Roland Millington

Roland Millington

Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.

Rejoice

Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours.

- Isaiah 61:7

When our church is in a time of spiritual desperation, how do we get to the point of rejoicing? It looks so far away. Thinking of all that we’ve lost over the years, we see decades of decline and think, “How can we turn this around? Is this too big for us?” The promises in this passage from Isaiah seemed so far away from the reality the Hebrew people were facing at the time. They’d lost everything, their cities were destroyed, the allies they had relied upon were, as one person-in-the-know put it, "A broken reed" that couldn't hurt anyone except the one that leaned on them. They felt they’d been abandoned by God, but in truth, they'd abandoned him.

Yes, Isaiah prophesied a return to a blessing that must have seemed incredibly unlikely given their circumstances. A vassal state of Israel, and a vassal-state in training in Judah. The once-powerful and well-ruled kingdoms of Israel had done a fairly substantial 180-degree turn in their fortunes. There wasn't much cause to rejoice in their desperation. But Isaiah promised that God would change that.

Rejoicing can be something we long to do because it’s a relief. The word for rejoicing in Hebrew means “shout!” either in desperation, desire or joy. Here it is a shout of joy that would ultimately be drawn from a people in desperate straits. Joy and desperation are as linked as peaks and valleys in a mountain range. Many times in life, we get our hopes up over a joyous promise, only to have it dashed, bringing about desperation. That happened in Israel in Isaiah's time as they tried to put together a coalition that could resist the Assyrians. This didn't turn out so well for the Kingdom of Israel, but in the end, the promise is that the people will have joy instead of shame. The Hebrew word for “instead” means to replace a thing with something closer to the ground, or the foundation. You can think of it as a closer fit to what God was intending from the start.

God has made many promises to His people, and that includes us, and He never once broke a covenant with us. Our track record, however, isn't so clean. We are a forgetful species when it comes to God and when we forget God's promise in Isaiah and other places like it, we easily fall prey to fear and discouragement instead of pushing forward into a promised purpose. We develop a perception, and we get stuck in it.

What happens next is often a dogpiling of emotions. John Eldredge once said that if the devil cannot defeat you, he will dogpile you. That's what happened to Judah. Attacked by Israel when they wouldn't join the Israeli-Syrian coalition, they found themselves embattled on all fronts. They were battling skirmishes all around them, just like us. When that begins in our lives, it gets hard to climb out from under it and we can make the same bad deals Judah did, leaning on broken reeds in our own lives. The fact is, we can’t climb out from under it without help from God. 

Living into God’s promises for us moves us closer to the rejoicing we want to do, filling our hearts with joy throughout the process. Sadly, the inverse of that is true as well.

 

Tension in the Turmoil

we step out of that limiting perception simply by choosing instead to believe through faith that God is faithful to deliver on the promise

As we examine the text of Isaiah about rejoicing, there’s a tension here between the shame instead of reward, disgrace instead of inheritance, and it’s the reality of where we are placed against the reality of where God is leading us. The big question is, where are we putting our faith? Are we putting it in the perception we've crash-landed in, or are we instead placing it in God’s promise?

Remember, we’re in a state of spiritual desperation here, in our world, nation, community and especially in ourselves. But the promise of this passage is that we don’t have to be. And that's not just getting back to square one, but a double portion of rejoicing in our inheritance that we'd lost and everlasting joy that we could never earn. That’s exactly the thing for which we are looking, striving and struggling.

Perception, as I mentioned it, is the issue here. Much the same way we look at the promise of salvation and see who we are and we wonder if we deserve it, we can get stuck in the same trap moving beyond our salvation. The simple fact is, we don’t deserve God's goodness or His mercy, in anything, and that's ok. Our future in Christ is based on the Five Solas, specifically these two: Sola gratia, sola fide (by grace alone, by faith alone). We weren’t saved by our works, but rather by our faith in the grace God first extended. SO that means that anything we subsequently receive from God moving forward - mercy, justice and the balance between the two - that has nothing to do with anything upon which our perceptions are based.

