Communities of the unburning bush

The Lord himself – who is who he is – has bound himself inextricably to his people.

Immanuel: the-with-you-God

 

That key phrase caught my attention in a smaller but similar way to Moses noticing an unburning bush. I’m currently enjoying a read through the newly released work, Covenantal Apologetics by Scott Oliphint. In chapter 2 (Set Christ Apart as Lord), the author draws special attention to the essence of who Jesus Christ is and claimed to be. Jesus is the embodiment of the I AM that spoke to Moses in the Sinai desert. Rejecting Jesus is rejecting the I AM (Yahweh). Here is the quote in context and then a brief application.

Covenantal Apologetics by Scott OliphintThe revelation that Moses has of what is really the unburning bush is, in part, designed to reveal to Moses both of these truths [wholly satisfied God alone is who he is and also commits himself to his covenants]. The fire, which represents The Lord himself, is in no way dependent on the bush in order to burn. The fire is, in that sense, a se. It does not need the bush for fuel; it is able to burn in and of itself. But it is also with the bush. It could easily appear on its own, because it is in need of nothing to burn. Or it could appear beside the bush. Instead, it is linked inextricably with the bush, even as The Lord himself – who is who he is – has bound himself inextricably to his people.

One of the unique and glorious truths of being knit together by the Gospel in community is the presence of the wholly satisfied God. That presence is what sets redeemed friends apart from any other form of community in this world. Moses must have seen a billion bushes but only one like the I AM’s. Similarly, the people of our cities will see tens of thousands of friends, families, and homes but what makes all the difference is the connected lives of unburning believers. I desire my home to stand out like that, and the fire has already united with me because he loved me first.

We might ask, “Where’s the sign? You know, the unburning house or unburning church so people will be shocked out of their shoes?” The answer is to look into the ordinary and the mundane which contains the extraordinary (like the ordinary manger holding the Creator and Redeemer of the universe). This is using the eyes of faith to see the hidden, blazing reality.

One day, the I AM himself took off the sandals of his desert pastors and washed their feet (Jn 13). There, he showed us how to be an ordinary bush but ablaze with transformed hearts. After all, he is seeking people who worship him in spirit and in truth. Are we not a people bearing and reflecting the image of the sovra-natural God who in no single way needs us but loves and binds himself to us? Instead of consuming us for what we rightly deserve, he is now revealed through us; converting the ordinary into the remarkable.

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Evangelism in Scary Territory

conversationalist - not so muchWe have some middle-eastern brothers in our church. Listening to their stories and thinking about evangelizing where they are from is not stuff for the faint of heart. Recently, we’ve listened to eye-popping stories of evangelism with some dear friends and readers of this blog in Naples with mafia problems, in the UK with human trafficking & severe domestic abuse, and also in the Scotland projects (schemes) of Edinburgh with crime, laziness, and addiction — all scary. Listening to some of the same brothers pronounce Italian words — even scarier.

For most believers, however, it’s not the thought of having to move to any of the aforementioned places, but rather, the scariest territory to share the Good News is simply next door, down the street, at the park, and in the workplace.

So, we often assuage our fears and bottle-up the Bible’s wonderful truth into safe houses (aka. church buildings). But there’s an inherent problem we encounter, our safe-houses are only safe to us. Take a think about the following quote and see if it doesn’t ring true:

Church is where Christians feel safe and comfortable. Church is where non-Christians feel embarrassed and awkward. We offer people the gospel, but on our terms and on our turf. [Porterbrook Learning, FY-P1, Evangelism, Unit 3]

Small groups can become and often are safe, Bible clubs; huddles of the foto-copied.
What fear keeps us from being the neighbor that everybody wants to have? What fear keeps us from learning how to cook a different kind of food just to honor and kindly surprise the foreigners around our cities? What fear keeps us from humbly telling people how it was Jesus who has transformed our lives?

But can we reduce it to fear alone? My initial opinion is that fear does play a significant role (fear of man, rejection, awkwardness, disbelief etc.). However, I would also go a bit farther for Western believers and add what we have experienced in post-catholic, secular Italy. We are not in a Christian majority, people don’t generally know what we’re talking about, and we are terribly slow to realize that fact that we just say “God” and move on while wondering how come they don’t get it? One of the missing elements, therefore, is developing a whole new way to converse with “auto-contented” secularists that shows how the Story we live by has so radically transformed our lives that it’s worth sharing with others.

