I heard an ad on the radio for the Canadian Legion that started with something like, “Think of all the things you enjoy in life, like summer fun, going out with your family, kissing your kids goodnight. We can take these things for granted because a veteran didn’t. They fought so we could have the freedoms we enjoy without thinking every day. So thank a veteran and join the Legion.”
I think any right-thinking individual wouldn’t argue too much with that statement. We know that there are countries in the world that are still torn by war and oppression and that those powers have tried to export their ways onto free countries. And we know that many Canadian soldiers have gone to war with these evils to protect our freedoms and those of others around the world. I think that anyone with even a passing knowledge of just twentieth-century history would agree with that. The only ones that argue against it are the ones who simply don’t know their history books.
Along that same vein, I’ve found that the more a person studies the Bible, theology, and church history, the more they should be thanking God for the heritage of theological veterans that have come before us. We should be thanking God every day that we live where we do and when we do. We take so much for granted about what we know about God these days, especially in conservative churches like ours. But the truth is that the most fundamental things we believe about God, things which we talk about every day, even things that the average non-church going Canadian knows and speak as though they were patently obvious were once hard-fought battlegrounds.
But those hard-fought battlegrounds are slipping away more and more. There’s an old phrase; I don’t know who said it first, but I’ve heard it from many different people, and it says, “There are no new heresies, just old heresies dressed up in new clothes.” I read a similar thing from Albert Mohler who said, “False teachings emerge anew in every generation it seems, but inventing a new heresy is quite a challenge. After all, once every doctrine vital to Christianity has been denied, all that remains is a change in packaging.”
As one learns more about church history it becomes blatantly obvious all the so-called “new ideas” people have about God, Jesus, or the church, are not “new ideas” at all, just old heresies in new packaging.
Whenever I attend or watch a pastors conference someone always asks the keynote speaker the inevitable question, “What are the biggest problems with the church today?” and the answer never changes: People don’t know their Bibles.
Perhaps the best answer I heard was John Macarthur:
He said, in essence, that the weakness of the church is not a singular issue, it’s a holistic issue. Just as the AIDS virus doesn’t kill you, but weakens your immune system so that other diseases can kill you more easily, so the bland, vanilla, imprecise preaching of the Word weakens Christians and leaves them open to a thousand “heretical diseases” which can kill their soul. And therefore, the cure isn’t to treat the symptoms with a bunch of topical studies or fancy ministry packaging, but to get to the cause, to kill the virus by preaching and teaching the Bible with precision and clarity at all levels.
That means not only preachers that are extremely concerned for the accurate preaching of the Word, but elders who labour in their own realms of teaching. It means small group leaders choosing good, biblical material for their groups rather than merely interesting material. It means Sunday School teachers doing the work to make sure they know their Bibles well and are more interested in their children falling in love with the Bible than just being babysat and getting their craft done. It means parents doing the work to study the answers to their kids’ difficult questions so they can give good answers and ask “Did you read your Bible?” as much as they ask “Did you do your homework?”.
But that takes time, effort and energy – and reading, studying, learning, prayer, humility – which are things our society generally doesn’t do well. Which is why we are spiritually unhealthy, infected, and in danger.
Turn to Paul’s letter to the Galatians 1:6-12. He says,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Paul was writing to the Galatians to combat the false, heretical teaching that had cropped up, that was corrupting people’s faith in Jesus, and was honestly shocked at how fast it had happened. He had preached to them the one, true, and pure gospel – the truth about Jesus – and he had just barely left town before they started believing dangerous lies – especially the like that Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t enough to save them, but that they also needed to follow all the Jewish laws too or God wouldn’t accept them. It was a dangerous, false teaching that struck at the heart of the gospel.
Paul’s argument there is threefold, right? First, there is only one gospel and many counterfeit ones, so don’t be fooled. Second, the gospel isn’t something that man came up with but was given to man by revelation from God. And third, anyone who preaches something different from the truth is an accursed heretic who is hurting the church.