That’s very freeing, but ... it requires faith. Powerful faith. Did I mention the faith that is required needs to be powerful? Think top fuel drag car instead of a 1988 Yugo.

In the lives of this church, we step out of that limiting perception simply by choosing instead to believe through faith that God is faithful to deliver on the promise of an inheritance to us. He did that for the people of Israel that Isaiah prophesied to all those millennia ago, so why not us? Why not now? Why not here?

 

Speak Life over Your Faith

Developing powerful faith can be done in a variety of ways, but they all revolve around constant contact with the Holy Spirit. Praying. Fasting. Worshiping. Being in and studying the Word. Worship on every day that ends in "y." Communion, both sacramentally and in community. The biggest thing we can do that is above and beyond this is change our narrative. We can constantly remind ourselves that this promise is here for us and that it was part of our being freed from sin. We can create a habit inside 30 days of doing this, and it's important that rabid, Holy Spirit-led, habitual faith is a vibrant characteristic of our individual and collective church make up.

This is how we start making the promises of the word reality in our lives so we can move into the purpose God has planned for us. We don’t have to earn anything at all in order to start moving into this promise. Just believe. Just like Jesus told Jairus. Like in Romans 10:9-10. God promised to never leave us nor forsake us. Rejoice and live into that. Jesus promised he would be with us until the end of the age. Rejoice and live into that. Rejoice. Live.

If we can stop living under the lie of our perception and start waking up every morning, going to bed every night placing our faith in that promise in the same concrete way we believe in our salvation, then powerful revival is possible for our church.

 

For What Reason Are We Here?

This is how we get to our purpose, a purpose that is the point of our existence. It's a transformational relationship that sets captives free, and it matters because we are truly freed to serve God by the promise at the heart of all of this. Others around us can experience that same kind of freedom.

We have to change our own narrative. Instead of thinking of how things fall apart in our lives, we look at how things can be when we believe in God’s promise and live our lives into His purpose. When we are a praying, fasting, studying, worshipping and communal people, with Jesus at the center of our very being, and his Holy Spirit directing us, there isn't anything that can stand against us. When we dream of a vibrant and thriving church that blesses the lives of others, instead of thinking how it can’t happen, a changed narrative and active spiritual life call to mind God’s promises propelling us to pray for a provision that enables His purpose and then pushes it toward completion.

That purpose makes God happy. Flipping that script makes God happy. Replacing that thought makes God happy. Putting the One there INSTEAD of the other is how we fulfill God’s purpose ... and make God happy.

 

Dream Sequences

Acclaimed director Alfred Hitchcock once ran into a roadblock with his crew of cameramen, lighting directors and visual effects people over an Avante Garde way of doing a scene. They had always done it one way, but Hitchcock had a vision for something completely new. In order to deal with their objections, he told them the scene was actually a dream sequence. That little instruction gave them the license needed to see things in a whole new way, and develop new skills and approaches that ultimately achieved a blockbuster film. God is challenging us today to look at the future of our church as a dream sequence instead of the same old story we've been living for so long.

The difference is, God’s promise says we get to actually live that dream instead of just dreaming. That's a dream worth having. And that dream is something to rejoice over, don't you think?

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
- Psalm 51:10

"A long-time member of St. John’s church scolded the new pastor for his radical new ideas and changes: “Reverend, if God were alive today, He would be shocked at the changes in this church."

While that sounds funny, I've been at a church where it was a real concern for someone and carried real consequences for that church in terms of lost funding. It makes a young pastor like myself think twice. Trying to grow a church for our denomination can be scary for us, but we have to focus on the fact it is also very scary for our congregations. Congregations face change, face new faces, and ultimately have to face some tough questions.

"Are we too far gone?"

"Are we too old?"

"Do we really need to change the worship service?"

As a Pastor, the primary goal of the church is always to grow and shepherd the flock through the spread of the gospel. That can clash with the fact that sometimes the sheep don’t want other sheep around.

Many of our congregants were alive when their churches had larger attendance. We look at those as the good old days, even though Solomon told us not to in Ecclesiastes. Some congregations have dwindled by more than half inside a few decades. As we look back and then look around, the natural thing to do is ask, "What happened?"