And that is both the rub and the fear, isn’t it?

Numerous “Christians” cannot talk about heart-rending transformation and life-supporting community because there just hasn’t been much of any to share. As Jesus put it, He who has been forgiven much, loves much. And in the very moment we get to the heart of that truth is when the Gospel isn’t scary at all.

If I Open My Window, You Open Your Door

It’s a nice church, but it’s not somewhere I feel that I could really bring my friends or colleagues. It’s over their heads, they’ll get bored, and they may even walk out. I don’t think I want to risk all the awkwardness.”A window from the local village of Polcenigo

What a frequently painful comment to hear about a church. And yet, it’s an accurate comment albeit a general one. I have heard this expression in numerous places that I have been, have you? (members of Serenissima are not permitted to answer that!)

How did we (the church in general) get to the place where our own people would not want their friends, colleagues, and neighbors to share in the joy that has transformed their lives? Jesus basically said the world will know that he is God and sent by the Father just by how we love one another, but many don’t even want others to meet their church family.

When a congregation arrives at that point, whose fault is it? Is it the pastors’ fault? Or the people’s fault for thinking like that? I think it’s both and I offer a start to reduce the emphasis on this over-emphasized clergy-laity divide where we should all be living missionally in our respective roles:

Pastors’ Fault!

I was listening to a pastor’s consultation held in England a few years ago. Tim Keller was speaking along with many others about how our preaching needs to be missional. In other words, is our teaching only for the faithful? He said something timely along these lines, “You should preach to your congregation as if your city is listening-in through the windows and one day they’ll be in the seats.” At the very least, this begins to evaporate an us vs. them language and mindset. The truth is that as we gather in our congregations, it’s an all-of-us before God reality.

One of my personal preaching questions is, “What if I were sharing this message with my entire province? — because I am. Is it clear, faithful, applicable, and grace-full? Will they be able to see & start to understand Christ in their current cultural ways of thinking?” Asking this question among others is me learning how to open the windows. And I live in Italia… hello, this is not an easy question to answer! However, we really must strive to speak both to our people and their friends. If we preach with closed windows (the “us”, the faithful), our people will simply not be missional and we’ll just stick them into “small groups” without ever mentioning that we even have small groups. What we as preachers are really communicating is that we hope our people will just magically understand and “get it.” Then, they will turn into sacrificial, missional Christians and we will be able to say, “See, we told you all along.”

People’s Fault!

And yet, Gospel-listeners must be diligent actors or the sum-total of their Christian maturity will be sermon-tasting. One of the greatest apologetics that we have to show the power and reality of King Jesus is the compassionate treatment of one-another in his name. Jesus said it this way, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35

So, there is our mandate, our new commandment. Be around one another in such a way that people who haven’t met Jesus yet can clearly see him. And the best place to do that is in the place where you are who you are the most — your home.

Frankly, people will taste more of what it means to be a Christian through our homes and how we live our lives than in a formal church meeting. Are our doors open? Do we allow our homes to be the church so that people can meet Jesus? If we live with closed doors, then the preaching we hear will turn into information-passing because people will never be able to experience the reality of the church as they can’t see it being lived before them.

Can you see the sad cycle? Pastors who preach with closed windows point the finger at the people with closed doors who have come to expect pastors to teach comfortable, closed-up messages — and thousands of people neither hear nor see the King of all while we blink at each other.

So, if I open my window, then you open your door.  Deal?

With love,  Portiere Rob

Edify and then Evangelize

Spiritual growth occurs best in a caring community…
The Holy Spirit ministers to us, in large measure, through each other…
I can edify myself only as I edify the community. This has immediate implications for the evangelistic task. The individual believer’s responsibility is first of all to the Christian community and to its head, Jesus Christ. The first task of every Christian is the edification of the community of believers…
The idea that every Christian’s first responsibility is to be a soul winner ignores the biblical teachings about spiritual gifts. Further, it puts all the emphasis at the one point of conversion and undervalues the upbuilding of the Church which is essential for effective evangelism and church growth. This leads us to affirm, secondly, the priority of community in relation to witness. Fellowship and community life are necessary in order to equip Christians for their various kinds of witness and service. In one way or another every Christian is a witness in the world and must share his faith. But he can be an effective witness only as he experiences the enabling common life of the Church.¹

Cover of "The Community of the King"

This is a short excerpt from H. Snyder’s helpful book, The Community of the KingIn this keen insight, Snyder is helping us to prioritize the life of the Church with the presentation of the Gospel, and rightly so.

