Church is Messy

If you spent any time in church as a child, you probably learned this rhyme: “Here’s the church. Here’s the steeple. Open the doors. Here’s all the people.” It was usually accompanied by hands held together (the church) with index fingers pointed heavenward (the steeple) and thumbs forming the doors. The rest of the fingers interlocked on the inside to form the people. It was kind of like Sunday School gang signs or something.

When we look at the Bible, we understand that the church is not a building or a steeple. It’s people. People who are indeed interlocked together in Christ. And, because the church is people, church can often be messy. It’s never as neat and as ideal as we’d like it to be. We’d like things to run in perfect harmony, but they seldom do. Despite the clear teaching of Scripture and the empowering work of the Holy Spirit, church is sometimes…often times less than ideal. As fallen people, we say and do things that often hurt instead of help. We become embittered, angry, and unforgiving. Feelings get bruised, egos get hurt, and by the time we’re done we’re left with one big mess. And then, we look around for someone to blame.

Sadly, we learn that Satan relishes these messy times (sometimes, he may even be the instigator behind them). The evil one has a way of making our messes even bigger. He pokes and prods and stirs things up in the lives of people…in the life of the church until our little messes are big, and our big messes are enormous. We understand that as believers, we are far too prone to give in to the old nature and sin on our own. We don’t always need any pushing or goading. We usually do a fine job of sinning by ourselves. So, understand that this isn’t a treatise simply saying that the “devil made me do it.” He didn’t. He does, however, have a way of working when we are the most vulnerable. He may be at his most aggressive after a great victory in our lives or during a season of great struggle. Regardless of the context, we can all attest to the fact that Satan has a way of cashing in on his opportunities.

Paul reminds us that our struggle is not with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). While the struggles we face may have names and faces and personalities, there is often a spiritual dimension involved that we do not see. Satan is indeed working within the walls and behind the doors of the church to break up those interlocking people. He desires to break them apart and thus weaken the testimony and the ministry of the church. Simply stated, he works to derail and distract the people of God from being the church.

So, what are we to do in the midst of our mess? For one, we must look to God in prayer (Ephesians 6:18). We cannot overcome a spiritual struggle with physical strength. Prayer is essential in times like these. We must also strive clean things up as quickly as we can. Gossip doesn’t help. Nor does speculation. Taking sides just makes things worse. In the messes we make, there are no real winners and losers. Instead, by God’s grace, we love and we forgive our way through these things. We confess and ask God to help us clean up and move forward the best that we can. We hold to the truth of Scripture and work diligently to live it out daily. Finally, we affirm our unity. We’re together in this thing called church…even when’s it’s messy. Especially when it’s messy. We’re interlocked. We’re together. We’re one.

At the end of the day, the church (building) and the steeple and the doors don’t matter. The people…the real church does. We’re the ones redeemed by the grace of God to live lives that bear witness to Him. And they can, even in the messes we make.

It’s Good to Gather Together

Sir Isaac Newton tells us that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. When it comes to trends and fads in Christian circles, we might restate his law this way: “For every action, there’s an equal and opposite action…followed by an even bigger overreaction.” I’m fearful we see this when it comes to highlighting the importance of life together as a local body of believers. For years, gathering together to worship was a centerpiece of Christian expression. Then, it became so much a part of the culture that Christian worship sort of lost the Christian part. While genuine believers gathered to worship and encourage one another, many others just joined in because it was expected of them culturally. Today, we tend to see a revolt against such cultural Christianity…not only by the culture, but also by the church. The culture no longer feels compelled to worship. The social pressure to be a part of such gatherings is no longer there. And, that might be a good thing. But sadly, many believers have followed suit. Studies tell us that the leading cause of decreasing church attendance is the inconsistency of members. And more and more, I’m hearing believers encourage other believers to do something other than gather together for worship and encouragement. Some say it’s more meaningful to stay home and have devotions as a family. Some suggest that it’s more evangelistic to take a neighbor to breakfast or to a ball game on Sundays. Yet others say that it’s more mission minded to engage in a mission project instead of gathering to worship. Meaningful devotions, evangelism, and missions are all vital to to work of Christianity. It’s all kingdom business and it’s good stuff. But, it’s not wrong or inferior to gather together as a local assembly to worship, equip, and encourage one another. Granted, “going to church” cannot be the sum total of our Christian expression. If it is, there is a problem with our Christian expression. But, gathering together is a good and worthwhile thing to do. More than that, it is a biblical thing to do. Don’t over react to those who have too highly valued attending church by embracing the attitudes of those who value it too lowly.

Take Me Out to the Crowd

In 1908, Jack Norworth was riding on a train on his way to Manhattan, New York.  To pass the time, he tapped his Vaudevillian roots and began scribbling song lyrics onto a piece of paper.  He passed the lyrics onto Albert Von Tilzer, who in turn put the lyrics to music.  Within a year, the two men had a hit song and one of the most enduring songs in American history.  You probably have never heard any of the verses which speak of Katie Casey and her love for baseball.  But, I bet you have sung the chorus a time or two.  You see, when Katie’s beau shows up to take her to the show, she resists and instead pleads,

“Take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd.  Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks.  I don’t care if I never come back.  Let me root, root, root for the home team, if they don’t win it’s a shame.  For it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the ol’ ball game.”

