He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:15-20
I had a conversation with a friend today about the place (or not) for marketing principles in the church. Not gonna get into all the various pros and cons in that discussion here. However, I do think there is (at least) one interesting dilemma any marketing professional might face in trying to help a given church with a marketing plan. I am not convinced all of us as church leaders even agree on what, exactly, our product is. That is a sad problem. But it is not a new problem. Paul addressed it in his writing. More than once.
The Colossian Paradox
After a (frankly) gushing introduction in his letter praising the little church at Colossae for its impressive faith and reliance on Jesus, Paul does something interesting: he reminds them of how important Jesus is. It almost feels out of place. He heaps the praises on them. You are faithful! You are on the right track! Being gospel-centered, you are getting it right and we have heard all about your impressive faith in Jesus! And then he launches into …
Now, regarding the one who started all this—the person in question who caused all this pain—I want you to know that I am not the one injured in this as much as, with a few exceptions, all of you.So I don’t want to come down too hard. What the majority of you agreed to as punishment is punishment enough. Now is the time to forgive this man and help him back on his feet. If all you do is pour on the guilt, you could very well drown him in it. My counsel now is to pour on the love. The focus of my letter wasn’t on punishing the offender but on getting you to take responsibility for the health of the church. 2 Corinthians 2:5-9 (The Message)
Moments that Test our Motives
Years ago, I was in a race with several hundred other people. It was a triathlon. It started on a beach in Corpus Christi, Texas. After a half-mile swim in a very choppy ocean, we all ran to a transition area. There we quickly put on cycling shoes and rode off on a 25-mile bike ride, about half of which was directly into a stiff and steady 20-mph headwind. By the time I got off the bike, my legs were jelly and my body was exhausted.
I sat down in the transition area, thinking about the 10K run still ahead of me. Genuinely torn about what I would do, I could quit now and just lie back and relax or I could strap my running shoes on and stand up and “will” my legs to work again. It was the very kind of moment most endurance races bring: the moment of decision, whether or not to finish what I started. How we respond to those moments …
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside… 1 Corinthians 5:9-13
Imagine my joining a CrossFit class and telling the trainer, “I just do not do squats of any kind. Sorry. It’s not that I cannot do them, because I can. I just don’t believe they will help me at all.” That trainer is likely to respond with something like, “Well then you don’t really want to do CrossFit, because squats (of every kind) are pretty foundational to everything we do here.” And then he/she would encourage me to leave and try a different program somewhere else; one that I really can believe in. I might ask him/her to please explain WHY squats are so foundational to CrossFit, and maybe that trainer would have a great answer, or maybe not. That’s not really the point. The point is, squats are a foundational part of CrossFit. So, if I am able to do them but just don’t really believe they’re helpful, then I really don’t believe CrossFit is helpful. If I don’t want the accountability CrossFit offers, then I don’t really want CrossFit. It’s simple that way.
Christianity works that same way. It is a revolution founded by Jesus, who …
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Acts 2:1-4
To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Colossians 1:27
Of all the miracles referenced in the Bible, the Pentecost miracle in Acts 2 may be at the top of my list of moments I would love to have seen. The tongues of fire ushering down God’s Spirit to indwell God’s people…wow!
In terms of their impact on this world and the ushering in of a completely new chapter in God’s story, I tend to think of the crucifixion, the resurrection and Pentecost as three aspects of a single, “this changes everything” moment in history. All are significant in themselves, but all are necessary to bring about the age of the church. It is a little like a three-legged stool in that regard. Take any one of the legs away and you have an entirely different situation.
These three events (which all happened within just a few weeks of each other), taken together, changed forever the way God would relate to his creation…AND the way we, His children, would relate to each other.
Follow the history with me through the Bible…
In the garden, God related to Adam and Eve through an interpersonal relationship (yes, I am quite the literalist in my interpretation of scripture). …
Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed… to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 1 Corinthians 12:1, 7
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
I wish I could see exactly what the question was from the Corinthian church. I mean, I wish I could know exactly how they reported their issue with spiritual gifts to Paul. The mediator in me has watched Paul call out three of the four factions in that church in the first part of this letter (“I follow Paul”, “I follow Apollos”, and I follow Cephas”), and I wonder if the “I follow Jesus” faction was representative of the culprits here, because that is the way it comes across in so many of our church conflicts today where spiritual gifts are at issue. Somebody is making a practice of doing something that is causing all kinds of havoc in the church, i.e., ripping the church apart, and their excuse is that “I am just exercising my spiritual gift…it is the Spirit of God Himself working through me…I am just following Jesus.” I am troubled by that for several reasons, not the least of which is that spiritual gifts are ALL ABOUT UNITY and bringing …
And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:3-5
Who, in your life, are you certain would do this for you? What relationships have you nurtured and developed to the point you can now count on them to be there for you when you most need someone to carry you? And you will, at some point, need someone to carry you…we all do.