Often, it was many factors and a few explosive situations in some cases. Complacency set in. Internal problems set in. Everything that was wrong was within, but we didn't see it until we got where we are now. Churches grow slowly, and they wither slowly as well. Don't get me wrong, though, they don’t have to die. We still have a choice to reach those outside. To be clear, I'm not talking about people already attending a church. We weren't called to seek and re-save the saved. I'm talking about the lost sheep, the people who need our love.

Before we can do that, we have to renew what’s inside. It's critical to start there because if we don't, those lost sheep will never really catch on in our congregations.

If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside.

 

Breaking down the broke-down king

As a pastor, I am required to exegete the entire scripture before I preach. Exegesis is just a fancy Pastor word for the work done in researching a passage, knowing where it fits in the Bible, where the people in the passage were in their lives and even what the individual words mean in full. It helps us to interpret the scripture and it’s  relevance to us today, by knowing the reasons it was relevant when it was written.

In this passage from David, I found an interesting and compelling parallel between David's psalm of penitence as his newborn son lay dying and the situation in which many modern churches find ourselves. "Hey now, Pastor Roland, we're faithful givers, and we're here in our pews every Sunday. Exactly what is it that requires our repentance?"

I'm glad you asked.

Maybe it's not reaching out enough? Maybe it's the fact that, while we are in our pews and I’m in my pulpit, our brothers and sisters aren't. Where is the guy at the gas station gassing up his fishing boat on Sunday morning? Or the lady at the fast-food drive-through with three rowdy kids in tow that simply doesn't look to be headed for a meaningful worship time. That stings me a lot. God once told me during a service that he was thrilled that I was there, and that He was happy to feed my spirit, but ... where were my brothers and sisters?

Ouch. As I said, it stings.

To be fair, we do have to offer ourselves a little grace. Honestly, we don’t know how to reach them in many instances. What you don't know is often scary, and it will keep you living in your perception of doing good enough without living into the promises placed before us. 

At the same time, there’s still hope for renewal here, as I mentioned previously. In the overall view of the psalm, David was spiritually bankrupt and desperate. That desperation drove him to seek divine help and intervention. Our churches may not have been involved in a literal affair with deadly collateral consequences, but our straying from our call to make disciples of all nations is leading to the death of God's other children. Our spiritual need is equally as desperate as that of the broke-down King of Israel. David humbled himself, asking for a new heart and a renewed spirit, not on a whim, but because it was available for him. Otherwise, why would he bother God? That same newly created heart and renewed spirit is available for the modern church as well.

Allow me to elaborate.

When I examine the text, I also define each word in its original language via 4-5 different lexicons. I have to do this because I don’t speak Hebrew or Greek and this gives me a pretty good assurance my interpretation is right. Some of the words are very basic in nature, but a few of the ancient Hebrew lexicons actually go back to the pictograms associated with the words, giving some fairly unique insights into the meanings of each word. What I do is write down the words of the passage on one side, and then write out the different notes, meanings, and insights on the other side. Here's what I found.