When Christians use the word “heresy” or “heretics” need to be very careful. Heresy simply means to believe something that is wrong about the established doctrines, so technically, every time someone says something that departs from Biblical truth even a little bit its heresy, but that’s not how it’s used. When we say “heretic” or “heresy” we’re not talking about people who are still learning, who use bad analogies, or who are simply making mistakes because they’re still trying to figure it all out. We wouldn’t call a new Christian or the kids in the Sunday School heretics because they aren’t 100% accurate. Instead, the word “heresy” is reserved for teachers who purposefully distort biblical truth in such a serious way that they attack the very essence of the Christian faith.
Martin Luther was excommunicated by Rome as a heretic because he taught that Christians are justified by faith alone. Luther replied that the Catholic Church and the Pope were heretics because they had departed from a biblical view of salvation. But that wasn’t the case for all of the disagreements. The Reformers, and many churches today, still disagreed on lots of things, even important ones like the Lord’s Supper and Baptism and how the church is to be structured, but they didn’t label each other heretics, just as we don’t label most other protestant churches heretics – it’s just differences in interpretation.
That’s not to say there haven’t been dozens of important debates over the centuries which remain today. In fact, the more we learn about the Bible, Theology, and Christian history, the more we realize that there really is nothing new under the sun. The wrong theology that people have today are the same errors that people argued over, fought against, declared counsels to settle, and even shed blood over, hundreds of years ago. We really do stand on the shoulders of giants – and must of us don’t even know it. But sadly, a lot of those old theological victories are being forgotten.
I don’t want to go over the data again, but I want to remind you about a couple of important surveys conducted over the past couple years about the beliefs that Christians hold today which I’ve talked about before. The first is from Lifeway and the other is from Ligonier. I’ll link them on my blog if you want to read them, but the results are dismal. Lots of self-proclaimed Christians don’t believe in sin or hell and believe everyone is basically good and will go to heaven to see all their relatives. And the beliefs about Jesus are all over the place!
And people’s beliefs about Jesus are just as bad. Half believed God makes mistakes. A little over half believe Jesus isn’t God but was created by God. Less than half strongly agreed that Jesus rose from the dead. Only two-thirds of Christians say that Jesus death on the cross is the only way to remove the penalty of sin, and less than half believe that He’s coming back.
Where’s the good news in that message? If people are basically good, God doesn’t care about sin and accepts worship from other religions, and everyone goes to heaven anyway, then why even talk about Jesus? But also, if God makes mistakes and Jesus death wasn’t enough, then how can anyone be sure of their salvation? If the word of God isn’t true, then what should we believe? What about all the Bible verses where Jesus makes exclusive claims or talks about sin? What do we do with those? How can God be good and just if ignores sin? How can God be perfect and holy if He allows evil people into Heaven? Doesn’t God care what we say about Him? Is the Bible just a pile of human contradictions? Where’s the good news? Where’s our hope then?
As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19,
“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
I saw a great example of this on Instagram this week where I saw this comic: On one side there’s a man at a booth with a sign that says John 3:16 and a huge line of people in front of him. Next to him sits another booth that says, John 3:16-21. The joke is that a lot of people really like the message of John 3:16, but not so much when they read it in context.
Turn there with me. It starts with the famous verses:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Everyone loves that verse, right? But let’s keep reading,
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Hey, that’s pretty good, we can get onboard with that. Keep reading: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned…” Still good…
“…but whoever does not believe is condemned already…”
“because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
That’s not very inclusive, is it? What do we do with verses like with verses like these, or like John 14:6 where Jesus says,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
or Acts 4:12 which says,
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Or the one that we talked about last week in 1 Timothy 2:5,
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus…”
Those statements are either the gospel truth and the most important decision ever – or a lie. The only choice is to either believe them as the exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way to be saved, or to deny them, ignore them, or rewrite them so they say something that we prefer.
This is why we’re going through the Heidelberg Catechism. Not because it’s a divine document, but because it’s one of the greatest teaching tools to summarize the Biblical teaching about salvation through Jesus Christ in a way that people can learn. It’s a way for us to do what John MacArthur said: to learn and preach and teach the Bible with precision and clarity so we can combat that “spiritual AIDS” he was talking about. HIV may not have a cure today, but there is a cure for “spiritual AIDS”, right? There is a way to combat heresy, right? It is to commit to learning and teaching the Bible with precision and clarity. Especially about the question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” We must get that right because so much rides on that answer. Because with precise and clear teaching on Jesus comes hope, confidence, understanding, as Jesus called it, “Light”. If we are vague or wrong about Jesus, we’re in the dark, we lose hope, we are to be pitied – but if we get it right, then our faith, hope, strength, and confidence in the love of God will grow.
