Over the last ten years the Lord has taken me on a journey of learning from the church in other parts of the world. Part of this process has involved me realizing that while there are many good churches here in the United States, there are places in the Earth where the gospel is exploding unlike anything we see here. China, India, and the Middle East are the easiest examples of this. I don’t want to just cheer on the church in other countries, though, I want to learn from their example and take the lessons that are universal and apply them here.
So, in no particular order, here are a few things I’ve learned from the church scattered across the Earth:
- They take the Gospel seriously. Maybe it’s because many of my friends live in a world where the people around them don’t know Jesus, or maybe it’s just that my friends believe the Great Commission more seriously than we do. Whatever the case, I’ve been inspired by friends in Africa who travel many miles into remote villages to share the Gospel with unbelievers.
- Their lives are not their own. Needless to say there is plenty of risk in sharing the Gospel in hostile environments. Some of our friends have taken the Gospel to the least reached places at the risk of losing their lives. These are people with wives and families and yet they trusted God to be with them, and if things go badly, to be with their wives and children.
- Prayer is the foundation of all they do. I’ve never met a fruitful servant of the Lord in Africa who hadn’t given themselves significantly to prayer. The apostolic men that I’ve met in Africa spend time praying for the churches they serve as they travel to those churches. Others have regular times of prayer from midnight to five in the morning. And it’s encouraging to hear the insights they have gained and the fruit they have seen as they continue to persevere in prayer.
- Faithfulness under persecution and in the harvest has formed them. Those who I’ve had the privilege to work with came to Christ in the context of either terrible persecution or incredible awakening. Many had to learn how to follow Jesus when others resisted them. Others learned how to follow the Holy Spirit during seasons where He was moving mightily across their country. But these believers’ consistency in following Jesus during tumultuous times has lead them to be fruitful servants of Jesus.
- They do not see America as the Kingdom of God. This may sound elementary, but I think sometimes Christian Americans still believe that America is a gift to the Earth second only to Jesus Himself. While my African friends and I are thankful for the good America has accomplished, they (and I, because of their example) understand that America has a fair share of weakness. One friend I have regularly reminds us that many of his co-workers who served alongside of him in persecution and revival are now living dull lives chasing the American dream here in the US. Others have clearly warned us about the dangers of the American church condoning sexual immorality. Because they aren’t in the boiling kettle of America or American Christianity, they have helped me to see where our culture doesn’t reflect God’s Kingdom.
The list could continue, but the reality is I’ve been greatly impacted by the church around the Earth. My hope is that by sharing a few of the larger areas where the church in other countries has challenged me, it will encourage you to learn from the church somewhere else. Read a book, listen to a testimony, or better yet, go on a trip to another nation and learn how much bigger God’s Kingdom is than the church in your country.
I guarantee you will not be disappointed!
Jesus asked us to go and make disciples of all the nations. For this to truly happen like it was intended, we need a simple and reproducible model of discipleship that empowers every believer to make disciples. We struggled for awhile in how to do this before we adopted a model of meeting in groups of two and three people. These groups read lots of Scripture and build relationships around accountability and confession, but they also spend time developing and strengthening apostolic mission in each other.
What is apostolic mission? Apostolic refers to someone who is sent as a representative of another. Jesus sends us to share His love with the same power and authority that He gave the apostles and that He Himself walked in. The mission refers to the unfinished task of sharing Christ’s love with those who don’t know Him. Part of us learning to follow Christ is learning to follow Him on the mission He embarked on of preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
Why is this so essential? A mature disciple shouldn’t be able to just know all the details but reproduce him or herself. Just like in nature, a mature fruit or flower or human or animal has the biological capability of reproduction, so it is with disciples. Disciples reproduce disciples. As Alan Hirsch and others have said, we don’t have an evangelism problem in the West, we have a discipleship problem that comes to light in our inability to evangelize and disciple others.
When we gather in groups of two or three people, it could be tempting for it to become a bible study or an accountability group. Focusing on apostolic mission keeps our eyes turned to those who have still not encountered the Lord and off of ourselves. To do this, every time we get together, we bring a list of two or three people we have been praying for individually throughout the week and we pray for them as a group. This can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 20, but it’s important.