A baseball park is a wonderful place.  There’s really nothing quite like it.  The sights, sounds, and smells are all woven into the fabric of our nation and into the memories of generations of Americans.  And, as wonderful as it is to watch a game on television, there’s really nothing quite like being at the park.  It is one thing to see the game on my high definition television screen.  It’s something else to sit in the stands surrounded by other cheering fans, all root, root, rooting for the home team.

Last summer, my family and I traveled to Pittsburgh to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates play the St. Louis Cardinals.  The Pirates were mired in a twenty-plus season losing streak.  But, in 2013, they were pushing the Cardinals for first place late into the season.  The winner of these upcoming games would be in first headed into the late summer push for the pennant.  The crowd was electric.  It was awesome to experience being with all of the fans who were pushing and striving for the same thing (by the way, the Pirates won).  I probably could have watched the game by myself on television or caught the highlights on ESPN, but it was much more meaningful to be part of the crowd encouraging the team and celebrating with each other.

The experience reminds me of what the Bible has to say about the importance of believers gathering together.  The author of Hebrews writes:

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.   And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:23-25, ESV).”

He gives us three exhortations in this paragraph.  First, he says we should hold fast to the confession of our hope.  In other words, we must maintain our trust in Jesus.  Second, we need to find ways to continue to motivate and prompt one another to love, grow, and serve.  And third, we must continue to meet together to encourage one another.

In the busyness of contemporary life, it’s far too easy for us as believers to “neglect to meet together.”  So many things pull at our time.  And, most of those things aren’t bad or evil in and of themselves.  Nonetheless, as these things pull us from gathering together, they do stunt our growth in Christ.  We need to come together.  We need to be encouraged.  We need to encourage others.  That’s part of God’s design for believers.  We aren’t meant to wander around out there on our own.  We’re meant to part of a gathering.  We’re meant to be together.

For decades now, fans have sung “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at the ballpark during the seventh inning stretch.  This little ditty written by Jack Norworth and put to music by Albert Von Tilzer has been a staple of American Pastime for over a century.  What’s funny is that Norworth and Von Tilzer had never been to a baseball game when they wrote the song.  As a matter of fact, Jack Norworth would see his first baseball game over thirty years after writing the classic (and it would be twenty years after the song’s writing for Von Tilzer).

It reminds me of the myriad of professing believers who claim to follow Christ yet never gather with His people.  They claim that one thing is important to them, but their priorities demonstrate something else.

Don’t let secondary things keep you from being a part of the gathering of God’s people.  They need you and you need them.  We’re pushing, striving, cheering and rooting for the same things.  We need each other.  So, plan on being a part of it this week.

What I Learned from The Apple Store’m the first to admit that I’ve kind of caught the Apple bug. My son calls it “drinking the Apple juice.” It started innocently enough with an iPhone and then proceeded to the iPad and then to Apple TV. Now, I have visions of a MacBook running through my head. So, it was hardly an imposition when I had to go into the Apple store recently to replace my phone. Shortly afterwards, I had to return with my wife. It was really her first encounter with the store and she was amazed at how easy it was to take care of what she needed to do. All of this got me thinking about what the church can learn from such a place.

Clarity – When you walk in the store, you’re immediately greeted and guided to where you need to be.  There’s no wandering around aimlessly.   The associates see themselves as guides to get you from the door to the product or help you need.  How well do we do as believers helping people find what they need?

Believability – Everyone working at the Apple store enthusiastically embraces their products. They really believe in them. Thus, the associates don’t spend a lot of time tearing down other products. They just promote theirs (Apple’s television commercials do the same thing). Their enthusiasm is a little contagious. They’re believable in their presentation because they believe their presentation.  Are we believable when we share about Jesus?

Simplicity – Apple doesn’t overwhelm you with a variety of strangely named products.  They have  a handful of simply named, clearly focused products.  Not a lot of fluff or diversions.  They do a great job making the object of your search easy to find. How clear and focused is our programming when it comes to our mission?

Quality – While I know some may debate this, the thing that keeps people coming to Apple is that their stuff delivers.  It meets the need of the consumer and holds up over time.  Their products are well-designed, well-made, well-packaged, well-promoted, and well received. Do we put our best foot forward in our service and ministry?

As life changing as technology is, it is nowhere near as life changing as Jesus.  If phones, tablets, and computers can be handled in such a manner, shouldn’t our Savior? In the days ahead, we’ll look a little more closely at each of these areas and see how we can do a better job sharing someone who’s really life changing.

One of the Best Things I’ve Read This Week

Kevin DeYoung is a pastor who seemingly always writes compelling articles worth reading. In his most recent posting, he delves into the issue of professing believers and church attendance.  It’s a tremendous article and one every believer in Christ should read.

Here’s the link.  Take the time to click it and read what he writes, processing through the questions he poses as you do.