Heidelberg LD6: The Nature of Jesus
Take a look at the questions in today’s lesson from the Catechism. Recall a couple weeks ago when I gave that courtroom illustration talking about how Jesus was the perfect mediator between God and Man because he was both a perfect human and yet also God? Well, I got a bit ahead of myself because the structure of the catechism doesn’t really mention who that perfect mediator is until Question 18.
Remember, this document is meant to be an apologetic, a logical argument, teaching people the basics of theology, right? It’s designed to set up a problem and then show us why Jesus is the answer. First, it explains the misery of sin, why sin must be punished, and how we can’t save ourselves or wriggle away from God’s wrath. Then, when we understand our desperate position, it gives us a glimmer of hope: that there is one way we can be saved – if someone else takes our punishment. But (and this is where we were a couple weeks ago), that person would need to be very special and have very unique qualifications:
As question 15 said,
“He would need to be One who is a true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is at the same time true God.”
That narrows the field, doesn’t it? And that reasoning is clarified in today’s questions, as Ursinus makes the case in Question 16 for why Jesus is the only one who fits the qualifications:
“Why must he be a true and righteous man?”
The emphasis here is on the “man”. Why does our perfect mediator need to be a human being?
“He must be a true man because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned should pay for sin. He must be a righteous man because one who himself is a sinner cannot pay for others.”
We covered this a little bit last time, but the answer here is simply that the only way to pay for God’s wrath against human sin is for a human to die, right? Equal payment is just. If someone owes you a toonie, you don’t accept a button. If someone is condemned to jail, he can’t send a picture of himself or his pet poodle.
But this mediator must not only be human but a perfect human. They cannot have any sin of their own to pay for, or they wouldn’t be able to die in someone else’s place, right? Again, we talked about this in the previous sermon.
Look at question 17:
“Why must he at the same time be true God?”
So we know why our perfect mediator, the one who can take our place, must be a human, but why must that person be God too?
“He must be true God so that by the power of his divine nature he might bear in his human nature the burden of God’s wrath, and might obtain for us and restore to us righteousness and life.”
Essentially, because no mere human is strong enough to handle the full wrath of God for all the sins of those who believe for thousands of years multiplied by millions or billions of people. Only one who had the power of God could do that.
Just saying that reminds us of how much Jesus loves us, doesn’t it? What a Saviour, to face that kind of agony for us when we have done nothing to deserve it.
Now to question 18:
“But who is that Mediator who at the same time is true God and a true and righteous man?”
Here we see that apologetic, logical progression of the questions: Ok, so if we agree to all that has come before, about the qualifications for the perfect mediator, then who fits those qualifications? Who has the power to save us from the wrath of God and cleanse us from sin?
“Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Cor 1:30)”
We sure quoted that passage a lot during our study of 1st Corinthians, didn’t we?
And question 19 comes quickly on the heels:
“From where do you know this?”
And the answer:
“From the holy gospel, which God himself first revealed in Paradise. Later, he had it proclaimed by the patriarchs and prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law. Finally, he had it fulfilled through his only Son.”
The only One who fits the bill, the only One who meets the qualifications is Jesus. The only one who fulfills the promise to Eve, to Moses, to Isaiah and Mary… the only One who fulfills all of the Laws and who was foreshadowed in all of the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Old Testament is Jesus!
But do you see how this all falls apart once we degrade our belief in the authority of the Word of God, ignore the clear teaching of scripture, and incorporate heresies and false teachings about the person and work of Jesus?
Let’s go back to question 1. Do you remember it? When you face trials and troubles and pains beyond your ability to cope with or comprehend, when you face death and guilt and shame and eternity, when you come to the end of yourself, when you are, as 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 says, “afflicted… perplexed… persecuted… and struck down…”,
“What is your only comfort in life and death?”