We can then follow-on with one practical and important question about our ministry programs and priorities: If we emphasize evangelism out-ahead of edification, what demonstration of the Good News are we bringing people to when we call them to turn to Christ? 

In other words, if we declare the wonder of grace to a friend and then bring our friend into a place where we superficially know one-another and there is a scarcity of visible, devoted love for Jesus and brotherly affection for others, then our friend can get the same atmosphere at the local gym and the Good News is shown not to be so good after all. Therefore, edify first and then evangelize.

¹Snyder, Howard, The Community of the King, IVP Academic, pages 75-76

A Nip of Newbigin: The Local Congregation

Lnewbigin

In this second part on evangelism in a secular culture, Lesslie Newbigin shares that it is not enough to try to impart evangelistic information to society, but rather, there needs to be a local and visible demonstration of the impact this Good-News-knowledge has had on real people. Therefore, the family of God becomes the best apologetic of the true story. 

The clue to evangelism in a secular society must be the local congregation. There are many other things of which one could speak — mass evangelism of the Billy Graham type, Christian literature, radio and television, study and training courses, and so on. These are auxiliary. Many of them can be very valuable. But they are auxiliary to the primary center of evangelism, which is the local congregation. The congregation should live by the true story and center their life in the continual remembering and relating of the true story, in meditating on it and expounding it in its relation to contemporary events so that contemporary events are truly understood, and in sharing in the sacrament by which we are incorporated into the dying and rising of Jesus so that we are at the very heart of the true story. The congregation that does this becomes the place where the new reality is present with its heart in the praise and adoration of God and in the sharing of the love of God among the members and in the wider society. And here, of course, an immense amount depends upon the leadership given through preaching, pastoral encouragement, and public action by those called to ministry in the congregations.

~ Lesslie Newbigin: a Reader, p. 234-235

I liked that part about the congregation becoming the place where the new reality is present with its heart in the praise and adoration of God and in the sharing of the love of God…

We need to emphasize that present, new reality. While contextualization is important, one of  the most compelling things about our gatherings (larger and smaller) is how serious and committed we are as a people to the true story. Rather, the focus is often on our “technique of doing church.”

The Gospel shared is the Gospel lived. So, to share that story in a radically attractive way (evangelism) will require us to ask, “How are we–together interpreting our world and responding to it by the truth of the Gospel?” 

When people begin to encounter other people who are walking by the Gospel, they might see forms of church that are familiar to them but they will be drawn to the story because they see others who have authentically entered it and are taking it seriously.

—–

Part one of this 5-part evangelism series can be found here: Living by the Other Story

Here below is a link to a very good article on communicating the Gospel in considerate and contemporary ways. It runs parallel with what I’ve shared above.

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A Nip of Newbigin: Living by the Other Story

 

Lnewbigin

The word “nip” in its noun form means a “taste” or “swallow”. I had to come up with a word that complimented minestrone, you know what I mean? I hope you can digest my weak and enigmatic sense of creativity.

So, with that out of the way, I enjoy reading the writings of Lesslie Newbigin. If you haven’t heard of him before, he was a missionary-theologian from Britain to India during the mid-1900’s. Lesslie passed away in South London at the age of 88 in 1998 but left behind a plethora of insights on the church and mission.

This is the first of five quotes that Lesslie wrote about evangelism and the thinking of the “re-evangelization” of Europe. I think these nips would apply to any secularized, Western culture. They’re quite good and I wanted to share them here on HM. 

Evangelism is not the effort of Christians to increase the size and importance of the Church. It is sharing the good news that God reigns — good news for those who believe, bad news for those who reject. Evanglism must be rescued from a Pelagian anxiety, as though we were responsible for converting the world. God reigns and his reign is revealed and effective in the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As we grow into a deeper understanding of this fact, as we learn more and more to live by the other story, we become more confident in sharing this reality with those who have not yet seen it.

~ L. Newbigin, A Reader, p. 234

To nuance more of what Newbigin is saying, living by the other story is really understanding the active reality of the Gospel story in everything we do. The Gospel is the living word, daily impressing itself upon us, and the very light by which we see, interpret, and respond to our world. The more deeply we submerge ourselves into it, the more confidence we’ll have revealing it. 

I liked that line about a Pelagian anxiety. I was taught to live in that panic at one time. What I realized through living the other story was that you don’t have to sell the Gospel, you just have to say it.