I grew up in a churched culture. From the time I left the hospital until I graduated high school, I was put through every program, participated in every activity, and was faithful to every event our local church had to offer. Children’s church, R.A.’s (Royal Ambassadors), Bible Drill, Children’s & Youth Choir, Puppet Ministry, Youth Group/Ministry, Sunday School, Discipleship Training, Christmas/Easter Dramas… you name it, I was in it.
I was converted at the early age of 8, right in the middle of all the busy life a committed church-goer. Looking back, however, one of the most glaring (and I would add scandalous) omissions is that my church never taught me how to live. I knew how to do a ton of religious things, not the least of which was checking off the boxes on my tithe envelope, but when it came to living out my faith as a disciple of Jesus, I really had no clue. I just knew how to get in the system and let the system do its thing.
The System and Spirit Within Christendom
What this system has produced, rather unintentionally I might add, is a spirit of consumerism through the culture of Christendom. In this system, who you are (identity) is defined by what you do (performance). I am a Christian because I go to church, and the fruit of my faith is manifested in my participation and religious performances. This system works within Christendom because Christianity and culture has been syncretized so that being religious or good is tantamount to being a disciple of Jesus.
The metrics for this appraisal of religious devotion are the church’s programs, activities, and events (think gatherings and special services). Instead of teaching disciples of Jesus how to live in the world, we take them out of the world and teach them how to be busy in the church building/campus. The centralizing effect made the church like the indoor shopping mall, servicing the needs, wants, and preferences of all within Christendom. The consumer was in control, and the church was there to make sure their product was good enough to have them buy into their church.
But just like the indoor mall has seen its day, so has Christendom. There has been a great divorce between Christianity and culture in recent years, and fewer and fewer people are attracted to this religious marketplace mentality. Ironically, many proponents in this system are lamenting the lack of enduring fruit from this well-oiled, efficient system.
Why is it that around 1% of Christians ever share their faith? Could it be that they do not know any unbelievers? Could it be that they have never been taught how to love their neighbor? Could it be that their understanding of evangelism is exceptionally gifted leaders using an extraordinary platform rather than ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality?
Why is it that there is little qualitative distinctiveness between disciples of Jesus and those in the world around them? Could it be that we have assumed the gospel and replaced it with behavioral modification? Could it be we have substituted repentance and faith with try harder and do better? Could it be that we have trained people to value programs and activities in place of authentic community and missional living? Could it be that we have measured religious activity and assumed that is the same thing as pursuing holiness?
The Bottom Line for Living Now
Here’s the bottom line: Jesus has called all who believe in Him to be His disciples. Our goal is to become like Him and represent Him in the world. Our identity is not defined by what we do but what He has done on our behalf. Our identity as a disciple does not turn on when we are in a “house of worship.” It is on all the time because “this is my Father’s world.”
Disciples of Jesus need a biblical metric for evaluating their lives, and church programs, activities, and events do not meet that standard. One of the roles I lead in during our gatherings is connecting with new people who attend for the first time. Occasionally, new people will ask the question, “What kind of programs do you offer? What kind of activities can we get involved in?” These are the questions of consumers from the culture of Christendom. Churches do them no service by giving them a way to be busy and yet experience no life change. Churches do themselves no favor by thinking they need to “sell their church” to such people. What these people need is to be taught how to live by a church who are committed to living out their identity as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession”.
When churches replace activities, programs, and events with gospel, community, and mission, the efficient system will be replaced with a glorious mess where Christ is in control, not the consumer. Instead of feeling the need to be the “best show” in town, churches are freed to offer the best grace of our beautiful Savior. Religious people in the system of Christendom know that it is a safe place to hide, a sure place of never truly being known. Disciples who live by repentance and faith have no fear of being known for who they truly are because they are living in the good of the gospel, not the shaky goodness of their religious checklist. For the church, we are not so concerned about disciples attending our stuff as much as we seeing them live their lives in the world around them. Let’s get rid of celebrating the props of religious performance and celebrate a life well lived through humble praxis!
Show Them How to Live
I am convinced that most churches are missing the point at the most fundamental level of Christian living. For most of my life, I was never taught how to live as a disciple of Jesus. Perhaps that is because no one else around me was taught that either. We just did what everyone else did and got busy at it. But it does not have to be this way! Christians learn to live by living out their lives in light of the gospel with a gospel community on mission in the world around them. Enough with teaching Christians how to act as Christians on Sunday. We need a view of disciple-making that trains Christians how to walk “in his steps” wherever and whenever that journey takes them.