Your answer cannot be, “Me, my own strength.” Because it is spent. I can’t be “My medicines or my religion or another person” because they are not enough. Or worse, if you have been listening to false teachers or being lazy in your study, believing lies about Jesus, then when you come to the end of yourself and look for strength in the god you invented for yourself you will find it lacking and say, “He isn’t enough. I don’t know where my hope is. I’m not sure anymore. I have no hope.”
But the answer of a faithful believer, one who has done the work to be diligent and precise and humble in their learning says,
“My only and greatest comfort in life and death is ‘That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit e also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.’”
Therein lies our hope – in the one and only Saviour Jesus Christ, whom we must know only from the true and infallible Word of God.
So, are you reading it? Are you studying it? Are you meeting with other believers to work out your faith with fear and trembling? If you are not, then you are going to be in trouble when trials come. But if you are strong in your faith, strong in your study, in your theology and understanding of the Word, strong in your knowledge of Jesus Christ, you will be able to echo the words of 2 Corinthians 4:8-10:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed….”
Because you will know the One, True Jesus.
For the past couple years my family and I have had a tradition of taking our collection of Christmas movies off of the shelf, wrapping them up, and then, when we have time in the evening, opening one of the movies as a surprise and then watching it. We all have our favourites (my favourites are It’s a Wonderful Life and Nightmare Before Christmas), and wrapping them up keeps us from arguing about which one we should watch.
But no matter how good the Hollywood Christmas stories are, one of my favourite things to do during the season is to watching the children put on their Christmas play. Each time is special and they never get old.
The Story of Wally
I want to tell you a quick story* about another little boy who was involved in a Christmas play. His name is “Wally”. Wally was big for his age—seven years old. He was very friendly, very excitable and everyone liked him – but he was a slow learner. Wally’s family had only been coming to the church since summer, but now that the annual Christmas play was coming, everyone wondered what role the teacher would give him. He was on pins and needles as the teacher announced the roll. The rest of the Sunday School thought, “He’s too big to be a sheep because they give that roll to the little kids. Perhaps he could pull the curtain or light the lights.”
The director went down the list. Tommy would play Joseph. Clark, Jenny and Peter would be the Heavenly host. Mary would, of course, be Mary. And then, to everyone’s surprise the teacher gave Wally the role of the innkeeper. The boy of course was delighted. He even had a speaking part. All he had to learn was one line: “There is no room in the inn.” He practiced it every day before the big night. Even on the way to school he would repeat, “There is no room in the inn. There is no room in the inn.”
Then came the night of the program. The parents took their places. Every seat was filled. The children entered singing “Oh come all ye faithful.” The lights dimmed. A hush moved over the audience. The curtain opened. Mary and Joseph entered the stage and walked up to the large wooden door that was to represent the inn. They knocked on the door and Wally came out, dressed as the most perfect innkeeper you have ever seen.
In a loud, confident voice, Joseph looked at Wally and said, “Please sir, my wife is not well. Could we have a room for the night?”
Wally was ready for his line. He had rehearsed it all day long. He began loudly, “there is…” and he hesitated. He started over again a little quieter. “There is…” and again his mind went completely blank. His cheeks flushed red. His heart began to pound. Sweat began to form on his brow. Everyone in the auditorium was absolutely silent, feeling a little embarrassed for poor Wally who just didn’t know what to do.
After a moment, Joseph thought he would improvise and started walking away toward where the stable was set up on stage left. Wally looked at Joseph and seeing him walking away, in desperation called out: “Hey, there’s no room in the inn… but there’s lots of room at my house, so why don’t you just come on home with me!”
Redeeming The Innkeeper
Isn’t that a nice little twist on the familiar story, isn’t it? Over the years the characters in the Christmas story have become very clearly defined for most of us who hear it every year. King Herod is a villain, the wise men and the shepherds are heroes. But the Innkeeper—well, how do you see the Innkeeper? When you read the story, and after watching years and years of Christmas plays and movies, what image comes to mind when I say, “There was no room for them in the inn?”
Perhaps, in our minds eye, we envision a crotchety, old man – like Mr. Scrooge, or Mr. Potter, or the Grinch – on his head is a nightcap, he wipes the sleep from his eyes, he stick his head out of his second story window grumbles: “There’s no room! Go sleep in the barn and leave me alone!”