  1. Create -The word used here for "create" is only present in the Bible when speaking of God and the act of creation. The reason for this is that it is the act of making a brand new creation, from literally out of nothing pre-existing. It refers to filling something up to fatten it, make it full with God and life, in the way the universe was filled with stars and planets, and the way the earth was filled with plants, animals, and the like.
  2. In me -As I read it, the Hebrew here is indicative of a transformative motion.
  3. A pure - Ethically clean, and unblemished. Purged of all that came before it.
  4. Heart - The concept of the heart in the Hebrew language and culture is vastly different than the concept of the heart in modern western culture. The pictogram for this word is a shepherd’s staff and a tent representing what is inside. “Authority Inside.” To the Hebrew writer and reader and certainly to David, this is an inner person’s emotional as well as mental/thinking center. The idea of this section of the passage is that the author is asking for a brand new mind and thought pattern as well as emotional content center, the seat of the passion that drives him. This encompasses the will of the author being made more like God's instead of his own, changing just whose authority is inside him.
  5. O God, and - Elohim - plural but inclusive of the entire trinity.
  6. Renew a - The Hebrew word used here is rooted in chadash. Chadash is part of the Jewish dietary regulations of Kashrut, referring to grain that is new. This had to do with the idea that the new grain is to be set apart and made holy. In a way, it doubles down on the idea of first fruits and offering back to God with regards to the psalmist's spirit.
  7. Steadfast - We all know what this means, upright, firm, faithful, fitted, fixed and established. But one of the words that jumped out for me was "prepared." The idea here is that steadfastness is in preparation for active ministry for God.
  8. Spirit - Here the word is "ruach," a feminine noun for “breath/wind/spirit.” Feminine connotations in Hebrew culture (as in many cultures) are that of nurturing among other things, but we must also take into account that it is balanced in the masculine identity as well. Ruach is a forceful exhale of breath requiring muscle and focused energy. Compare this to the Hebrew name for God (YHWH), which is literally only pronounced as barely audible breaths. In order to even remotely speak the word YHWH as an audible sound, one must use forceful breaths so any sound can be heard. The spirit of the psalmist needs to be strengthened in order to return to his calling.
  9. Within me - Literally translated as in the center of one’s being at the seat of thought and emotion, where we feel our "gut instinct." This means to remove everything that was at the core of the writer’s being and replace it with a newly created spirit.

So how does this compare with our church today? That part is simple once you know what I just lined out.

Our church needs God to create from nothing a transformative movement inside it that is completely unblemished of thought and previous misconceptions. This needs to result in an unprecedented authority inside it that offers a new emotional center and a mindset that is devoted solely to God's will and nothing else. It must set apart the very center of the life of the church as a holy thing in an unwavering and immovable manner that is prepared for whatever may come in God’s purpose.

If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside in this manner.

 

More than just a recapture

The answer is not to just recapture the excitement and energy of our church’s forefathers, but to actually experience the same thing they had in a fresh, new way. The excitement the church had when it first began was rooted in a deeply powerful and precious understanding of grace, and we do need that kind of understanding of grace. We don't need theirs, though, it has to be uniquely ours. We have to treat this day and age like it’s a whole new church, globally, nationally and locally. My church may still be called Brimfield United Methodist Church, but keeping the name on the outside of the building doesn’t mean we cannot have a new heart on the inside. 

When we were kids we played Capture the Flag, and after you played that game on the same lot a number of times, it got old. But when you moved the game to a new location, it was exciting again. It felt brand new, and the ground was not played on before, so you had to really grow in strategy and skill in order to play the game well in a new environment. Growth was one of the benefits of this desire to experience the game from a never-before seen perspective. Our renewal happened simply by changing how we saw the ground on which we played.

If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside.


What does the promise say?

Throughout this passage of scripture, there's a lot of foreboding, but the basis of the scripture is David's dependence on the steadfast nature of God. He promised to never leave us or forsake us. God also did not call us to be a people that stood still. He called us to be a people of action.

James 1:25 tells us, "But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it - not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do."

We need to actively step into renewal with both feet. We need to learn about our past, but not try to relive it, and instead let it spark the fire of renewal inside us. We approach our spiritual disciplines to grow, enhance and expand our spiritual formation individually, which will do the same thing in our church body collectively. I spoke recently about the need to step out of our perception and into God's promise so we can get to his purpose. The purpose of the church is the same as Christ's, to seek and save the lost. I addressed this through Jesus saying "Blessed are the poor," and a very truthful internet meme that said the poor hold a blessing for us. I believe it is the same blessing of which James was speaking.

If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside ... so we can get the blessing God already has in place for us.

 

Embrace the change, embrace the blessing

God has a new creation waiting for us, just as he has provided a grace that draws us all along the way to our salvation. He didn't stop and stand still at any point. We may not have been able to perceive His movement in our lives, but rest assured it was there. God is also not interested in doing all the work for us. We have to actively move into this new creation God has for our church. 