It’s so important, in fact, that I recommend making this the first thing you do when you gather. This keeps our purpose–reaching the lost–in front of us. Everything we do within these groups of 2&3 is not just for ourselves, but is for these others who we are praying for to be a part of once they turn their hearts to Jesus. Praying for these folks early in the meeting also keeps it from being the last thing on the list that there is no time for.
As with all the other disciplines, apostolic mission will need to be walked out in greater detail in the life of the church and the life of the individual. This is just the expression of it within our 2&3 meeting. Again, make this real. Pray real prayers that move God’s heart. It’s important.
When you add all these disciplines together, it looks like the following:
And when we get the DNA right, we are on the cusp of multiplying cells of an organic organism called the church. We can achieve the multiplication of disciples, leaders, churches, and movements that we’ve all seeking.
My hope, whether you follow the format or not, is that you find what it takes to multiply.
I’m not quite sure what got into me a couple of years ago. But sometime in early March three or four years ago I became frustrated with our culture’s celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.
If you think about it, it doesn’t make much sense. We take the date that perhaps one of the greatest apostolic missionaries since Paul died as a day to pinch people who don’t wear green and drink green beer. Even in Christian circles, we talk a good game about Patrick on his famous day, but we don’t do what he did.
So in my typical rebellious approach, I thought I would do something different. Instead of celebrating all things Irish on March 17th, I would spend some time getting acquainted with Saint Patrick’s life. Pretty quickly I found out that Patrick himself actually wrote two letters that we still possess and one of them is him telling the story of how God lead him to plant churches among the Irish.
But I couldn’t just read the Confessions of St. Patrick on St. Patrick’s day. No, no, no…that would be too easy. So instead, I went down to the McDonald’s in my neighborhood and read St. Patrick’s confession there…all while enjoying one of McDonald’s Shamrock shakes. Why would I do this? Because I became convinced after reading Patrick’s letters that if he lived today in my city, he would reach the people who hang out in the roughest McDonald’s in town. Something about reading the letter there stirs me to follow in Patrick’s example.
Now here’s the million dollar question: Why am I telling you this story?
The answer is this: I’d like you to join me on March 17th in reading the Confessions of St. Patrick. It’s the story of a young boy who is sold into slavery and while a slave learns how to pray to God and hear His voice. God then leads him out of slavery and back to his home, only to be stirred by God with love for his previous captors. He returns and lives like them in order to reach them and proclaim the Gospel to them. When I think of the nature of a missional lifestyle, it’s hard to get better than that. You can get a copy of his “Confessions” for free here.
But I don’t just want you to read the Confessions of St. Patrick in your home. I want you to go and read it in a place that St. Patrick would go as a missionary if he lived in your city. If you’re in my city, you can message me on Facebook and we can stage a sit-in and read it together. But ask the Lord to do in you what he has done in generation after generation and raise up missionaries for the Gospel who will love God, learn to pray, and become vessels of redemption to those living in the darkest places. You won’t regret it.
And check back here on March 17th for some thoughts from my reading of St. Patrick.
This past Wednesday was my buddy Aaron’s birthday and he invited us to this EXTREMELY out of the way steak restaurant to celebrate his big day. Twelve guys joined us on an hour long caravan to talk, laugh, and have some of the best steak we’ve ever eaten.
Towards the end we each took time around the table to share a blessing with Aaron: something we loved about him, a prayer, or just a funny story. But as we were going around the table blessing Aaron, I realized what an extremely unique thing this was for so many men to be on a spiritual journey together and to feel like brothers.
I say unique, not because it’s impossible for men to be spiritual and like each other, but because statistics and experience tell us that men typically are disengaged from the church. For what it’s worth, church attendance nationally is 39% male and 61% female. My wife regularly tells me about women she talks to outside of our fellowships who wish that their husbands were friends with other men. There are even whole books written about why men hate church.
