[Editor’s Note: The story you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.]
For the last several years I’ve been focusing most of my time and attention in the inner city neighborhood I live in. I’ve also been pretty direct about working with people that don’t darken the doors of a church building. To be clear, there are plenty of hard-working, decent people where I live. However, there is also a fair number of people with lives that are a mess. The homeless, the drug-addict, the sex-addict, the attention-addict. The list goes on. These are the people Jesus would hang out with. But they are also not the safest people in the world to minister to.
And for the last several years, I’ve also been fairly forward about calling people to live their lives down here with us. Coming into the neighborhood, dropping the Gospel, and then leaving wasn’t going to work. Come, be a part of the neighborhood. Learn how to interact with people who have no interest in your church. Come share the Gospel here. Come make disciples here. Come live here. Give your lives.
This week we had our first real brush with danger. We probably should have expected it but things like this, however, when it came it came unexpectedly.
My wife and her friend Jamie have been meeting for the past couple of months as a two and three. They could meet in our kitchen or at the Panera across town. But Christy and Jamie have chosen to meet at the McDonald’s because that’s where people in our neighborhood gather. This night went much like any other. As they left, they were approached by a man walking towards the door they were exiting. This man walked straight up to Jamie, punched her right above her right eye knocking her down to the ground, and kept right on walking. As if this situation wasn’t bad enough, Jamie was 9 months pregnant. The assaulter has not been found.
Now, for the most part, this situation has worked out as best as it could have. Jamie, aside from some bruising is physically okay. I say she was nine months pregnant because yesterday she gave birth to a very healthy baby boy. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that it didn’t rattle all of us. It rattled Jamie. It rattled her husband Mark who had to face the helplessness of not being there to defend his wife. It rattled Christy, who had to witness this event. It rattled me. It rattled our church.
And for me, at least right now, the thing that is most clear about this situation is that I’ve been the one encouraging my house church to embark on this kind of dangerous mission. Christy and Jamie wouldn’t have been at that McDonald’s on a weeknight in a somewhat dangerous neighborhood if I hadn’t been calling people to embody the Gospel here. So in some weird sense, I feel somewhat responsible for this happening. Could I have anticipated it this week? No. Could I have stopped it? No. But have I been asking people to do something dangerous? Yes.
And all of this has made one thing very clear: Jesus did not call people to do safe things. Of the twelve apostles that existed on the day of Pentecost, only one of them (John) didn’t die from persecution. And even then Domitian the Roman Emperor tried to boil him oil. Countless others have been lost over the course of the church history as they’ve tried to bring the Gospel to people who didn’t have it. In other places in the world, becoming a follower of Jesus is a death sentence. Its only in the West we are fairly inexperienced at loosing anything for our faith.
It’s important to be very clear: What we do is not safe. I’m not calling people to do something that has no risk. In fact, what I’m calling people to do is something dangerous. I’m asking people to stick out their neck–to place everything they have on the line for Jesus because he placed everything He had on the line for us. I’m calling people to danger and this week the implications of that is really real.
I used to think calling people to do something dangerous was the cool thing to do. We get to do something others aren’t willing to do. But this week has changed that for me. It’s made it doing something dangerous real. It’s put a tangible price on what could possibly happen to me and some of the people I care about the most. And while I don’t like the price that it may cost, I’m willing to pay that cost to continue to follow Jesus.
Why you ask? Why would we do dangerous (but not unwise) things in order to follow Him? Well I’m glad you asked. We’ve become convinced that knowing Jesus is better than anything else this world has to offer–even the physical safety of ourselves and our loved ones. We love Jesus more than we love everyone around us, including ourselves. And it’s this love…this love for Him born out of gratefulness for what He sacrificed for us…that compels us. We want to share everything we have with Him and be made to look like Him, even if that means some day dying like He died. We believe Jesus and His resurrection is real.
And that is why we embrace the lifestyle we do. And its why I invite others into it. Not because I don’t see the dangers. I do. But I also see the great reward stored up for those who are unashamed to lay down their lives for Jesus.
“If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.” -Mark 8:35
The following is a letter written by a young Communist to his fiance, breaking off their engagement. It isn’t shared as an endorsement of Communism, but as an example of what passion looks like in the human heart. Imagine if our disciples held a similar conviction:
We Communists have a high casualty rate. We are the ones who get shot and hung and ridiculed and fired from our jobs and in every other way made as uncomfortable as possible.
