Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: seeker friendly

Food for the hungry

Back when we were living in southwestern Ontario we made the trip back to Saskatchewan every two years. The trip was 3,000km and took 3 days each way. The first two days we tried to get an early start and got our meals at fast food restaurants to save time. When we stopped for gas we would load up with pop and snacks to keep us going. By the third day, we were all tired of fast food and junk food and knew we had to stop for one real meal before we got to our destination.

We still enjoy fast food and junk food, more often than we should if truth be told. But we know that we cannot live on a diet like that. Even fast food restaurants are advertising healthier meals, with more fresh, natural ingredients and fewer additives.

But there are still far too many churches out there trying to feed their congregations with fast food spirituality. They offer contemporary music that is initially fresh and attractive but provides very little nourishment. Then they add “seeker-friendly” messages that intrigue but don’t satisfy. And they wonder how they can keep their young people from wandering off in search of the world’s amusements.

People want to be fed, need to be fed. Preachers need to spend less time studying psychology and more time in deep study of the Word of God, less time trying to adapt marketing methods to evangelism and more time in prayer, less time trying to get new people into the church and more time feeding the souls of those who are already in.

That last point may seem counter-intuitive, most of us agree that churches today need to be more evangelistic in their home communities than they have been in past generations. But – the preacher is not the church, the people are. Feed the people, show them how to find solid spiritual nutrition for themselves, then let them invite others to the banquet.

“Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).

What makes a church attractive?

Church attendance across Canada has been declining for years. Yes, there are new churches being built, some quite large. Many more are being torn down, or re-purposed. I suspect the majority of the people in our country have never set foot in a church. Nowadays, most weddings and funerals do not take place in a church. What would it take to change this decline?

Christian churches have always been engaged in helping widows and orphans, the poor and neglected. They called it charity, which means love, and most of it was genuinely motivated by love. A new idea came along – charity is demeaning to the poor. Churches could make themselves more meaningful by advocating for the government to take care of the poor, the sick, the needy. So now we have the nanny state, a security net to catch all those who fall, or are pushed, from the ranks of those who can care for themselves. But government agencies operate by rules and regulations and there is precious little love involved.

Meanwhile, people in droves have bailed out of the churches that advocated this system, feeling that if social reform is the important thing they can accomplish more through politics and other secular means. What these churches are really preaching is the gospel of money; and money can’t buy love, can’t buy happiness, can’t hold a church together.

More recently, many churches have re-jigged the way they do church in order to become more seeker friendly. This manifests itself in many ways – small, very informal groups with unstructured worship forms, all the way to mega churches with lots of pizzazz. Very often there will be coffee available before, during or after the service. New and different intrigues people for a while, eventually they weary of being fed only dessert, never a substantial meal. Is the gospel of new and different still the gospel of Jesus Christ?

The core of the gospel of Jesus Christ is: ” Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.”

Isn’t this what people are longing for? How do we make our church more like this? The answer is that we can’t. The essence of a real, live, dynamic church is not in doing, but in being. We can try to persuade our church people to be more friendly, more welcoming, to care more about the people around them. These are all things they should do. But if the doing doesn’t come from a real love kindled in their heart by the Holy Spirit, their actions will cry out hypocrisy to all who see.

The ideal is a church where every member is keenly aware of God’s goodness, loves God with all his/her being and isn’t embarrassed to let others see that love. That means I need to start with myself and stop prodding others to do what I know I should do. None of us ever do things quite right, so we need to discern the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of our brothers and sisters and not judge them by their awkwardness and clumsiness in following the Spirit. We need to love our neighbours enough to want them to know the same love and peace that we have.

If we try to do the things a real Christian should do, without being a real Christian, it will not work. If our goal is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and strength, we will find endless opportunities to do and say things that will demonstrate that love to others. The more of us who do that, the more attractive the church will be.

All things to all men

Saul of Tarsus grew up in a box; a box labelled PHARISEE.  His father was a Pharisee and no doubt taught Saul the rules of the box from infancy.  In his youth, he studied under Gamaliel in Jerusalem.  Saul was intimately acquainted with every corner of the Pharisee box and believed that God only loved those who dwelt in that box.

After Saul of Tarsus met Jesus on the road to Damascus and became Paul the apostle, he was finished with boxes.  Nevertheless, he still understood those who lived in boxes and could not see over the top of their own box.  This is the meaning of his famous statement in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.  And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.  To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.  And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”

I don’t think Paul was saying he had become a chameleon who could blend into a box of any size and shape, with any shade of meaning.  I believe he meant that he could relate to the people dwelling in all those boxes, the way they saw the world and their fears of stepping out of their own little boxes.  His goal was to help them see that they were prisoners in their boxes and to bring news of salvation in a way that answered their fears.