In our house churches, though, this has never been an issue. We have done absolutely nothing to attract or retain the men in our midst, but despite that fact most of our men our engaged and have their deepest relationships inside the church. What causes that? I have some thoughts:
- Men love risk. For the most part, church as we know it is typical and unpredictable. Everything for the most part continues to happen as it always has. Most church services are clean, tidy, and require very little from them. We, on the other hand, are messy. No meeting is exactly the same as the last one. In fact, a meeting we have one Sunday will be completely different from the meeting we have a year from now. I tell people who are thinking of coming to one of our house churches that fist fights have been real possibilities a couple of times in our history. The ladies (especially my wife) hates it when I tell that story…but every once in awhile when I tell it to a guy, I see his eyes light up. Men don’t want a meeting, they want the real Jesus and communitas. They are looking for a band of brothers who will go with them into battle.
- Men are active, not passive. Deep down, even the most passive, sedentary man truly wants to make a difference. They were made for more than just sitting around and listening to someone else talk. The same reason boys and young men have trouble in school is the same reason men struggle with traditional church. Men want to do something. They aren’t anti-learning, they’re anti-sitting. I often tell people that when two guys go and set out to do something, they call it a “mandate” because men build intimacy through doing things together. Men want to do something significant. It’s written on their hearts by God. And the minute we tell them to sit down and shut up, we lose them. What we’ve done, instead is encourage men to play an active part in our churches: “Teach. Serve. Evangelize. Grow. Lead. Plant a church. We need you.”
- Men actually want relationships, just not fake ones. Frankly, that’s most of what we do around here. For at least seven of our last ten years, most of our house churches have been a part of small, same gender discipleship groups we call 2’s & 3’s. Part of the purpose of 2’s & 3’s is confessing our sins to one another and praying for each other in the areas where we are weak. And while this discipline is just in general good for everyone spiritually, it has actually enabled men to build relationships around Jesus without the pretense of being perfect or all put together. This is a key to true brotherhood that often gets forgotten when we are part of churches that want us to look all put together.
Friends, we need the whole body of Christ at the table to pull off the kind of harvest the Lord has in store for us at the end of the age. This includes men and we simply cannot be content with only 39% of them.
Now, I’m not so naïve to think that these things can’t be done in a traditional church. They absolutely can. And to the degree you can add these elements into whatever type of church you’re part of, I would encourage you to do so. But our current structure is designed to give us the kind of results we are already getting. Don’t be afraid to make a change.
God designed the church to be a place where women AND men can be engaged and fulfilled. To the degree that we allow risk, activity, and true relationships flourish in our churches, I think we’ll see a resurgence of men becoming what God has called them to be.
The choice is ours: will we be the kind of church where men can engage, or are we content to go on without them?
Christian culture can make us comfortable and affect our ability to reach people who don’t know Christ. And often we have to be willing to leave our comfortable subculture behind to share the gospel with the people who need it the most. But the good news is we don’t have to go there alone. There is someone there who has gone before us and made the sacrifices we’re talking about. His name is Jesus.
If you think about it, Jesus had the best set up in existence. Before becoming a human He existed in communion with the Father in a way no man since Adam had ever tasted. There was no pain there. No difficulty. Perfect fellowship. There was peace and joy and goodness constantly surrounding him.
But He loved us.
And because He loved us and because it was the Father’s will Jesus left Heaven and endured a world that undoubtedly was harder than the one He left. Pain was there. Heartache ran rampant. He would hunger for the first time. He would be tempted for the first time. He would become the only just man who had to endure suffering. Most important of all, He would leave the immediate fellowship with the Father and submit to living life like we do.
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
and John, speaking about Jesus coming to Earth says:
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.
John 1:14, The Message
And He did it all out of love.
But Paul (and I’m sure John) tells us these details about Jesus’ life for a reason. Just before Paul begins to tell the Philippians about Jesus renouncing His privileges, he says this:
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Paul’s point in telling the story is that we’re supposed to be inspired to do what Jesus did. He left aside the privilege of fellowship with God. He laid aside all the rights of Godhead. He didn’t count equality with God as something to be held onto at the expense of us. Instead He became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
And we’re supposed to do the same. Out of great love and humility and servant-heartedness, we will need to lay down some of the “joys” we have as Christians in order to participate with the mission of God. Just like Jesus had to leave the comforts of home to win the hearts of people who didn’t know their need, so do we. He has gone before us, has been the example to encourage us, and now calls us to join Him outside the camp.
Will it be easy?
Is it always fun?
