message. TV may be raunchy, but that, too, can be used for the advancement of God’s kingdom.

I want to challenge you, people of God, with this Scripture: “If you’ve raced with men and they have worn you out, how then will you compete with horses?” (Jeremiah 12:5) God is calling His people to do great things for Him, things the world has no grasp of yet. My only question is, are you willing to do what it takes to be useful to God? Are you willing to be stretched to learn something new? Are you willing to be discomforted and stirred to action about something God cares about? Are you willing to get outside of the church to go reach people who won’t come inside? Will you learn and understand the Gospel of your salvation, and will you then take that to someone else? There’s a whole world of possibilities at how to reach people, so explore them. You’ll find that you, specifically, were needed for the expansion of God’s kingdom because of the way God made you. We need you out here. Please respond to the call.