We have all been raised in a box of some kind.  Some have religious labels, some have labels that claim to be nonreligious or even antireligious.  Nevertheless, every box has a fixed system of beliefs, a way of seeing the world and a doctrine of what makes life meaningful.  Anarchists, radical environmentalists, street gangs, young people hooked on social media, all are in boxes, none of them feel free to walk away from their box and the other people in it.

When someone in one of those boxes meets Jesus and is set free from the box he or she has been living in, that person usually has a good idea of how to reach out to others in the box that he came from.  But where are the people like Paul who can reach out to people in any kind of box?

This is a problem among evangelical Christians today.  Most of them have grown up in a box labelled EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN and find it very difficult to find words to relate to people who have come from other boxes.  They try to welcome such people with a seeker friendly worship style and an accommodation to almost any kind of lifestyle.  Yet many of these people never feel like they really belong in the Evangelical box.

I’m afraid that too often we forget that before speaking seeker-friendly words, we need to open our hearts to understand what people are going through in their life, what they are feeling, what is causing them pain.  If others feel from us that we can understand, at least in part, their pain, they are more likely to believe we can help them find relief for that pain.

There is only one source for that relief, Jesus Christ, only one way to find it, and that way is narrow.  Those who choose that way must renounce everything that will hinder them on that way and seek to live in the very centre of the will of God the Father.  That is the way of a blessed and fulfilling life, but we cannot convince anyone of that with glib answers.  If we sound like a telemarketer who has to read her whole script, despite the objections raised or questions asked, most people will just hang up on us.

How can we become like Paul, “all things to all men?”  It starts when we realize that growing up in a certain box did not make us better people than those in other boxes.  There would have been no need for Jesus to come if salvation were possible through living in a certain box.

Paul makes a remarkable statement in Philippians 3:8, where he compares the advantages of the box he used to live in to a pile of manure.  Once he saw that, it was not a stumbling block to him to approach the manure piles where others were living.

Relevant to what?

Relevant to what?

Everybody talking about the decline of Christianity in the Western world says that it is because the faith preached over the pulpit is no longer relevant to our society.  What they cannot agree on is in what way it is no longer relevant.

For over a century now, many churches have struggled to become more relevant by espousing the social gospel, incorporating psychological insights, adopting a contemporary style of music, applying marketing techniques to evangelism,  becoming more seeker friendly and so on.  You name it; someone has tried it.  And people keep dropping out of the churches.

The social gospel is godless socialism wearing the clothes and using the language of Christianity.  Psychology says our problems are found in the subconscious, not the heart.  All the new styles and techniques miss the mark by thinking the old-fashioned gospel is, well, too old-fashioned for a modern society.

The problem is that churches are trying to make the gospel relevant to the zeitgeist, rather than to the real needs of mankind.  What they are doing is exactly what the Apostle Paul tells us not to do in Romans 10:2: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”  “This world” translates the Greek word “aion,” which does not refer to the physical world or the things of the world.  It rather refers to the way of thinking of the time in which we live.  In French it is translated by words meaning “this present age.”  Nowadays a better word would be zeitgeist, meaning the pattern of thought or feeling characteristic of a period of time.

Can we see the problem here?  In trying to be relevant to the zeitgeist the churches have been trying to conform themselves to a moving target.  The defining characteristic of the zeitgeist is that it is ever changing.  That which seemed totally modern and “with it” twenty-five years ago is passé today.  All attempts to be relevant by conforming to the zeitgeist are doomed to failure.

The Word of God needs no adaptation to make it relevant to our needs.  However, we may need to learn how to apply it in ways that people of today will understand.  If our mind set and our methods are still geared to the1950’s we need not expect a lot of success in 2013.  In fact, the use of pat answers and Christian clichés is always apt to arouse resistance to the message.

We do not need a new translation of the Bible.  The constant churning out of new translations creates the impression that the old is not reliable.  This comes across as another attempt to conform to the zeitgeist.  Let us make ourselves thoroughly familiar with the Bible we use and put it into practice.  Let us show the world by our lives that we find the teachings of the Bible to be totally relevant to our own innermost needs.  Then we will be more convincing when we tell them that the gospel is relevant to them, too.

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