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Marketing Jesus

11 Feb

I overheard a conversation this morning at a local coffee shop between two small business owners about marketing strategies. Very matter-of-factly, they spoke about ways to garner more customer engagement and, in turn, dollars in their bank account. It was a very typical conversation and hardly worth writing a blog about if taken in isolation. The thing that really made the hair on the back of my neck stand up was the striking similarity in this run-of-the mill marketing conversation and the conversations I hear pastors having. Both are using similar language. Both are reading Jim Collins and Malcom Gladwell. Both are after growth. Both want excellence and success. Both have to compete to be relevant in the market. Both are employing the same tactics–excellent print design, a slick website, clever social media campaigns, quick follow up with new customers, and existing customers spreading the word about the product.

All of this scares me and leads me to think we’ve got a gospel problem in the Church. I think we have commodified Jesus into a product and made the gospel into a sales pitch. Churches have become cleverly disguised businesses that sell their product. The measureables of Disney World and many churches are interchangeable. Each wants butts in seats, dollars in the bank account, an incredible customer experience, and a customer desire to come back for more. If you look at the consumer culture around us this is not shocking. Everything is screaming at us to buy a product. And like every insidious evil thing, it looks wonderful from the outside.

We have bought into the lie that if we want to reach this consumer culture we’ve got to bow to it. In order to reach people that are rabid consumers, we have to give them an excellent product in order to compete.

The gospel was never meant to be a sales pitch. The Gospel is an announcement. The Gospel announces that the Kingdom of Heaven is here and that Jesus is King over the whole earth and that because of His life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are invited to experience salvation and join Him in His work here and now. We are not called to be a sales rep for Jesus. We are called to bear witness with our lives to the power of the gospel. You bear witness with the sum total of who you are. You proclaim the truth of Jesus as King with your story and with radical love.

I’m not saying that churches shouldn’t have promotional material. I’m not saying that the church shouldn’t have an accountant. What I’m saying is that we have commodified the gospel and made it into something it never was. We’re not trying to trick people into signing up for Amway. We are bidding the broken sinner the same invitation Jesus gave us–to drop our nets and follow him. It will cost everything and it will be worth it.

We’re reading through the book of Acts right now as a church and I want that. I want there to be healing in our midst. I want the broken to be set free. I want thousands to be baptized and added to our number. I want people being transformed progressively into the image of Jesus. I want the power of God to be evident. I want to see people full of the Holy Spirit. You can’t have any of that without the direct involvement of God. Our production teams for Sunday services can’t make that happen. Lights, smoke, and a really great band won’t make it happen. Only God can.

Jesus is the hope of the world…not our marketing efforts for him.

Do Something.

29 Jan

“We care more about you than what you do for us.” We say that to folks a lot at Center City–and for good reason. Essentially we’re saying, “we care about you as a human being beyond your functional role here. You are more than a door greeter.” It is an important thing to communicate to people.

I am sick of “functionary relationships.”
Hello (insert function), I am (insert function).

These types of conversations don’t interest me much. I like talking to people–to souls for that matter. C.S. Lewis said (as I wrote about earlier in an earlier post), “you have never met a mere mortal.”

However, I think we need to be careful when make blanket statements like “God cares more about you than what you do for him.” My friend Steve Witherup says that sometimes you must reject the premise of an either/or proposition. If someone asks me if I am married or if I have brown hair, I would obviously reject the either/or nature of the questions and say both. I think that applies here. See, when we make the aforementioned statements we are pitting one thing against the other. We are saying that what we do is divorced from who we are. This premise, I believe, is a false one.

I am reading a book by NT Wright about the nature of Christian character and virtue. His contention, as well as the belief of many others, is that what you do is intrinsically tied to who are. A belief otherwise is due to what I believe is an anemic gospel message. It is a message that sounds wonderful, and it is. It’s just limited. It is a gospel that says God is only concerned with your eternal destination–as if God only cares about two days of your existence: the day you are saved and the day you die. The Gospel is more than that. The Gospel deals with all of life’s DNA. There is not one thing on the earth that the Gospel doesn’t affect. This clearly would include your character. When you accept Christ’s invitation for salvation you haven’t arrived. You have been put on the right path for the beginning of a journey. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I am not saying that we can earn our salvation or that what Christ accomplished on the cross is limited. I am saying we limit the implications of the Gospel by making it merely about our eternal status. Salvation is not just a “get out of hell free card.” It’s not just about life after death. It’s about eternal life. It’s about life before death. Jesus is both Savior and Lord. The implication of Jesus as Lord is that he rules the whole earth and his Kingdom has come and continues to come.