A certain percentage of us get killed or imprisoned. We live in virtual poverty. We turn back to the party every penny we make above what is absolutely necessary to keep us alive.
We Communists do not have the time or the money for movies, concerts, T-bone steaks, decent homes, or new cars. We have been described as fanatics. We are fanatics. Our lives are dominated by one great overshadowing factor: the struggle for world communism. We Communists have a philosophy of life, which no amount of money can buy. We have a cause to fight for, a definite purpose in life. We subordinate our petty personal selves to a greater movement of humanity.
And if our personal lives seem hard our our egos appear to suffer through subordination to the Party, then we are adequately compensated by the thought that each of us in his small way is contributing to something new and true and better for mankind.
There is one thing that I am in dead earnest about, and that is the Communist cause. It is my life, my business, my religion, my hobby, my sweetheart, my wife, my mistress, and my bread and meat. I work at it in the daytime and dream of it at night. Its hold on me grows, not lessens, as time goes on. Therefore, I cannot carry on a friendship, a love affair, or even a conversation without relating it to this force which both drives and guides my life. I evaluate people, books, ideas, and actions according to how they affect the Communist cause, and by their attitude toward it. I’ve already been in jail because of my ideals, and if necessary, I’m ready to go before a firing squad.1
Over the last few weeks I’ve been in conversations with others about house churches. There are a lot of people who love the idea of spiritual families pursuing Jesus and living life together and will tell me so, but almost unconsciously they begin to rattle off why they aren’t part of a house church themselves. Frequently the answers center around two realities: worship and childcare.
I don’t want to spend any time belittling these reasons, but I do want to point out that these are desires, not needs. If a concert-like atmosphere where you can immerse yourself in song or freedom from your children were a necessary mark of the church, then we would have to write off most of the gatherings throughout the world as “not church.” In fact, that part of the church we would write off would most likely be that part of the global church that is most viral and reproducing.
Things can get sticky when we get beyond the basics of what we need. In real life, the man or woman who starts making considerably more than what they need to survive often suffers from a certain kind of “lifestyle creep.” Things that were once dreamed of as “the good life” can become identified as “needs.” For example, not having a cell phone, once thought of as a luxury item 20 years ago has now become a necessity in much of the Western world. #Firstworldpromblems.
This reminds me of a quote by Augustine of Hippo. In detailing his struggle against the lusts of the flesh, Augustine makes a profound statement about humanity: “By servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes necessity. By these links, as it were, connected one to another…, a harsh bondage held me under restraint,” (Augustine, Confessions 8.5.10).
Augustine was struggling with lust, but his insight into humanity in general is profound. Whatever we do repeatedly because of our passion becomes a habit. Habits not resisted become necessities and necessities are a form of bondage which are hard to escape. This is true in all areas of life, for good and for evil.
Now let’s bring the conversation back to how we started: Complex worship meetings and the freedom to worship without distraction from our kids come from a certain kind of passion. They are built on the idea of a pursuit of God that is individualistic. It really shouldn’t surprise us that these forms of Christianity have grown up in the West where individualism is prized.
But are they needs? I don’t believe so. I believe they are more likely passions that have been habitually satisfied and ritualized in a culture that prizes individuality. We’ve fed the desire to have a time of individualized singing to God that is unencumbered by those we are constantly giving care to. It’s not necessarily evil, but it’s definitely not a need. Again, the most fruitful churches in the Earth are the parts that lack these elements and we would do well to learn from them.
So what do we do? The best place to start is repentance. Repentance in its truest form is merely a changing of your mind. It means to think differently.
We start by thinking differently about gathering with a church and what its purpose is. Your time in the prayer closet is your time to meet with God individually. Your time gathered with your church is actually designed to build up the others around you. This certainly means that you will have to interact with those around you, possibly even stopping singing to actually talk, pray for, and serve the other believers right next to you.
It also means that gathering with your church is about your children learning and growing in Jesus, not just from the nursery workers, but from you. They get to see mom and dad worship. They get to see mom and dad serve others. They get to see mom and dad pray for others. Most importantly, they get to see mom and dad not make church about meeting their passions or “needs,” but about building up the body around them. This will build up your kids in their faith more than anything a nursery worker teaches them.
Friends, let’s bring church back to what Jesus wanted to make it–A body of believers of all ages that are learning to follow Christ and serve one another. Let’s free ourselves from the tyranny of desires that present themselves as needs. Let’s get back to a leaner, more cooperative form of Christianity that teaches dying to self and the needs of the self for the good of Christ and those around us.
It may even make us viral again.