The Bible doesn’t mention an innkeeper, but let’s assume there was. An “inn” in that day was more like a fortified campground with walls, towers, traders selling wares, and protection from marauders and thieves. Weary travellers could go there with their animals and know that, at least for one night, they would have water and be safe. There was a lot going on this night, and the place was packed beyond capacity. There was likely someone in charge of this resting spot.
And I think this poor man, this innkeeper, has gotten a bad rap. I want to redeem our poor innkeeper tonight. Consider that on that crazy, busy night in Bethlehem, when the entire Roman world was astir, and everyone was clambering for a place to say. Was it his fault that there were twelve rooms instead of thirteen? Was it his fault that Caesar Augustus had issued a decree that the entire world should be taxed, and that they would all come banging on his door? Was it his fault that Mary and Joseph were so late in arriving? If they would have come a couple days earlier… then maybe he would have had a room and he could have been a hero too! Hospitality was a serious responsibility and was expected in the Near East. It would have been very difficult for this man to turn away a very tired man and his young, frazzled, uncomfortable, very-pregnant wife.
So what did he do? Let’s use our imaginations for a moment. Joseph doesn’t know his way around. Mary is making some noises she’s never really made before and looks frightened. Joseph looks into the innkeepers eyes, desperate for something, anything. And what does the innkeeper do? Tradition says that Mary and Joseph stayed in a cave nearby that was being used as a barn. He made room for them. He found space. He figured out how it could work.
We’re all looking for meaning. What is the true meaning of Christmas. And as we chew on that it expands in our minds to “what is the meaning of life?” And then it gets personal and we ask, “What is the meaning of my life?”
I believe that if we want to discover the true meaning of Christmas, the meaning of life, and the meaning of our own lives, it comes down to what we have been talking about: making room for Jesus.
If the birth of Jesus is the true meaning of Christmas… and if Jesus is God in Flesh, Emmanuel, the Saviour, the Christ, the Lord – then He is the one gives meaning to life. Which means we must ask ourselves: if we really want to know why we are here, what our true purpose is, then are we prepared to make room for Jesus to tell us?
There’s something hopeful about Jesus being born in a humble cave on a busy night. It gives us hope because in the same way, when we look at our lives, our souls, perhaps we see the same business, harriedness, guilt, sin, darkness, uncertainty, that existed around Bethelhem that night. And then, like the Innkeeper, we make room for Jesus. We open our minds to considering his story, we open our hearts and ask for forgiveness and peace, we begin to pray for direction – and humbly, quietly, He comes to the place we give Him – however small… however dirty… however messy it is… and He blesses us, and miracles occur. Just like in the innkeeper’s stable. God took the small amount of room that was made for him and made something infinitely special happen there. God fit the Saviour of the world into the tiniest, little place.
Perhaps you are looking for a miracle in your life. Perhaps there are things in your life that you want to see fixed. Maybe there are broken relationships, financial problems, addictions, fears, stresses and anxieties that are overwhelming you. Maybe you have been seeking comfort in places that have been only making you feel worse. Maybe your heart is so full of hurt or pain or anger that you don’t know how to deal with it, and though no one sees it, every day is a struggle not to collapse under the weight of it… to lash out and hurt others… or to give up.
Maybe you are searching to find out the meaning of all of the things that have happened to you in your life. Maybe you don’t feel urgency, but when you step back and look at all the pieces of your life so far, you just don’t know how they fit together. What is your purpose? Where is your life headed? What is the meaning of my life?
To you I give the example of the Innkeeper: he made room. Make room for Jesus. Yes, He wants the whole of your life. He wants to change every part of you. He wants to completely forgive you, to recreate and renew you, to give you a new mind and heart, a new purpose and new desires – and promises to do so as you get to know Him more. But He’s willing to start with whatever small place you are willing to make room for him. He will bring miracles there. He will shine light there. He will show you meaning there.
Make room for Jesus tonight by talking to Him in prayer. Make room tomorrow by opening the Bible and reading the Christmas story. Make room this season by remembering and reflecting on why He came and what He has done for you. Make room for him each week by coming to church to learn more about Him and be around his people. Keep making room, and giving Him a little more room when He asks for it.
