About Stephen Johnson

I'm a Disciple, Husband, Father, and Pastor...in that order. I'm just one more guy trying to figure out how to live faithfully in all of these roles, with an eye to bringing others along with me. I trust that Jesus meant to empower us all to do the things he asked us to do.

Ushering In the Kingdom Versus Seeking the Kingdom

Ushering In The Kingdom

In my last post, I suggested that we need to embody a politic of the Kingdom, or a meta-politic, that rises above our earthy political goals.  I hinted at one of the problems we face when doing this, but let me be more clear.  We will miss the mark (entirely) if we think we can usher in the Kingdom of God here and now.  Many of our popular ideas – whether in our worship songs or our Christian social activism – make just such a claim.  One song we sing in our church says, “Jesus, in your name we can change the world.”  This is true, to an extent.  We can see degrees of change in the world around us.  We can see homeless people fed.  We can see broken families reunited, with relationships restored.  We can even see hearts transformed by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  These are all wonderful things.

That being said, we cannot see any change to the fundamental problems that plague the world.  We cannot eradicate sin.  We cannot eliminate injustice.  Even in the rare moments when Israel could be called “faithful” there were poor people, oppressed people, widows and orphans, and all sorts of crime.  That is the reality of our life.  Even Jesus said,”The poor you will always have with you.” (Matthew 26.11)   He did not expect us to change that reality then, and he still doesn’t.

This desire to radically change the world is a positive impulse in (mostly younger) Christians today.  In fact, it should be applauded that so many believers care more about others than simply their own comfort or benefit.  Many are willing to live sacrificially in order to make a positive change in the life of others.  This is the driving idea behind books like Radical by David Platt.  The Gospel is not just about; it’s about the whole world.  It has spiritual implications but also material implications.  We are blessed to be a blessing.  Again, this is all wonderful.  But the temptation is to start believing two lies.

The Two Lies

Because believers still struggle with sin, manifesting in attitudes such as pride, our first temptation is to believe that we are the key to making the world a better place.  If that were true, then we must be willing to do something extreme and big because the world’s problems are extreme and big.  The problem with this kind of thinking is that the


Look out world, it’s ME!!

Scriptures teach us more about living a quiet life with our neighbors than it does about world transformation.  Consider Peter’s admonition to live a pure life so that the pagan people around you will see your good works and have no reason to speak ill of you.  He talks about being willing to suffer for doing good.  Next, he talks about how to be a good family person or even a good slave, humbly serving so as to display the truth of the gospel.  Finally, if someone asks you, then give a reason for the hope you have, doing it with humility and gentleness (1 Peter 2-3).  Paul makes similar points about living a quiet life (1 Thessalonians 4.11).  This is not what many people think of as radical Christianity (though it’s more radical that one might imagine).

The second lie we’re tempted to believe is that we can form the world into some Utopian Christian society.  This is what the Puritans tried to establish in New England in the 1600’s and it is what Christians still want to turn the United States into today.  In fact, I regularly hear people speak as if this country were, at one time, a Christian nation that honored God and was more faithful than any other nation.  While our history of genocide (Native Peoples) and slavery (Native Peoples and Africans) – to mention but a few atrocities our nation has committed in the name of Jesus – should dispel these notions, not to mention the fact that Christian identification throughout most of the the history of this nation was well below 50%, the myth still continues.  And so the desire to be a “Christian nation”, whatever that means, persists to this day and many think we can accomplish it if we just do the right things.

What both of these temptations ignore is that fact that only God can make these things happen.  Not only so, but he already told us that he will not do it until Jesus returns.  If our job is to usher in the Kingdom, as many believe, or to establish the Kingdom on earth, as I’ve also heard, then God is playing tricks on us.

Think about this for a moment.  What is it that defines the Kingdom?  Is it not the King?  Without the presence of the King there can be no Kingdom.

The King Defines The Kingdom

The presence of Jesus is the future hope of all Christians.  His presence is what brings the Kingdom.  Consider when Jesus begins to preach the Kingdom.  Matthew 4 describes the beginning to Jesus’ ministry.  He had gone into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil.
The point of this was to verify Jesus’ qualifications to be the Messiah, the New Adam.  Where Adam failed the test of temptation, Jesus passed the test.  He was confirmed in his righteousness and therefore had the right and the ability to stand on our behalf as our new King.  From that point on, he began to preach that the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God, is at hand.  It hasn’t arrived, but it is close.  It is coming.  Why?  Because the King is in the process of revealing himself to his people.

When Jesus fully accomplished the work he came to earth to achieve (to live a sinless life, model the Kingdom and a perfect relationship with the Father, sacrifice himself for the sins of the world, then rise from the grave in victory thus overcoming sin and death) he ascended into heaven with a promise to return.  When he returns, he will reign as King of kings and then the Kingdom of God will be fully present. king is coming

But now we live between the times.  We have already been empowered by the cross to begin to live in victory, but our complete victory will not come until Jesus returns.  This is the “already-not yet” reality of the time in which we live.  Death is defeated, yet we will fall asleep (1 Thessalonians 4.13).  Sin is overcome, yet we still confess our sins and receive God’s grace in our time of need (Hebrews 4.14-16).  We’re awaiting the return of the King.