The fact is, we may find that we need new worship services and new curtains, and new carpet and new music. However, change cannot be made simply for the sake of change. We could change all of the things about our churches, but if the hearts inside are not renewed, none of it matters. If our changes are founded in the desire to step into God's purpose through His promise though, those changes may be upsetting, but they are also necessary for the purpose.

If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside.

Three simple rules. If only it was that easy. The name is quite misleading as the rules are indeed simple, but the concept of following those rules is where life gets complex. In a vacuum, following the rules is easy. Doing no harm, doing good and staying in love with God is quite simple when you’re in a cocoon of safety. Place yourself out where the metal meets the meat, and you find yourself under fire and ducking for cover, with the desire to fire back, do harm, and love God when and if you have the time becoming the règle du jour.

out where the metal meets the meat you find yourself under fire and ducking for cover.

 

The love of God is the key component behind these rules, and for that love to exist in someone and radiate out from their self requires God’s other-centric loving nature to be the rule of the day in a person’s life. Love of self has to go by the wayside, as does the love of others as a chief motivator. The chief and principal motivator of love must be the love of God.  Christ focused on this when he said that the greatest must be a servant and the leader must be a slave. We are in service to others, however, we are a slave to God and only God. This belief isn’t just a nice sentiment, but a survival mechanism. Remember, we’re not called to ministry in the safe confines of a church, but rather on the battlefields of the heart. We are promised that fight will be rewarding, but also quite injurious

 

Firmly rooting our lives in the love of God, completely sold out and submitted to it, with an eyes-wide-open view of what ministry truly entails, all three rules will have a snowball’s chance on a Georgia blacktop in summer of being followed. 

 

Fittingly, the first rule is where the first battles are fought. It’s in the rule of Do No Harm that we discover our greatest challenges due to our interests to do great good for God. We can potentially trample those on our team, our congregation, our mission field by being overly enthusiastic, possessed by a god, but not by the one true God. If we are to do no harm, we must put the human hearts of others ahead of the human accomplishments of self. The trouble here is that sometimes these two opposing concepts can come to loggerheads, and the result is collateral damage everywhere. Harm is done, good is not done, and our ability to stay in love with God is jeopardized greatly through a variety of avenues from shame to hubris and beyond. 

 

Balancing proper teamwork means loving God so completely that you trust him with details and intersects, and recognize the individual human need of the congregants and those God is drawing to the church to feel loved, but also of the people within the worship team. Leading requires leaning. Leaning on God, leaning on His ability to coordinate efforts for a positive outcome, and leaning on your team. Leaning on your faith more than on your gifting is what a lot of this comes down to. 

 

love them as God loves them. Something as simple as that. Nothing more, nothing less.

Once you have that down, you can step into the battle to do good. It’s been stated that people will forget what you said, and forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel. There’s a massive challenge here in that people must be receptive to the good you wish to do, especially when you’re leading them someplace they don’t want to go, but where they need to be. Doing good for someone requires trust from another person that you’re not the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. In a day and age where polarization is the norm, and people are divisive while shaming others for their lack of unity, it’s not surprising. The first good we need to do for someone before we can do anything else, is to love them as God loves them. Something as simple as that. Nothing more, nothing less, regardless of their response, regardless of their concerns, regardless of how long it takes. It doesn’t matter how lovable or unlovable, how dirty or clean, how deeply broken or together they are, what kind of damage they have done to you or others. Just love them. Not because you have to or are obligated to, but because God chose to love you and them both when your sin was exactly as repulsive to Him as theirs. Only then can you do good. 

 

All of this takes a toll on a person. It’s hard. It’s combat on a soul-deep battlefield and we will be wounded, broken, healed, and sent back into the fray. It’s there that the final rule comes into play. Stay in love with God. Stay connected to the one who gives us life, circling back, spending the night in prayer on the mountain like Jesus, deeply seeking His forgiveness where we’ve not been our best, receiving His rejoicing and favor when we have, and growing in a faithful, humble walk with God. 

 

If we don’t, we will end up as another casualty, and potentially so will others to which we were sent to bring the good news. That cost is too high a price not to adhere to the three simple rules, no matter the complexities. 

