In Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, in one of the more famous parts of the letter, the author describes how the follower of Jesus should act as a human being, as he or she mimics the example of Jesus. Poetically Paul paints a picture of how those followers should act in one mind and one purpose by showing how ‘Christ Jesus’ set aside his own glory for a time to ‘make himself of no reputation’.
After the first stanza, Paul waxes eloquent the results of the self induced humility.
“Therefore, God elevated him to the highest place of honor
and gave him the name above all other names
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow
in heaven and on earth and under the earth
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is God
to the glory of God the Father.”
Not to be outdone, John, the disciple who Jesus loved, in his golden years vividly describes a vision he has of a world sized worship service focused on Jesus.
“And then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea. They sang:
“Blessing and honor and glory and power
belong to the one sitting on the throne
and to the Lamb forever and ever.”
Every creature everywhere. That’s a lot of creatures, not to mention humans.
There are other scenes like these, especially in John’s Revelation, and I’ve heard these passages preached about eloquently and often in my life, but nowhere, and I mean nowhere, do these descriptions ever give the name of an individual church organization as a catalyst for launching this incredible worship scenario. Unless the twenty elders is a representation of Hillsong, then I will gladly admit I’m wrong.
So why is it so easy to feel like you’re a follower of Jesus in the wilderness if you don’t belong to a church organization? Why is there such a sense of loneliness if you’re not a getting a church bulletin every week? Why, when you no longer attend a weekly Sunday gathering, is it so easy to disappear into the abyss of forgotteness?
It’s a reasonable question, for sure, and one which I won’t be answering in depth today, but not only have I felt this way, but I’m sure I’ve caused others to feel this way. I could give many excuses as to why this happens, but it’s outside of the scope of where I’m going here.
Yesterday I wrote about “Top Down Tragedies” and how the church typically works through a “top guy” who speaks about what needs to be done and then everyone does it. This bottlenecks the process of what the church could actually be getting done in our society, and hinders the church from being the church because its job ends up focusing on keeping the institution alive, instead of being an extension of Jesus into our communities.
So today I’d like to share several ideas for you to “be the church” right now, no matter how good or bad your church organization is at “being the church” or whether or not you are a part of one. These are things I did as a pastor, that if you are in the wilderness outside of a church organization, you can step out by faith and actively serve and fellowship with others.
- Text or call a different person every day.
There’s nothing so miserable as a person who complains about being lonely, yet never takes the time to reach out and connect with others. It’s a discipline, and you don’t have to be like me and text or call all the time, but making a habit of sending an encouraging text or a phone call to someone could at worst, take a minute of your time and they might not answer you back if they’re busy, or at best, make someone’s day like you don’t even know. Loneliness is such an epidemic, even in a world filled with social media “connection”, and people need you to reach out and to be a champion of love in their life.
Every so often on Facebook, a memory pops up where I mention in a status how “It’s not even 8 am and I’ve received 3 encouraging texts already!” I remember that day and how I felt. My heart hurt and I kept telling myself I was a failure because of something that happened on Sunday. On Monday morning I woke up and three texts sat waiting for me on my phone. All three encouraged me and told me a different story than the lies I had been filling my own head with. I needed those texts. Seriously, it may sound cheesy, but be the church and send an encouraging text to someone today. And tomorrow too.
2. Find a weekly gathering of people who you can pour into and they can pour into you.
You don’t need a church announcement or a bulletin or an email to remind you that it is important to gather together and spur one another on to love and good deeds. You are a grown adult. There are grown adults everywhere who love God and who need to be meeting together in homes or in other creative ways. Someone just needs to step up and say, “I’ll host” or “Meet me at…”. The Bible is clear on this, church organization or not, you need to be connecting with people who can love you and can help you bear your burdens.