I promise that if you make room for Him, He will work miracles and give you exactly what you have been desiring. He will show you peace, love, joy, hope and the meaning that you long to see.
*The story of Wally was adapted from one I’d heard a long time ago. I don’t know the source and Google didn’t help.
Developing close friendships and meaningful relationships with other believers isn’t easy and can be quite intimidating to talk about. If it was easy, it would be happening, but unfortunately it isn’t.
You’ve all heard, and maybe even shared, the criticism that “big churches” are impersonal. You can walk in and walk out, and though you are surrounded by hundreds of people, no one knows you. So what’s the solution? To find a small church where people will see you, are more friendly, where you will be noticed, missed, and meet people. We smaller churches are always bragging about how much better it is to be part of a small church for those reasons.
Well, that hasn’t been my experience, nor is it the experience of many others. I know lots of people who attend smaller churches and feel just as alone in them as they would in a mega-church.
There are many men who feel distant from their church, who will serve if they are asked to, and have breakfast when invited, but who don’t feel close to anyone they see each week. If they were stuck on the side of the road, in the middle of the night, and needed a pickup, they might call someone from the church – but probably not. And certainly if they were falling into temptation — stumbling out of a bar, addicted to pornography, their marriage falling apart, being abused by their boss – and they needed rescue, help, prayer, and accountability, most men in the church wouldn’t even consider talking to the other men in their church.
There are many women who come week-to-week, put on their face, act friendly, wave their hands in service, make the coffee and snacks, serve in the nursery, teach Sunday school… but they don’t feel a close affinity to the women of the church. Not really. When they share, they share superficial prayer request, usually involving the health of someone else, their kids, their grand-kids – anyone other than themselves, but certainly not the true and deep struggles of their heart. They feel compelled to serve, but they feel more like a name on a list than a member of a team, let alone a valued member of the body of Christ. When they are tempted, afraid, overwhelmed, anxious, confused… they would never think to call someone from their own church! No way! What if it got around? The trust simply isn’t there.
So these men and women come to church, their small church, week after week – unless they can find an excuse not to – and they sit, and smile, and sing, and serve, and drink the coffee, eat the cookies, talk about the latest movie, or the weather, or work, or whatever, but they go home every single week feeling no closer to their fellow believers than they did the day before, the week before, the year before.
It is a deeply, tragically ironic thing to a place built on the sacrificial love of Jesus, the overwhelming grace and forgiveness of God, empowered and protected by the Holy Spirit, where each person desires to be closer to God and has a deep longing to know and be known – and it doesn’t happen. There is a serious disconnect there. Something is deeply wrong.
Close Christian Relationships Are Biblical
What’s going wrong? We are meant to. The Holy Spirit prompts us to. Jesus invites us to. God commands us to. So, why aren’t the people of God connecting to one another as they should be?
At the very birth of the church, in Acts 2, we read this:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47 ESV)
That’s what is supposed to happen among believers. What’s going on?
In Hebrews, when the church was under attack and people were leaving because of how hard it was to be identified with Jesus, Christians are told to,
“…consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV)
We are told in Galatians 6 to
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”(Galatians 6:2 ESV)
That law is found in John 13:34-35,
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This should be normal among Christians, so why isn’t it?
Barna: Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church
The Barna Group, probably the most famous Christian market research groups out there, completed a study a short while ago which turned into a book called “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith”. It gives six reasons, and though some of them are certainly geared to people aged 18-29, I believe many of the roots of the issues are universal and apply to anyone of any age.
I’m going to share with you the six reasons from a summary article on the Barna website, and at first, they are going to seem disconnected from what we are talking about – Developing Christian Relationships – but I believe they all point directly at it when we look deeper:
Reason 1: Churches seem overprotective.
“… much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said ‘Christians demonize everything outside of the church’…. Other perceptions in this category include ‘church ignoring the problems of the real world’ (22%) and ‘my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful’. (18%).”