Seek The Kingdom

If we can’t usher in the Kingdom – because Jesus said he was going to do that – then what are we called to do?  Jesus tells us to seek the Kingdom (Matthew 6.33).  First and foremost, this means we are to seek the King.  Our primary purpose as children of God is to know and love Jesus.  When Jesus prays for all believers the night before his death, his prayer is that “the love you [the Father] have for me may be in them and that I myself will be in them.”  When Jesus is about to die, his concern is that we would love him the way the Father loves him and that he would be in us.  What a powerful prayer!  Seeking the Kingdom means seeking Jesus.  And because God honors Jesus’ prayer, we will find him and he will be with us and in us.

What it also means is to seek God at work among us.  Jesus is present all around us, though not in the way he will be present when he returns.  He is working in our midst through his Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is now convicting the world of sin (John 16.8), restraining sin (2 Thessalonians 2.7), indwelling believers (Romans 8.9), giving spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12) and he’s doing all this as “another counselor” like Jesus (John 14.16).  The Holy Spirit is Jesus’ representative on earth until he returns.

As we see God at work among us, we simply join is.  Where people are hurting or are in hunger or pain, we recognize that God works to alleviate these needs and so we join in.  It is not “up to us” but rather it is up to God and he graciously allows us to join him.  We rely fully on the work and power of God to accomplish his purposes.  God doesn’t need us, but he knows it is to our benefit to participate in his work.  When possible, we meet physical needs and also spiritual needs.  We preach the Gospel, offering reconciliation through the work that Jesus has already accomplished.  In short, we are ambassadors from our nation, our Kingdom, to this world (2 Corinthians 5.20).  We are citizens of a foreign land but we’ve been sent into this world to manifest the values and priorities of our homeland (John 17.18).

Manifesting the Kingdom

So rather than ushering in the Kingdom, we manifest the Kingdom.  We show the world what it would look like if the Kingdom were here now.  This is what we pray in the Lord’s prayer – Your Kingdom come, your will be done be done on earth as it is in heaven.  We’re asking God to unveil the Kingdom (which is with him in heaven because that is where he is) to bring the Kingdom to earth, which will result in his will being done here they same way that it is done there – without fail, without delay, without conflict, without a divided heart.

This prayer is both an acknowledgment that only God can bring his Kingdom, and also an acknowledgement that God can begin to answer the prayer.  When we are living in obedience to him, we are manifesting the realities of heaven here on earth.  We will be divided in our motivations, but we can grow in faithfulness so that our divided hearts are more fully devoted to God’s purposes.  As we do on earth God’s will in some approximation of how it is done in heaven, the people of this world are able see what the next world will be like.  This is a powerful witness of the true reality of creation.   Creation the way God intended it to be from the beginning.

As stated in my last post, believer’s cannot get caught up in the polarizing politics of our day (or any day).  Our job is to promote the politics of the Kingdom wherever we are.  The Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 5-7, is our clearest guide of what it looks like to live by the politics – or better yet, the values – of the Kingdom.  In my next post, I’ll discuss what it looks like practically to  manifest the Kingdom in the midst of our current polarized situation.  While I cannot give definitive answers regarding what each of us must do in any given circumstance, I do believe that God reveals to us the general dynamics of the Kingdom and allows us, by the guidance of his Holy Spirit, to walk faithfully in this place and time.


The Meta-Politics of the Kingdom

We live in a time when Christians are struggling, perhaps like never before, with how to engage the world – the culture, the politics, society as a whole.  Are we to stand against the culture or be relevant to it?  Are we to engage politically or abstain?  What does faithfulness look like today?

Recently,  James Davison Hunter gave our modern Christian engagement a to change the worldscathing critique in To Change The World (Oxford Press, 2010).  He makes a strong argument that the way believers of all stripes – Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Neo-Anabaptists, and the rest – have engaged the broader American culture has been to the detriment of both the culture and the Christian message.  Consider these simple questions: When the average American thinks of a Christian, is it positively or negatively?  Are Christians generally considered loving or something less than loving?  Are disciples of Christ models in our society to be followed or not?

While it is certainly true that the values of the world do not always align with the values of Christ, and therefore being esteemed by the world is not the highest value, there is something to be said for having a good reputation among the citizens of this world (1 Peter 2.12).  W1-Peter-2.12hat has happened to the view of the Church in such a short period of time that an institution that once was seen as a good place to send your kids (even if you personally wanted nothing to do with it) is now seen by many as the primary promulgator of bigotry, racism, homophobia, and general falsehood in our world today?  Whether people are wrong in there assessment is basically irrelevant.  The question at hand is, “WHY?”.

The answer lies somewhere in our inability to speak truth in the world without losing our voice of love (Ephesians 4:15).  It lies somewhere in our inability to engage the world without becoming inextricably linked to the world’s systems and ideologies.  We have put our hope in political parties (varying, depending on the era and which branch of the Church you identify with), in passing certain laws (again, varying depending upon which church you worship in), and public figures/celebrities.