So, what does this mean for us? It means that God is in the process of forming (re-forming, transforming) us progressively into the image of Jesus. It means that all of life is included in the apprenticeship. It means that what you do today matters! It means that God cares about every second of your life. It means God cares about who you’re becoming. So do something. Because what you do matters.

Nike said, “Just do it.” Or as my Jordan t-shirt I’m wearing right now says, “Just Dunk It.”

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Update: Watch this!

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Super Mario and the Will of God

3 Jan

There is a curious thing that happens amongst the people of God and I feel the need to speak to it, not as an expert but as one who has fully experienced the tension. The thing to which I am speaking is the irrational fear associated with the will of God. As a pastor, I hear questions all the time like this: How do you know the will of God? How do I know I am making the right decision? What if I’m wrong? What if I miss God? Where does God want me to be?

We are all predisposed to thinking we live in a linear world. We see God’s will like a train that leaves at 11am sharp–and you better be there to get on. Once on, there are multiple stops along the way that will again give you the possibility of missing the train’s departure. So people stay in the comfortable confines of the cabin and never leave the train. They stay because they think that if they remain motionless there will be no possible way to miss the train.

The problem with that line of thinking is that God’s will becomes reduced to you being static. There is no vibrancy. Your life has the potential outcome of an old school Super Mario game. You are side scrolling through a 2-dimensional world and there are lots of things that can kill you and various pits to fall in. There is so much fear and apprehension with doing anything of meaning. Because anything meaningful you’ll ever do will come with great risk. It’s seemingly safer to do nothing. I believe this paradigm causes people who desperately want to live inside the will of God to miss it altogether.

Jesus said, seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and everything else will be added. Have we forgotten that he regards us as sons and not slaves? Have we forgotten that just as any parent loves to lavish good gifts on their children so too God loves to give good things to His children? Chad is one of our staff members at Center City. A couple weeks ago he put together a bike for his 4 year old daughter. You have never seen a grown man more pumped over a tiny pink bicycle. He couldn’t wait to give it to Allie. But we don’t believe God is like that. Somewhere burrowed in our subconscious we believe God is the headmaster at our boarding school. I guess it’s easier to believe in the cosmic-cop-god that hits you with his club every time you step out of line. The problem is, that’s not God. He gives us the freedom of choice. Notice in the story of the prodigal son, the father doesn’t chain his son to the porch. He freely gives him his inheritance, though desperately sad at his choice to leave the safety of the father’s home. We too have a choice. As long as we are seeking the kingdom and His righteousness first, we have freedom. “Where the Spirit of The Lord is there is liberty.”

So seek The Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. And seek the kingdom and His righteousness. Everything after that is up to you. What is a dream God has put in your heart? Go for it. What are you waiting on? Jesus has given you the freedom to choose. You are blessed with option A or option B. Sure, there are times when the still small voice of God will say, “No.” Obey that. Paul says in many of his letters that the Spirit wouldn’t let him go to a certain place. But he also expresses many times his desire to travel certain places and his hope for the circumstances to work out for. That’s his choice. I believe to my core that God wants you to feel the freedom of His Spirit. There is no fear in Love. Go and experience the joy of living the free life found in Jesus.

Walmart, C.S. Lewis, and John Legend

7 Dec

Last night I almost caused a scene at Walmart. You see, somewhere inside this 6’4 lumbering pastor is still a 6 year old boy that really wants his way. I wanted to get my wife Chelsi a new iPhone and they had a policy that prohibited me from doing so. I talked to the clerk, the assistant manager, and the store manager. I explained to them the nature of policy making and that it is ultimately for the customer’s benefit. I explained that I, the customer, was being wronged due to a policy that did not account for every scenario. I calmly delivered an impassioned plea to “make this right.” The store manager let me finish and blankly repeated the store policy back at me and walked away with calloused nonchalance. I was infuriated. I felt as if it was a personal affront. I devised a plan. This was injustice and I wasn’t going to stand for it. I would find the district manager’s number and have the store manager fired. I would write a scathing email. I would write my congressman. I would gather the 20’s and 30’s of America and march on Capital Hill. “Justice will be served,” I thought.