When I look at that reason what I see is simply that the church spends a lot of time talking about rules, do’s and don’ts, and not nearly enough time interacting with these people on an individual level. Instead of walking along-side these folks, building relationships with them, pointing them at Jesus, and intentionally mentoring them along a transformative, discipleship path, we set up a list of rules, some easy answers, and let them figure it out on their own. Instead of having small groups that listen to people’s hearts and meet their most basic spiritual needs, we have bible studies where people argue about semantics to avoid going deep with one another. And so the people leave because we care more for our rules and reputations than we do for them.
Reason 2: [Their] experience of Christianity is shallow.
“A second reason that young people depart church as young adults is that something is lacking in their experience of church. One-third said ‘church is boring’ (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that ‘faith is not relevant to my career or interests’ (24%) or that ‘the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough’ (23%). Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that ‘God seems missing from my experience of church’ (20%).”
Now someone might argue that this means we need to jazz up our churches, get better music, blame the preachers for not being interesting enough. I don’t believe that’s what this is saying. People will see something as boring when they don’t understand what’s going on, when it has no meaning to them, and there is no connection to their lives.
I can sit and enjoy watching curling because I used to curl and I know the game. I can enjoy watching hockey because I understand the rules. But if I don’t know a broom from a button, or why the referee keeps blowing his whistle every time the puck crosses the little red line, I’m going to lose interest quickly.
I believe it’s the same in church – it has far more to do with understanding what’s going on and seeing the meaning and value behind it than how fancy and modern the production is. And how do people learn what’s going on? How do they learn the meaning of what they are experiencing? How do they find value in the experience of church? It’s not just what happens on Sunday morning, but throughout the week.
I will worship God better on Sunday when I am comfortable and feel close to the people I’m worshiping with – even if I don’t like the style, I can love the musician, the singer, and the people in the pew, which makes it meaningful. I will listen to the sermon better, and get more out of God’s word if I know that I will have a chance to ask questions of a trusted mentor later, will be held accountable to it, and be able to practice the application with the support of my friends and fellow believers. I will volunteer to serve more, and get more out of serving others, and meet God in my serving, when I know the needs of the people around me, how I can help them, know I am valuable to them, and that they will serve me and love me back – not that they are using me because I’m willing.
Reason #3: Churches come across antagonistic to science.
“One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is ‘Christians are too confident they know all the answers’ (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that ‘churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in’ (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that ‘Christianity is anti-science’ (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have ‘been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.’”
You may think that this isn’t relationship based, but listen to what they said. These people look around at the smug Christians who think they have all the answers and don’t want to be a part of that group. This is a group that hasn’t shared their doubts. The relationships among that group are not free enough, and there is no permission, for people to share their fears, their doubts, their faith struggles, their unanswered prayers… they feel they must put up the show, have the pat-answer, and project confidence. What they are not seeing are authentic Christians who struggle with the same problems they do.
They’ve been “turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate” not because they don’t value debate… but because of the unkindness, arrogance, militant nature of how Christians are doing it! They do not see loving people who are pursuing the truth and graciously defending the scriptures, they see angry fundamentalists who are more interested in talking than listening.
This is a relational issue. We all need to have a place where we can come and feel safe enough to share our struggles, our fears, our hurts, our doubts, and know we are not going to get pat-answers, but be surrounded by people who will say “I’ve struggled with that too… here’s my story.” Or “I am struggling with that… can we work together to figure it out?”
Reason #4: Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
“With unfettered access to digital pornography and immersed in a culture that values hyper-sexuality over wholeness, teen and twentysometing Christians are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in terms of sex and sexuality [and so are many men and women who are much older than twentysomething]. One of the significant tensions for many young believers is how to live up to the church’s expectations of chastity and sexual purity in this culture…. Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality. One-sixth of young Christians (17%) said they ‘have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.’”
What you are reading here is not as much about the changes in societal mores (which is certainly true and a cause of some of this tension) as it us the shame people feel when they are around other Christians. When they come to church and “have made mistakes” who do you think makes them “feel judged in church”? Certainly some of it is the Spirit of God working in their heart to move them towards repentance, but it’s also the eyes of everyone around them.
Why? Because they have no idea that anyone else is struggling with sexual sin too. They’ve never talked to another man about sexual temptation. They’ve never talked to another woman about their sexuality. They feel alone, and the only people talking about it, the only ones who make them feel normal are outside the church telling them that everything they do is okay as long as it is between two consensual adults. They feel in their heart that something is wrong with that, but when they look around at church, who are they going to talk to about it?