There are some exciting new things coming from SoMuchBless. With a few small upgrades, we're embarking on a new messaging campaign that will bring you daily scriptural encouragement, pastoral messages, interviews, instructional messages and traditional blog posts. Along with all of this, we're completing work on a third book, God is a Hog Farmer, that will be available alongside Fiercely and Well, and Essays from the Edge.

There was a post about church renewal that involved men recently on a social media channel I monitor. Sidebar: is anyone else seeing a pattern in these blog posts? Hmm.
 
Anyway, this post specifically addressed the decline of men in the attendance at a church not terribly far from the church I serve.
 
The issues the pastor there saw began when she recognized that most of her congregation were female and older and that her church was essentially decorated in a fashion that suited them. As she looked deeper, this trend had impacted areas of the worship service, the lectionary, hymn selection, and more. She made the determination that if she wanted to see growth in the church community, she needed to see masculine growth in her church. She explained the issue and her plan and received buy-in from her team. They changed the decor to be more masculine than the doilies, pastel tone paint and quilts and began balancing the nature of the worship service. They decorated in a gender-neutral fashion that was appealing to both men and women.
 
The net-net is, they experienced growth that was not only in numbers in pews but also in engagement within the church body. Men didn't only show up, they assumed roles serving the congregation within their church. 
 
All in all, it was not well received by this group, which saw this as a return to patriarchy, catering to men's needs, instead of women's needs and the desire to have a gender-neutral church that is apparently only welcoming to women.
 
In order to achieve that sort of removal of any warrior nature from God that are not honoring to the idea of a gender-neutral church, we need to do a few things.
 

Rewrite the script

We'll need to delete the following from the Bible at the very least. We should do so with the understanding that there will probably be more, as the Bible is full of stories that appeal to the masculine, patriarchal nature. These specifically speak to the warrior aspect of God, so its a good place to start if we plan on neutering God of His nature so that it's more palatable to what we expect of men.
  1. Exodus 15:3
  2. Isaiah 42:13
  3. 1 Samuel 1:3, 1:11, 4:4, 7:26, 17:45
  4. Jeremiah 10:16, 31:35
  5. Amos 3:13, 4:13, 5:15, 5:16, 5:27, 6:8, 6:14, 9:5
  6. Micah 4:4
  7. Joshua 5:14
  8. Zephaniah 3:17
  9. James 5:4
We should also seriously scrutinize Revelations for its imagery that has Christ coming with robes dipped in blood, fire emanating from his eyes, and a sword issuing from his mouth, all from the back of a horse, the symbolism of which is that he is not returning in peace, but rather as a warrior.
 
In order to get rid of a masculine viewpoint, we need to get rid many parts of God. That, for the record isn't just ill-advised, it's impossible. Instead, I propose we honor and balance the nature of our church as God is balanced within His own nature.
 

Tipping-Over Point

The biggest issue with this is simple. Its unbalanced approach leads to an unrealistic expectation that men will stand firmly rooted in the power God placed inside them because it removes from them the inspiration and the scriptural backbone of how to be men, to begin with. In other words, don't expect stand up men to fill your congregations if you are removing the inspiration for them to stand in the first place. They have nothing upon which to stand.
 
Men won't be very interested in that, I'm afraid. And it's not conjecture, it's actual fact as congregational demographics often skew female and older.
 
A balanced approach to a worship service and space has to speak to the warrior/protector nature of God, as well as to the nurturing/loving nature of God equally. Not more male, not more female, but equally balanced as God is balanced. When it gets out of balance, you have to re-balance it by attracting those who need to return to balance it. Once back in balance, you can enter a more neutral mode, by speaking harmony into the body from the pulpit and from the activities present within the church, serving everyone.
 
Equally.
 
 

Let's just face facts: finding a church home can be difficult.  Sure for some folks, it's as simple as going to the same place their parents have always gone or finding a faith community that is from the denomination in which they grew up. Sometimes, though, you need to go deeper than your church is going. Other times you need to let Christ go deeper into your soul. The difference is stark, telling, and often scary because of what it reveals about you. Answering questions about your faith is never easy, let alone comfortable, but it is always necessary.