Consider the questions that are being asked, especially about what is not being asked or talked about. How much of our lives are “off the table” because we have divorced everyday living from our identity as a disciple of Jesus? Consider the content of Christian conversation, especially if people are talking about how they are discovering new areas in their lives that are being brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ as they grow in repentance and faith. Consider the subject of people’s prayer requests, especially if they are about matters tangential at best to their life, relationships, and involvement in the world. And consider what followers of Jesus are satisfied with, especially if they are more comfortable with being a consumer of religious activities than a disciples consumed with Jesus.
There are teenagers right now in your life who need to know how to live in a world full of temptation, peer pressure, and acceptance. There are young professionals in your life who need to know how to live in a world telling them life is about making a living, being successful, and moving up the ladder. There are young families in your life who need to know how to raise their children not to be Pharisees, but disciplined and trained in a gospel-formative way. I could go on. But this kind of living does not get accessed by taking the pill or checking in once a week on Sunday. They need to be shown how to live by people who are living it out. It’s messy. It’s hard. But it’s glorious. Jesus came that we might have life, and that we might have it in full (John 10:10). Let us teach disciples to know what that means and live that out!
Last Sunday, in my disciple-making training, we did a little excursion from our normal schedule to think about Christmas. As disciples of Jesus, we should seek to leverage every opportunity to make much of Him, including (or especially) the season of Advent. However, not everything is as “wonderful” this time of the year as we think. For many, it is the most stressful, demanding, and overwhelming time of the year, with challenges awaiting from all facets of life.
On a cultural front, we are constantly hearing news about the culture war, in particular how the tide of our culture is washing away any remnants of Christianity. Whether it be nativity scenes in the square, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” or the marginalization of Christmas carols that have anything to do with Jesus, each Christmas is another incoming tide of secularism in our country.
On a financial front, we are faced with the onslaught of consumerism. Covetousness is the fuel, and our credit cards are the engine. Materialism is king. The season begins with “Black Friday” and ends with bank statements of higher levels of debt. In the end, Christmas, especially for little children, is a season about me . . . and all the stuff that I think I deserve.
On a relational front, we are faced with potentially volatile situations when we gather in close proximity with relatives we usually don’t see throughout the year. Some have differences in traditions and particular ways Christmas is celebrated (or not). For others, debates and arguments may arise over things like politics or other preferences they are passionate about. Or, it could just be the awkwardness of the moments when you know you should be closer to one another than you really are, and you kinda just go through the motions, doubling down on your pretending, and anxiously await the absence of such awkwardness.
On a personal front, we are often faced with frustration and stress. We are busy with more shopping to do, more parties to attend, more food to cook, more people to entertain, more of just about everything. The intensity of the season leaves little room for margin to think about anything else than the next thing you have to do. For others, the personal complexities are filled with grief, sadness, and loneliness. For all the years together and traditions made with the ones you love, they have died, and each little moment brings back the memories once shared together and now seems like a constant stream of tears.
If I could sum up the complexities of Christmas then, Christians are faced with idolatry from within (covetousness) with regular, intensive temptations to identity themselves as a consumer of material goods rather than an adopted child of God. Christians are also faced with the going, going, going of a fast-paced schedule rather than the slow, pregnant anticipation of the coming of the Lord. Christians are today living in a time where cultural Christianity is losing and secularism is winning, and the modern-day Herods are attempting to drive Christianity into the wilderness of obscurity.
If we are not guarding our hearts and lives, we could find ourselves with a disposition of being culturally and politically angry at secularism, financially indebted compounded with stress and guilt (for either buying too much stuff or wishing they could buy more but lacking the means to do it due to reduced income), relationally distant and closed off for fear of conflict, and personally pretending to be happy when there is sorrow or grief in your heart.
When I think of these complexities, I cannot help but think of the role of disciple-making and gospel community in addressing these challenges. For instance, if you are discipling another believer and seeking to model an example for them to follow, then should not the way you spend money be on the table for discussion or examination? If you are making a big deal about whether the department store greeter says “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” as opposed to seizing opportunities to engage the hurting and grieving with the hope of salvation, then should that not be addressed? If you, who has been reconciled with God and are seeking to live in reconciled relationships with others, are intentionally avoiding redemptive moments of humble interaction with estranged family members, is that not something we should be concerned about? All too often we go into default mode, justify our anti-gospel behavior with “that’s just the way I am” phrases, and fail to embrace this season where Christ comes alive in our hearts with life-giving grace.
Instead of simply going through the motions or allowing ourselves to be tossed back and forth by the waves of culture, I believe we should focus on slowing down than speeding up. We should meditate on the Incarnation of Christ, and having consequently seek to embrace and model the humanity of Christ (humble service, unhurried presence, gracious acceptance, etc). We should guard our hearts from idolatry and covetousness and unleash our affections on the hurting, needy, broken, and grieving. We should remember that the real battle is not found in the cultural war but the spiritual war. At a time when many family members and friends are held captive by the enemy, we will perhaps have unprecedented opportunity to shine the light of Christ to unbelieving hearts and see captives set free.