Who won’t judge them? Who won’t tell them to pray about it and then walk away? Who can they trust won’t gossip about it? Who will meet with them over and over and over as they fumble and fall, never letting them go, being patient with them, helping them?
They look around, in pain, in confusion, feeling dirty – knowing God will forgive, but also knowing they will do the same thing again – and feeling defeated, and they can’t see any Christian they are close enough to tell. So they go to the world.
Reason #5: They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
“Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences. Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said ‘churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths’ and an identical proportion felt they are ‘forced to choose between my faith and my friends.’ One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said ‘church is like a country club, only for insiders’ (22%).”
Again, this is all relational language. They are willing to look over huge diversity in order to have relationships with each other – and they come to church and find clique after clique. They gloss over differences so they can be together – and yet they have a hard time finding a mature Christian who will accept them for who they are. They see how we treat one another, how we talk about other belief systems, and they don’t hear kindness, gentleness, self-control, and love, they hear fear – and fear is not attractive to anyone.
Christians, who have been in church, raised in church, say that it’s “like a country club, only for insiders.” Do you know what I hear there? That they never felt like an insider while they were at church. They never got inside. They always felt outside. Or, they were on the inside, but when they brought someone they cared about to church, they were never really allowed in. They looked at their peer group and said “I like you guys, but you’d never fit in with the group of Christians I hang out with on Sunday.” So for a while they kept their Christian group separate from their other group, until the day they realized they felt closer and more loved by the non-Christians than the Christians. At that moment they thought, “I’m not an insider anymore… maybe I never was…” and they turned their backs and walked towards the people who really cared about them.
Reason #6: The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
“Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able ‘to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having ‘significant intellectual doubts about my faith’ (23%). In a related theme of how churches struggle to help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six young adults with a Christian background said their faith ‘does not help with depression or other emotional problems’ they experience (18%).”
Could this be any more clear? This is all about relationships within the church! These people don’t feel safe. They feel as though they are being trivialized. They feel shut out from asking hard questions. They have no connection between their knowledge of the gospel, and how that translates into being something that transforms their lives – and the reason is because they are not in close relationships to people who are modeling that for them, and there is no one around who is admitting they have the same problems. The stigma of depression and emotional pain should not be present in the body of Christ. Every one of us has a story to tell about this. Every one of us has the ability to help others bear their burdens.
We cannot be like this! This must not be true here. Yes, I know we are busy people, we are being entertained into oblivion, we don’t know where to start, we have no practice, our house is dirty, our schedule is full, we’ve been let down before, we are afraid of any kind of intimacy or sharing on deep levels because of scars in our past.
I know, and it takes great courage, tenacity, and a miracle of God to change that – but we serve a God who works miracles. We serve a living saviour who gives us what we need to do what we must, and that includes deepen ourselves through relationships to one another.
We cannot be the superficial group where no one grows. We cannot be the church where people are afraid to speak. Women and men of the church are encouraged and commanded to get into one another lives. Throughout scripture we are taught to pass along our faith and practice to the next generation of believers. This isn’t meant to be something that is arduous and life-sucking, but something that builds you up, opens your heart, helps you grow in faith, and know you are useful to the kingdom and the Father.
Titus 2 commands older women to mentor the younger women. 2 Timothy 2 commands men to mentor young men. We are reminded throughout scripture to be intentional about passing along our faith and life, and so just as I encouraged you last week to pursue your Christian leaders, this week I encourage you to pour your faith and life into someone else.
The main point of last week’s message was to give you a little push towards being intentional about your spiritual life and getting out of your comfort zone to ask someone to speak into your life. This week I encourage you to do something that might be much harder – to get out of your comfort zone and have the courage to speak into someone else’s life. Be a mentor, be a good Christian friend. Be the one who builds that relationship that you wish you had when you were young in the faith. Take the risk to open up your life and go deep with the younger believers around you.
And if you are a younger believer – or feel like one – God still wants you to be an encouragement and a help to others along their faith journey. Listen to the Spirit of God and speak the messages He gives you.