Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What If He Didn't Need Our Little Gifts

     We first met Jasmina during one of the many trips to IKEA made to outfit three coffee shop churches across Poland.  She was trying to enroll customers in their credit card program.  When we responded to her introduction inquiry in English instead of Polish, she quickly turned her head and asked, "Are you American or British?"  With that, we began a relationship that continues (via facebook) up to the present.
     Her father was an Art Professor in a university in Egypt where she had grown up.  Her boyfriend an Art major in Poland.  Together, the two of them had put together a year long exhibition located in an old, cold, crumbling, red-brick building that had not been in use for several decades.  
     They were incredibly smart, perceptive young people; viewing life, the world and faith from an adventurously optimistic, post-Christian perspective.  Listening to their thoughts, responding to their honest and probing questions was terrific input as we developed our approach to missions in Poland.
     During one of our meals together,  at a pause in the conversation she leaned in and said, "I have been looking at some video on the internet of the American, Evangelical church."
     Rhonda and I glanced warily across the table at each other.
     She continued, "It is very interesting to me to view the American church.  But, I have to ask you a question.  If the point is to introduce people to God as you have mentioned...Why do you offer all of the little gifts?"
     "What do you mean by little gifts?" Rhonda asked.
     I thought back to a newspaper story I remembered reading while pastoring a church in Texas.  It told of one of the churches in Corpus Christi giving away a BMW as a prize for one lucky attender at Easter.  This wasn't quite what Jasmina was getting at.
     "People are invited to come and meet God, but it looks and feels more like a show with the lights dimmed and other special effects enticing people along the way... and so many promises that God will give people things; make them healthy, prosperous……you know, little gifts.    It seems like if people really want to meet God, that they wouldn't need anything else in order to come. Shouldn't He be enough?"
     Wow….Shouldn't meeting God be enough?

     It's easy for me to distance myself from the decision to use a free BMW as an enticement to come to church, but does the question go deeper than that?  I think so.  Had the question come from a nasty debate, or condescending attitude in my friend, I would have probably responded with greater defensiveness, but the question and the questioner arrived from a place of innocence.  It made me ask myself this: "What kind of 'little gifts' do we offer in the gatherings that I have led, that actually might distract people from a true encounter with God rather than draw them toward Him?"  And maybe a second question: "How did we arrive at this place?"  
     I believe that the answers to both of these questions come together in this next story…

    Our transition back to the US from Eastern Europe was challenging.  Leading a church of people in the Pacific Northwest is vastly different than starting coffee houses.   We were just getting our feet on the ground, when I received an anonymous letter in the mail.  The basics of the note said this, "I began attending church here to support my husband…But as you have shared your messages week after week, I am beginning to feel like coming to church has been at least as much for me as it has been for him.  I was prepared to be bored and uninterested, but instead I have been encouraged and inspired.  Furthermore, the Jesus that you are speaking about is making more sense to me all the time and I feel him speaking to me.  I have not yet asked him into my heart, but I think that will come soon."  

     A few weeks later, at the conclusion of the service a man and woman were standing near the front of the platform waiting to speak to me.  The woman introduced herself as Dee and told me that she was the one who had written the letter I just mentioned.  Her husband stood next to her.  He later told me that he had gone through significant struggles in his life; spiritually and physically, but that he felt God had spoken to him while on what could have been his "deathbed" in the hospital and called him back to faith.  Several months later, I had the privilege to pray with both of them in my office, and Dee took the final step in entering into a relationship with her new friend and savior, Jesus.  In the following year, God drew ever closer to both of them.  Then some very difficult news came.  Dee was diagnosed with cancer.  Her physical strength began to drain out of her, even as her spiritual strength was growing.  About a month and a half ago, she left this earthly existence and went to meet the Jesus she had just come to know.  During her last weeks with us, she more and more earnestly prayed for her children and their spiritual lives.  I had met two of them earlier, but during preparation for Dee's funeral I had the chance to connect again.  Those two were in attendance the Sunday afterward.  They were in attendance the Sunday after that, and again the Sunday after that.  In fact, they haven't missed a Sunday since the day Dee went home to heaven.
     About three weeks ago someone said to them, "It is so nice that you have honored Dee by coming  to church."
     They responded by saying, "At first, that is why we came….but now we are coming for ourselves."
     Two weeks ago, during a moment in the service that would have to be described as an old school invitation, Adam and Ashley walked to an altar and committed their lives to Christ, in almost an identical way as Dee did.  There were no little gifts involved.