 

 

It comes down to a simple game of hide and seek, and honesty is the only way you'll get to the answer as to whether or not you're hiding or seeking. It may feel as though you're seeking, but instead, you're actually using the search as a tool to hide something or keep God at arm's length.

 

The human heart, as Jeremiah so aptly put it, is deceptive. Who can know it, indeed.

 

 

The need to go deeper

Let's say you're genuinely searching for a church home. You might have an idea that a more traditional service would help you open to the Holy Spirit more, or you may feel more open in a contemporary setting. You may want to listen to a preacher who is preaching from a manuscript and you may want a very concrete worship service in place before you. Conversely, you may want a church that flows more freely with the Spirit in its movement, is open to impromptu praise portions and has a more expressive mode of worship. Finding a church that matches your heart is important but there are a few commonalities beyond all of this to keep in mind.

 

The human heart, as Jeremiah so aptly put it, is deceptive. Who can know it, indeed.

A church, first and foremostly, should lead everything back to Christ on the cross. I love sitting in a good bible study and really digging into the exegesis of a passage, getting into the Bible commentaries and even going back to the Hebrew and the Greek original texts and then trying to grasp the root of what is being said in order to determine a perspective that one can overlay onto history in order to see these men and women of faith in a new, and hopefully more human light. At the same time, however, all of this means very little to the average person whose passions lie elsewhere. A church that places deep understanding ahead of the primary principles of finding Christ is getting the cart miles ahead of the horse. 

 

Most people want to know one of two things. Does Jesus really love me, and is my salvation real? These two questions are often hinge points for their faith that they will struggle with on a daily basis. Even in a recent deep-dive in the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary on Isaiah 49 (my chapter), the Spirit brought a thought to mind, "How does this point back to Jesus Christ?" While I love the content, understanding the structural components that link this to other sections, writing mannerisms, etc., if you give this to the average congregant, they'll look at you as if you have six heads, three of which are on fire and at least one of which is catching next.

 

Finding a Christ-focused church means it is open to serving the "least of these" that Jesus called us to in Matthew. If we have the opportunity to move past the basic issues, that's enormously helpful, but the basic communication of the gospel of Jesus Christ, salvation by grace alone through faith alone available freely and to anyone has to be the central point of any church ministry.

 

Not like me

If you struggle to find a church that resonates with you, or you simply don't know where to look, you're not alone. Many people don't know if a traditional church or a contemporary service is where they will feel at home. All those questions that need answering are difficult when we don't know what we're seeking. At this point, it's a bit of Googling about a denomination, social media searching, and eventually you are going to have to attend the church in person. There are a few things to remember here.

 

  1. You don't have to attend there right off the bat. Dipping your toe in the water is just fine, and if anyone is a little too clingy, feel free to step back. Just as in personal relationships, churches should respect boundaries. Feel free to reinforce yours.
  2.  There are internal differences. Not every pentecostal church is overtly worshipful, and not every Roman Catholic church is staid and stoic. Every church body has a personality because it's made up of persons. Knowing this going in is helpful.
  3. Doing homework is fine. It's OK to Facebook stalk the pastor and the church page. It's OK to do your homework. It's OK to call the church and ask to meet the pastor.
  4. Extra credit might not be. It's not OK to show up outside the pastor's house one afternoon unexpectedly. Pastors get weirded out by this, just like you. We just try to act gracious about it.
  5. Expect there to be an undercurrent of drama. You will not find a church that lacks drama, ever. If you do, call me and I'll come attend right along with you. Until then, expect drama, and carry a big bucket of grace. Smear it about liberally.

 

All of this having been said, it's imporant to find a body of believers you can worship with and be free enough that your heart is open to the Holy Spirit. We're all uniquely different, which is beautiful in the eyes of God. The foundation of the church is common, but it's OK if the drapes, siding and roofline of our individual denominations look different. 