This is a discipline. Typically this is a discipline that is built into church organizations, but when you’re in the wilderness, tired of playing church, that discipline disappears. One of the fruits of the Spirit however, is self discipline. So build the discipline of meeting with other followers of Jesus into your life before you get out of the habit. Personal prayer, Bible reading, and serving are important, but so is meeting together, whether or not you have a church organization.
One problem we have here is the individualization of the American, who would rather spend each evening sitting on a couch watching Netflix or working on a house project than pouring into one another, and this is exactly opposite of the things we are called to do as believers. Sitting in the wilderness can be hard, but it’s especially hard when we give in to a philosophy that encourages us to worship ourselves.
3. Get off your butt and serve
My wife is particularly amazing at this, often leaving me in the dust when it comes to serving the poor and hurting in our community, but I want to preach at myself and hopefully convict you as well. By the way, it’s even hard for her to step out of her comfort zone and serve, and she loves doing it, so this is not a hell, fire, and damnation type speech, but it is hard to admit.
Sometimes I wonder if those who first started the practice of “serving the church” did so as a result of some sort of racism so as not to think about serving those who are really in need and who are really hurting. To be clear, I’m not accusing anyone of that, but I do wonder why we utilize peoples time to greet people, effectively forcing them to be nice to people (it is after all, the church), and keeping them from being able to use that time to invest in what James called “pure and undefined religion”. Then we go out once a quarter and serve the less fortunate once a month at the most.
Once again, when it comes to discipline, what if we pushed ourselves to go out and serve those in need in a way that makes us uncomfortable? What if we fed the homeless, volunteered at a shelter, started a mentoring program, and gave away our time to people who really need it? The wilderness doesn’t feel so much like the wilderness when we are going to the hurting and serving them. I certainly have some work to do in this one, but what if… “Well how do we feed the homeless?” I don’t know, food? “Yeah but, I’ve never mentored anyone before.” Neither had the first person who ever mentored anyone. But someone needs to tell that kids how much God loves them.
4. Give to the church
A few weeks ago a lady messaged me and told me that her and her husband decided to give their money to people. I’m not sure if she was talking about her tithe or not, but what if? Malachi 3:10 is the verse used often when pastors discuss the tithe.
“Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my temple. If you do,” says the Lord of heaven’s armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test!”
Good news! The temple no longer stands, but the New Testament pictures an equivalent symbol. You. You and your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. But what if you gave your tithe to “the temples” God brings in your life? How would the poor and the widow and the orphan be taken care of then?
A pastor I had once used to say, “Imagine if every Christian tithed, how that would affect the world!” To be honest, I don’t think it would change the world much if they tithed to a Church organization. But I do think that if they tithed in this way, investing in the needs of people who God leads them to, that it would change everything. I also recognize the hardship that would bring on many pastors who work in churches for a living, and have no intention of hurting them. But if you’re in the wilderness, then this is a thought for you.
5. Foster or adopt
Christians talk a lot of smack about abortion, and rightfully so. It’s one of those things that Christians and science have found mutual agreement. But shouting “there’s a problem” and doing nothing about a solution doesn’t help the matter either. One of the ways to follow after God passionately and serve others while in the wilderness is to foster or adopt a child.
My wife and I have done this, and I have to tell you, it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, while at the same time being pretty rewarding. Watching two children who are not blood related to us grow up and literally become our family has been gratifying and difficult all at the same time. And now that in some ways, I’m in the wilderness, the pressure feels even more intense.
But loving someone simply because you chose to has taught me many things about my self and my own selfishness that I would have never known without experiencing the love of the two newest members of our family.
It’s not for everyone, but if you want to serve God in a way that is otherworldly, start with fostering or adopting and help lead the way in taking care of God’s children, many of whom have been abandoned simply because their parents chose to “keep” them.
There’s a lot here, but it’s a start. If you’re in the wilderness and hesitant to go back to the top down approach, then don’t. You are the church, so go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Then teach these new disciples to obey all the commands Jesus has given you. And be sure of this: Jesus is with you always, even to the end of the age.