In his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, John Ortberg refers to it as “the fellowship of the mat”: that hard reality that, at some point, every one of us will need to be carried…will need to be loved by a few people who will go above and beyond the call of normal friendship duty and will carry us extraordinary lengths in order to get us through whatever dark season awaits us. We will all be called upon to do it for someone else at times and we will all need someone to do it for us.
But having those kinds of relationships in our lives does not happen accidentally. Whether it is family or just close friends, the truth is, those relationships are hard work, and not all of us are necessarily up to the task. This reality does not sit well with our current culture. Much of the cultural pressure today is toward a kind of love or acceptance or affirmation that is devoid of any hard conversations or difficult truths (or any truth at …
In our ministry, we refer to it as the “Principle of Perceptions”…it is one of our 5 Principles of Unity in the church. It simply states: I have some responsibility for how others perceive me. It is simple to state, but it becomes awfully complicated in application. There is a scriptural principle which calls upon each of us to take reasonable measures in order to preserve our testimony before others. The more leadership responsibility we have (i.e., the more influence we have), the greater those measures become.
Where relationships are concerned, perception is far more important than reality. In our relationship, if you perceive me to be an abuser, then that perception will affect our relationship whether I actually am an abuser or not. In our relationship, if you perceive me to be a racist, then that perception will impact our relationship whether I actually am a racist or not. In our relationship, if you perceive me to have anger issues, then that perception will dictate much about our relationship whether I actually have those issues or not. And so on and so forth…you get the picture.
So, where relationships are concerned (and where my ability to be a leader or influencer in your life is concerned), I simply must take some responsibility for how I am perceived. I must always weigh the cost of my choices on that scale. There will be times when I must go ahead and choose in such a way which costs me that influence. And there will be other times when I will choose to sacrifice my freedom in order to preserve my influence with you or with others. This is life. This is leadership. And, most importantly, this is what following Christ entails.
So, it was with terrific sadness that I left the …
And he told her all his heart, and said to her, “A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man.” Judges 16:17
I in them and you in me,that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. John 17:23
I remember Samson (of the Bible) holding “superhero” status in my mind as a child. Studying his tragic story now as an adult, I realize his character flaws throw a very different light on his super-human power. Isn’t that what intrigues us about God’s story? It is told through the lives of so many horribly flawed–even dysfunctional–people.
That is one of the ways of God: to use markedly flawed people to accomplish His will. It is intriguing about Samson and it is intriguing about the church. We are all flawed, and yet (like Samson) we, the church, are filled with God’s Spirit and collectively empowered to represent His spiritual authority in this world. Samson was a tragically flawed hero of God’s story, and Christ’s eklesia is likewise embarrassingly flawed. I’ve written about that here.
But also like Samson, the church has a peculiar source of its strength…a “lynch pin”, if you will, to all that empowerment God promises us. For Samson, it was his hair. But for the church, it is our relationships with one another.
We can talk about the power of prayer (if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven); we can talk about …
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22
The kingdom of Heaven is like when you’re driving home on Friday evening and the interstate is a parking lot with cars bumper to bumper for like miles and miles and there is this one pitiful car trying desperately to get in line but nobody will let him in because everybody is being a jerk and this poor guy is sitting there with his blinker on waiting and waiting and waiting and so you decide to be the good guy and you let him get in front of you. Good job. You are a Christ-like person. But then along comes another pitiful soul in the exact same situation and he pulls up along side the first guy hoping the first guy will let him get in front of him because he’s thinking, “this guy just had mercy shown to him so surely he will show a little mercy as well” and, frankly, you’re thinking the same thing which is why you are so angry when the first guy WON’T BUDGE and will not show any mercy at all to the second guy. Suddenly, you’re not thinking nice things anymore. You just want to do physical harm to the first guy’s car for being such a jerk. You’re thinking, “Hey, I showed you some mercy, what’s your problem!?” And that is like the kingdom of heaven.
As a church mediator working with conflicted congregations, I have come to believe that the sin posing the most significant threat to church unity today is the sin of unforgiveness. I cannot …
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” John 17:20-21
No matter what kind of car I drive, no matter how expensive, how amazing, nor how reliable it is, if I cannot see out the windshield, it is worthless to me. It’s ironic. A $20 part (a windshield wiper blade) can make all the difference in whether an otherwise amazing vehicle is of any use at all. The windshield, you see, is the only lens through which we, as drivers, can see the road ahead.
Jesus spoke of a similar concept in John 17. At a moment in time when Jesus was considering the global revolution He and his followers were about to start (we call it “the church”), he lifted his eyes toward heaven and prayed. Understanding the challenges the future church would face in bringing a lost and broken world to see and believe in Christ, he asked his Father for the one thing we would need most in order to accomplish our mission: relationships which point to Jesus.
Here is what Jesus understood and a truth we must grasp as well: if the key to a fruitful church is “Christ in us”, then the key to the world seeing Christ in us is relationships in our lives which point to Jesus. In short, our ability to show this …