In all the complexities of Christmas, may we remember the simplicity of Christ’s life, who came down from heaven to earth to save sinners and satisfy us with Himself as the greatest gift of all.
This prayer is taken from a collection Puritan prayers and devotions in a book called The Valley of Vision (highly recommended). It is almost always at my side in my personal devotion and study. This prayer/meditation has been pressed on me in recent days . . .
O My God,
Thou fairest, greatest, first of all objects,
my heart admires, adores, loves thee,
for my little vessel is as full as it can be,
and I would pour out all that fullness before thee
in ceaseless flow.
When I think upon and converse with thee
ten thousand delightful thoughts spring up,
ten thousand sources of pleasure are unsealed,
ten thousand refreshing joys spread over my heart,
crowding into every moment of happiness.
I bless thee for the soul thou hast created,
for adorning it, sanctifying it,
though it is fixed in barren soil;
for the body thou has given me,
for preserving its strength and vigour,
for providing sense to enjoy delights,
for the ease and freedom of my limbs,
for hands, eyes, ears that do thy bidding;
for thy royal bounty providing my daily support,
for a full table and overflowing cup,
for appetite, taste, sweetness,
for social joys of relatives and friends,
for ability to serve others,
for a heart that feels sorrows and necessities,
for a mind to care for my fellow-men,
for opportunities of spreading happiness around,
for loved ones in the joys of heaven,
for my own expectation of seeing thee clearly.
I love thee above the powers of language to express,
for what thou art to thy creatures.
Increase my love, O my God, through time and eternity.
Often I find the prayers of such a Puritan expressing my heart in a more suitable manner than I ever could. Meditating on such little prayers often causes one to find more “meat” for thought than most sermons today.O for ten thousand tongues to sing of the ten thousand pleasures He brings!!!
The psalmist begins with an emphasis on the Lord being his refuge. Starting with his present circumstance and situation, he describes the difficulties surrounding him and how the nearness of the Lord (his refuge, rock, fortress, etc.) governs how he responds and operates in such circumstances. Though the circumstances are big, serious, and grave, the psalmist kept going back to God as the King of his life and declaring He is bigger, stronger, and nearer.
The second focus of the psalmist is the Lord’s righteousness. In his situation, he pleads for God to respond on the basis of his righteousness (“in your righteousness deliver me and rescue me”). In summary form, the righteousness of God describes God’s unique character and sovereign work (“your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?”). When the psalmist remembers and declares the character and work of the Lord, it becomes normative and defines his life.
The third focus of the psalmist is the Lord’s redemption. Having seen and heard of the Lord’s righteous character and ways (righteousness), he longs to experience that in the ongoing redemptive work of the Lord in his life. He writes, “My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed. And my tongue will talk of your righteous help all the day long….” When you experience redemption from the Lord, you cannot but respond with shouts of joy and songs of praise.
Together then, the Christian experience is learning to find hope and trust in God who is our refuge (situational), remembering the righteousness of God to experience renewal and revival (normative), and joyfully singing, praising, and telling of God’s redemptive work in your life (existential). The psalmist begins with his situation and says, because Christ is King, my circumstances does not have to rule his life. Jesus does. Knowing the temptation to default to unbelief where God becomes functionally non-existent in his life, the psalmist remembers the character and work of God. Because God reveals Himself through His Word, the true Prophet, we can orient our lives around the revelation of who God is and what He has done. Finally, the redemption of God brought through Christ the High Priest, not only can we know of the ways of God, we can experience it ourselves through the redemption He brings. Those who have entered into the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus are wrecked to a life of praising, shouting, and telling of all that God is for you in His Son Jesus. So, the flow looks like this:
Who God is » God’s self-revelation (righteousness) » normative
(prophet who defines our lives)
What God has done » God’s saving work (redemption) » existential
(priest who redeems our lives)
Why that matters » God’s presence and promises (refuge) » situational
(king who rules our lives)
I am not trying to impose a philosophical or epistemological construct over the text of Scripture; rather, I am simply trying to draw out what is there with a Christocentric hermeneutic in both form and substance. At least for me, it has helped me see Jesus and rejoice in the God who is altogether righteous, whose redemption makes my heart sing, and whose presence causes me to trust and hope no matter the situation.
Tim Brister has served as a pastor and elder at Grace Baptist Church since June 2008. Tim's passion is to demonstrate a life that trusts God, treasures Christ, and triumphs the gospel. Tim is the Director of PLNTD, a church planting network in association with Founders Ministries. He's also the director of The Haiti Collective, organizer for Band of Bloggers, and creator of P2R (Partnering to Remember) and the Memory Moleskine.
You can read more about Tim on his blog, Provocations and Pantings.