     When I piece these two stories together, here is what I come to...  Just like any other church leader, I want to do whatever I can to draw others toward hearing the voice of God speak to them.  I want to make it as palatable and understandable as possible. The Holy Spirit has been called many things, The Gentle Persuader, The Hound of Heaven etc.  I get where those terms come from, but I guess my favorite term is the one used from the original Greek definition for Paraclete (the oft-used New Testament term for the Holy Spirit)….He is the One who comes alongside.  When the Holy Spirit truly comes alongside someone, we don't need to offer any little gifts.  They….will….hear…Him.  Dee heard Him, and she was a Grandma.  Adam and Ashley heard Him and they are a young married couple.  His voice crosses over age and culture.  It can be heard with the lights up or the lights dimmed.  He doesn't need our assistance. He just wants us in the church to faithfully make room in our services for him to be lifted up, in music, in spoken word or any other form, and He will take care of the rest.  God is not dead….He isn't even sick.
      Now here is the second half of the question that Jasmina voiced….How did we get here?  Remember the story in 2 Samuel 6:6 where the fellow named Uzzah reached out to steady the ark and made an early exit to heaven because of it?  We have built our systems of church management and worship presentations as though the Holy Spirit needed our talents to make His voice more relevant.  We fine-tuned, edited, and marketed our vision into air-tight, seamless video-worthy productions that barely needed the divine to be successful.  We propped up God like he needed our help...We steadied the ark....but lost something in the process.

     There is one name I left out of Dee's story of coming to Jesus.  Her husband's name is Stanley.  Stanley was faithful in following the voice of God in his life.  Dee saw the change in him and came to church where the Holy Spirit met her.  Adam and Ashley witnessed how Dee and Stanley were being changed and came to church for the same reason.  The Holy Spirit met them there as well.  It was that simple.  What I believe has happened in the church in the last couple decades or so, is that we moved away from seeing the power of an individual's changed life as being the natural way for the Holy Spirit to speak to others about the reality of Jesus.  Instead we looked to our church programming capabilities as the emphasis for drawing people into worship.  The effect has been the explosion of the mega-church, but the lack of new people meeting Jesus.  Though many churches have grown in size in recent years, the actual number of Christ followers in most areas has stayed roughly the same.
      Ouch.  Please don't tell anyone, but I fret about this sometimes.  At the church I lead, we try to do our best to present a quality message and quality music in a quality worship environment each Sunday.  We work to have quality programming for children, youth and adults.  I tell myself that I believe this to be important because of the biblical assertion to "do everything as if you are doing it unto the Lord."  And, I believe this to be a true and fair statement as applied to church leadership. But the other reality is this….I am also challenged by the constant concern about those who may leave and go to another church because their view is that our definition of quality is not up to the standards as another churches definition of quality and that other church is only another 10 minutes down the road so…. 
      So, where does all this lead?  I don't know the answer to that for everyone.  But as for me,  :) ….I want to call us home.  I want for the church that I have been entrusted with leading to take back the calling to be personal sharers of faith.  By saying that, I am NOT going to be passing out tracts, and begin anew the  emphasis on pre-programmed, step-driven evangelism.  I think it is more simple than that.  A few weeks ago, I asked for each person to listen for God to give them one word; one word that they could pass on to someone who didn't know Him that was their descriptive word of His faithfulness in their life.  My belief is that when we become people who wear that one word in such a way that Jesus is seen through it,  it can become attractive to people around us.  I don't know what Stanley's word was during the last two years, but  God used it to speak to Dee.  I don't know if it was the same word Dee and Stanley shared, but whatever it was, it spoke to Adam and Ashley.  When we, each of us live in the word of our testimony of His faithfulness, the church doesn't need to hold the ark steady or offer any little gifts.
His presence will be real.
His presence will be alive.
It will span cultures.
It will span generations.
It will draw others unto Him.

Grace and peace,