Twenty years ago a recently saved young man walked into a local church for the first time since he was a teenager. He sat on the back row, profusely sweating in his nervousness, and wondered if he would be welcomed in this church or judged by the people there. His hair was pretty long while the other men all seemed to be close-cropped. He quickly noted that he was dressed more casually than those wearing the suits and dresses – he didn’t even own a tie or a belt. He actually thought about bolting for the door from the back pew where he was squirming in a sense of spiritual inferiority. He knew he was saved and was so happy to be in his third week of sobriety from alcohol and drugs. He just wanted to hear the bible taught that Sunday and the man who led him to Jesus told him that the church down the road from his apartment was a good one to try out. So he risked it and walked through church doors for the first time in a decade. He entered, not knowing what to expect but feeling inwardly that he needed to be with others who knew Jesus. Fortunately for him, this church was pleased to meet him and treated him with grace and kindness from the first moment. Nobody judged him. Nobody openly critiqued his long hair and un-ironed shirt. Nobody treated him awkwardly for coming by himself without a wife or children. Maybe they discerned he was hesitant and uncomfortable. I am sure they knew the fellow was raw. Regardless, he spent a profitable hour there that day and left remembering the smiles, the songs and, yes, the sermon. He knew he would be back the next Sunday. As a matter of fact, he has been in that church nearly every Sunday for the past 1000+ weeks. You see, that newly saved struggler was me. I was 24 years old, newly converted, and probably looking for a reason not to come back to church. My whole life I had been skeptical of “organized religion” and it would not have taken much to keep me from assembling with the saints. So much was on the line with me and nobody in the church-house knew it that day. Thank God that He led me to Meadow that first Sunday. Thank God I was welcomed without being coddled and patronized. Thank God that I entered something real which was purposefully cultivated by people who cared. Who knew then the story that would begin to be written in my life?
The local church is important. It is not all-important, but it is a vital part of the mission of Jesus Christ. The local church is flawed and comprised of forgiven people, all of whom are sinners in the process of being sanctified. Wise churches confess their need for grace and patience from those who attend. Foolish churches promote an image of having it all together. This generation does not expect churches to have it all together but they do (rightfully) have the expectation that we will be authentic with them. They are willing to come and see what is happening at our churches but many are probably looking for another reason not to come back. Churches cannot cater to the whims of people – whether those people are followers of Jesus or not. Churches need to be grounded in the Word and on mission in a way that is consistent with Scripture. At the same time, local churches need to take into consideration the culture in which they are serving. To boast that a church has not changed in forty years is akin to boasting that your plaid bell-bottoms still fit and your in-dash eight track tape player still makes Captain And Tennille’s Muskrat Love sound groovy. Friends, our culture is not what it once was and churches are still assuming that the age of cultural Christianity in America exists. Back then, our faith was interwoven with our culture. Those days are over and people are skeptical of Christians and churches. America is well into its post-Christian era and churches need to strategically adjust if we are going to fulfill Christ’s great commission and escape the blight of swapping members between local churches and calling it Kingdom growth. We are called to reach unbelievers with the Gospel and baptize them. In stead we are transferring members with the church down the street after they leave because of some disagreement over non-essentials. I am opting out of the process as a pastor and adjusting my approach to leading in the Kingdom and in the church I serve.
Pray for leaders in your home church today. Pray for God to speak deeply and precisely to them. Pray that they will have courage not to buy into some dead tradition that propagates an inbred religion sullied by human fingerprints. Pray that they would have discernment not be deceived by passing trends in ministry that have no more substance or longevity than the latest iPhone version’s lifespan. Pray that those who lead in your church will trim the fat, clarify the goal, articulate the strategy, endure the discouraging loss of people who migrate out when changes come, and cultivate a heart for reaching the unbeliever with the Gospel of Christ. While you are at it, pray that those leaders will have enough biblical wisdom to know the difference between the Gospel and those lesser things that seem to pose as Gospel. Traditions and truth are not necessarily the same. Pray that those who follow your church leaders will loosen their grip on “their church” and be willing to adjust anything and everything but what is non-adjustable in Scripture. Ask yourself the tough question of how much of your personal convictions list is actually just personal preference. If your preferences dictate your commitments then you have a Lordship issue that needs to be addressed in your own heart. Ask yourself what you are willing to sacrifice for the sake of Gospel advancement in your home church. We speak often of sacrificing time, money and effort – but what about sacrificing pride, preferences and comfort zones? What will it take for you to set your home church free? Leaders, what will it take for you to set free those who follow you? With the chaos in the world today, how much longer will we keep making the non-essentials essential?
I’m no longer the newbie sitting in the back pew with sweat running down his face as he nervously wonders if this church is going to receive him and help him to know Jesus and to fall in love with Him. Now I am the man in the pulpit who is communicating the Gospel, declaring the mission and defining the strategy. I began my time at Meadow sweating out of an insecurity but now I sweat for an altogether different reason: I want to ensure that I and the people I lead are getting it right.
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