As I was walking away though, C.S. Lewis whispered something to me. In his work “The Weight of Glory” he writes, “There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal.” That sentence was brought to my mind and it hit me like a ton of bricks. See, I believe theologically that every person ever born is an image-bearer of God. I believe that everyone is a soul that is infinitely loved by the Creator-God. But sometimes I live like people are “mere mortals.” I live like the world around me is built to serve my needs. I act as though I am of higher importance than others. Jeff the clerk, Dominic the assistant manager, and April the store manager, they are all immortal. They all are the beloved of God and He delights in them. They all have a story. But in that moment last night, all I saw was my need to get a phone and they were there to serve my purpose. So in my childish rage, I neglected to see the human beings God sees.

Despite what John Legend tells you, we’re not just ordinary people. C.S. Lewis remarks that, “It is a serious thing…to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…”

What would life look like if we saw people–all people–as God sees them? Every person–you, your family member, your neighbor, that lady with an annoying laugh at work, the mailman, and even a Walmart employee–is an immortal soul with divine thumbprint of God.

16 Pairs of Underwear

18 Sep

I was 6 years old and I had disobeyed. I had done something that deserved punishing. This is no surprise. I have a knack for disrupting harmony and have been honing my skill from a very young age. At age 3, when told to not throw a frisbee in the house, I flung it full force and hit my dad between the eyes. By age 6 I was a maniac. The crime escapes my memory for this story, but the punishment surely does not…

The disobedient act has been committed and I receive the dreaded words from my dad. “Go to your room and get ready to get spanked.” I’m not sure how most kids take these words but I leap into action. I run full speed to my room, fling open the top drawer nearly knocking myself unconscious (a state that would be welcomed with open arms), and pull out every pair of underwear I own. I take off my jeans as fast as humanly possible. Then I systematically put on each pair of those underwear. Spiderman on. Michael Jordan on. Plain white on. Sixteen pairs later, jeans back on, I am ready for my spanking. I will not feel the sting of the hand, belt, paddle, or whatever the weapon of choice is today. No sir. I am ready.

My father walks into the room–his 6 foot 3 inch frame is not going to be for wrestling or tickling or throwing baseball in this moment. No, today he is the cruel judge. His looped black belt is drooping at his side forming a crooked smile. Judgement time. I am ready. Our eyes meet. I am distraught but hopeful that my preparation will pay off. His voice pierces the silence. “Son, pull your pants down and lean over the bed.” I freeze. My 6 year old brain has not accounted for this. My evil scheme will surely be seen now. There is no way to hide 16 pairs of underwear. So down they go around my ankles. I close my eyes as tight as possible. I don’t want to see his reaction. I wait an eternity. Nothing. Then the sound of labored breathing behind me. My dad has seen my trick. Is he getting ready to deliver the blow of his life? More heavy breaths coming from his nostrils. My bare butt exposed, I brace myself. He finally breathes through his mouth and breaks the labored cadence. He is laughing. Hard. But he doesn’t want me to hear. He tries with maximum effort to hold it in but it is completely futile. He belly laughs–the kind of laugh that comes from your soul–at the sight of his son with 16 pairs of underwear around his little ankles. One half-hearted swing of the belt later and it’s over. He hugs me in the way only a dad can. A full, life-enveloping hug. And he laughs. And I laugh.

The writer of Hebrews gives us this encouragement: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves and punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Hebrews 12:5-6).

We all have a propensity for harmony disruption. We do dumb stuff. A lot. And God wants to gently correct us and show us what it means to be His sons and daughters. He wants us to be fully human in the way He intends it. But we have an imperfect view of God. We believe him to be a malevolent dictator or a careful rule-keeper. We forget that God is a loving father that seeks relationship with us. That relationship must include discipline. But just like the 6-year-old version of me, we run. We try to evade God’s hand of discipline. So we wrap our butts in every possible article of little luxuries or distractions we can find. But the father sees and (it’s a leap but just go with me) he laughs. He strips us until we are naked and away from any measure of protection we can devise in our own childish minds and He lovingly corrects us and wraps us up in his arms in a way that we can not put into words. He comforts us at the deepest and most intimate level. That is relationship.

Stop running. Stop trying to protect yourself from what you desperately need. In an attempt to protect yourself from the hand of discipline, you shield yourself from to the hand that loves, heals, and mends that which is broken. Let the Father love you.

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