But Scripture tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus so that we don’t grow weary and give up. And if leaving the comfort of the Christian circle you’ve found yourself in is hard, then fix your eyes on Jesus who did it first. He is both our motivation and example.
Will you join Him there?
Maybe I haven’t said it before. Forgive me for not being more up front.
A major reason that I write is I believe God is calling many, many more people to the front lines of the harvest. It starts by leading unbelievers to Jesus, discipling them, training them to reach others, and in the process organic churches are formed.
Think of all the people that don’t know Christ. I know in the West we think everyone is a believer, but they’re not. Not even close. And the more relationships you build outside of the church, the more you realize there are more broken people far from God than you could count. But many of these people want Christ, they just have a misunderstanding of who He is. The harvest is gigantic.
The church as it exists cannot handle the harvest that could come in if the lost truly did come to Christ. Imagine a church of two hundred that meets in your city or town. Now imagine that church growing by another two hundred new converts. It would be chaos! The nets that we currently have aren’t strong enough to hold the catch.
But imagine a church of ten or fifteen disciples who have their hearts fixed on Christ and are growing as disciples. That church can add ten or fifteen new converts and become two or three house churches quickly without much difficulty. And as those new converts grow, they have the ability to start a house church just like the one they are part of now.
But the workers are few. I’ll tell you even though the harvest is great, the number of people actually following Jesus into the harvest, working among the lost, and discipling new converts is small. And if the harvest is truly great, we don’t have enough laborers.
So, don’t be surprised, if every once and awhile I look around at my followers on the blog and say, “Why haven’t you started a house church yet?”
There might be some good answers. But there might be some good excuses, too.
Jesus. Mission. Church.
We all know these are the priorities. What we don’t understand is this isn’t just a random list of priorities. It’s our priorities in their order of importance.
Jesus- Jesus is Lord. He is God’s final word to mankind about what He is like. He holds everything together by the word of His power. And while the worship of Jesus is central to Christianity, He often can quickly become a lesser priority. The goal is to keep encountering and obeying Him, day after day until days turn to weeks turn to months turn to years. He is the priority.
Mission- The mission described here is the one that Jesus Himself came with–to bring the whole world under His leadership and repair the broken relationship between God and man. Jesus was a man on the move. He constantly was moving from one place to another, declaring the Kingdom of God, casting out demons, healing the sick, and performing signs that invited lost humanity into the newly near Kingdom. But He didn’t turn the crowds into mega-churches. He kept moving. And after the resurrection, His command was still to go and declare the same Gospel He had preached. Acts and the New Testament are the echos of Jesus’ command to continue on in His mission.
Church- Church is the gathering of believers under the leadership of Jesus and in relationship to each other. Jesus said He would build His church and that even the gates of hell would not be able to prevail against it. Nothing could stop it. And so each church that is built by Jesus becomes another weapon in His war against the darkness oppressing humanity.
But great damage happens when we confuse these three priorities:
A church where Jesus isn’t first is quickly in danger of losing it’s place of ministry (Revelation 2:4-5). No one says that Jesus is less important than mission or church. We just continue to show more concern for mission or church than we do for connecting with Christ. The result is usually burnout that ends in moral failure.
Mission comes before church. That’s a controversial statement, but it’s true. Church is the fruit of mission. Emil Brunner said “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.” When Jesus ascended into Heaven, He did not leave a church. He left a mission and that mission was accomplished through the establishment of churches. Every time the church began to get comfortable, Jesus would scatter the church so mission could continue (see Acts 8:4, for example). Mission was the next priority.
And church. Church is incredibly important. Necessary. But when it becomes the object of our affection it becomes an idol. So many of us are quick to put church before mission and because of that mission never gets accomplished. Church must happen. But it happens best as a form of communitas that is forged in response to the mission of Jesus.
The story of Jesus teaches us the same thing. Jesus first was manifested in the flesh. He came to Earth and encountered humanity. His mission motivated Him to move about announcing and demonstrating the Kingdom while he set captives free. And after (and only after) the mission was finished with His death and resurrection, did He form a church that supported the mission.
Over and over again we see it: Jesus, Mission, Church. But often our lives and what makes us comfortable cause us to live differently than what we see. My challenge to you today is to make sure these aren’t just your priorities, but to make sure they are lived outin the right order.