 

Maybe it actually is me

This one is the hard one to talk about. Some of us hide from God by saying, "I just haven't found a church that resonates with me yet." I could say it's a cop out, I could say it's pretty fake of a person, except that I've been there before myself. I've been reluctant to go to any church because of how the congregation was in a singular church. Maybe it was something hurtful done or said to us (been there). The devil uses this bruising to keep us away from God, hence my reason for pointing out item number 5 above. Forewarned is forearmed. It could be that church is genuinely experiencing some hard times, struggle and attack. That doesn't mean every church is, and we shouldn't conclude every congregation will be the same as another. 

I could say it's a cop out, I could say it's pretty fake of a person, except that I've been there before myself.

 

And then there's the use of this saying because we're genuinely holding onto our "unchurchiness" (again, been there, done that, have the T-shirt). We'll come up with every excuse in the book to deny going to church because we're either afraid of getting too close to God, or we're enjoying our sin too much to go there. Often it's because of both.

 

Look, I can't solve the dilemma of your soul for you, and I cannot draw, drag, or force you closer to Jesus, as that is God's job and he's way better at it than I am. What I can do is tell you this. Being dishonest with who you are is a life that is misery. Abject misery. Admit the reason why boldly and deal with it from there. Doesn't sound very pastorly, I know, but it's very much biblical. Being lukewarm was never God's plan for any of us, and living in a lie about who we really are will never work for anything that we attempt to do, let alone for our discovering who our identity is in the Lord. If you're having too much fun in your sin to accept that God loves you and could very likely have a better plan for your life, then live that, but also accept the consequences of that. Otherwise, take a bold step and move in the direction of the one who first moved towards you. Either way, "Do your business or get out of the outhouse."

 

Submitting to God and Coming Home

In the end, the greatest feeling is sitting in the chair or the pew, in the home church that suits how the Holy Spirit is guiding you, your faith growing and your glorification of God going through the roof. God's desire and design is that we all experience His majestic power radiating from His throne, causing us to, as Micah put it, seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

 

The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments,

- 1 Corinthians 2:15

... while we who are righteous by the Holy Spirit can discern, examine, search and question things through the Holy Spirit, that is exactly where it ends

I recently had someone use this as an excuse for judging people. A few things of note are:

  1. They said this was Jesus, but it’s actually Paul
  2. It doesn’t refer to what kind of judgment is in evidence
  3. It refers to a righteous man, which they admitted they were not

 

The word “judge” as used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:15 is “anakrinei” and it means to discern, question, examine and search, according to most Biblical Greek lexicons. "Ana" means "completing a process" and "krino" means "to separate." Counter to this concept is Christ requiring us to judge not in Matthew 7:1-2. The word Christ used, “krine” is altogether different in concept, although being the root for the word Paul used.

 

So, while anakrinei means to discern, search, question and examine, krine/krino means to judge and to do so in a final, punitive manner. The point is that, while we who are righteous by the Holy Spirit (the only righteousness we actually have) can discern, examine, search and question things through the Holy Spirit, that is exactly where it ends. Matthew 7 specifically forbade us from standing idolatrously in God's shoes, condemning others for their sins. That is actually a sin, usurping God's place as if you were above God and could step in line in front of him. It's called idolatry, and it's the very first commandment for a good reason.

 

What's more, is that along with the warning not to commit that specific sin, Jesus promised that we would be visited with that self-same judgment, but instead of it coming from man, it would come from God. I don't know how long your arms are, but I guarantee you, they're not long enough to box with God. While God does not enjoy boxing with His children (Ezekiel 33:11), if you want to poke the bear, He's just and will give you the consequences for your actions.

 

Beyond this, Jesus didn't believe that equating oneself with God was a good idea, and it wasn't even the reason he came to earth in the first place. John 3:17 tells us specifically that he came to save the world, not to condemn it. In our efforts to be Christ-like, that's where we should start and end, every single time.

 

Condemnation doesn’t belong to anyone in the flesh, including Jesus. Condemning judgment belongs to God and God alone. Who are we to judge our neighbors? (James 4:12)

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