While these problems are real, the alternative sometimes posed is to remain apolitical.  If political engagement is creating as many problems as its solving (is it really solving any of them?) why not simply disengage?  But the Gospel does not allow Christians to be apolitical because the Gospel is about the kingdom of God.  Like any kingdom, this one has political realities attached to it.  When Jesus paid his tax to Caesar, that was a political act of obedience (Mark 12:17).  When the disciples spoke about following God instead of following the Sanhedrin, that was a political act of rebellion (Acts 5:29).  Whether you acquiesce or rebel, your actions will have a political element.

Not only is it impossible to be apolitical, it would not be allowed if it were possible.  Each believer is a citizen of the kingdom of God, a citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20).  We are also ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20).  As such, we are called to engage this political reality with the political reality of the Kingdom.  This isn’t politics as usual.  Nor is it apolitical.  This is a meta-politic.


Is there really no right way to turn in this highly charged political season?

I’m using the term meta-politics not for the political discourse about politics, but rather as the politics from above – the politics that rise above the politics of the earthly kingdoms precisely because they are the politics of heaven.  This is not some “middle way” or balanced approach that blends the Democratic and Republican platforms.  This is a Kingdom way that obliterates these platforms because they are not only wrong on so many particulars, but they are wrong in their very attempts to wield earthly power outside of the authority of God.  Because of this difference, even when the political parties get the details right, they still mess it up.

Of course, we know that this side of heaven, human institutions will always fail in this regard.  As believers, we must set our expectations properly.  There is no reason for us to believe that the politics of the world will ever correct all our problems.  However, there are degrees of distance from God’s best for us.  As Christians, we do well to search for ways to engage the systems of the world without becoming entangled in them.  This is the beginning of a meta-politic. This is the beginning of being the kind of ambassadors that, even when taking positions that the world hates, the world nevertheless must acknowledge our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven.

I will be exploring what it would look like for believers to engage the world – politics, culture, our neighbors – in such a way that Christ is glorified, that actually makes things better instead of worse, and that allows us to have a good feeling when it’s all over.  I’m convinced that the politics of the Kingdom is the place to start.  Please join with me and share your thoughts below.

Model Godly Character

In his book, Fruitfulness On The Frontline, Mark Greene describes 6 M’s that are helpful for keeping in mind as we try to live fruitful lives.  You can see a pos
t on the general theme of the book here.  The first of the 6 M’s is modelling godly character.

Godly Character

At the risk of oversimplifying things, let’s define what is meant by godly character.  At the risk of being obnoxiously simplified, it means Next-Gen-Character-300x179.jpgacting like God – and more pointedly acting like Jesus did while he walked the earth.  Jesus, being fully God (Hebrews 1.3) lived the perfect, godly life that our Father has intended for each of us to live.  He showed us what it would look like for a human being to live like God.

Fruit+of+the+Spirit+colorIt means living out the Fruit of the Spirit detailed for us in Galatians 5.22-26 and the way of love described in 1 Corinthians 13.  Only Jesus lived these out perfectly.  Only Jesus modeled for us what God wants us to do.

This is Kingdom living.  We’ve been rescued from the kingdom of darkness and welcomed into the Kingdom of Jesus (Colossians 1.13) so that we can live this life.  The Kingdom life is the one that shows what it will be like to live with Jesus as King when he returns in full glory to reign over his creation.  Until that day comes, we give the world a sneak peak of the coming age.  The Kingdom of God breaks through into our reality by the righteous living of the Church of God.

Of course, we are already doing some of this.  As a Christian, some of you are already living with greater patience than you did before.  Some of you are more forgiving of other’s failures because you know that your greatest failures have been forgiven by Jesus Christ.  Many of you are more generous with your time and resources for those in need because you know you were spiritually poor and received the greatest treasure the universe had to offer – Jesus’ gift of reconciliation and holy standing before the Father.  Others of you have joy and peace in greater measure than before because you know the security of being loved no matter what by someone who knows your deepest and darkest secrets, yet will never reject or forsake you.  And so, you extend that joy and peace to others without even realizing.

That last bit is the best part of Mark Greene’s message.  So many of us are already doing what God has called us to do, though imperfectly.  He notes that we don’t realize what we’re doing because it has come to us naturally as we have learned to walk with Jesus.  In his words-

We’re dolphins who are being told we’re good at swimming.  It doesn’t seem very remarkable, unless of course you’re a lobster, a seahorse, or a kangaroo.  The truth is that, when we received Jesus, we became different creations, we were born again.

Fruitfulness On The Frontline, p 66

But of course, we want to do it better.  We want to walk more fully in righteousness.  We want to be more like Jesus.  And we can’t.  We just can’t do it.

Living by the Spirit

Left to our own devices, we cannot live better lives.  Most of the good things we do now, we don’t try that hard to do.  In fact, they have simply become a part of who we are.  If you came to Christ at an older age, you likely remember that when you accepted Jesus’ free offer of salvation, some of the old sins in your life just disappeared.  Not all of them, but some of them.  That was a gift to you from the holy Spirit.  In fact, every time you defeat sin in your life, it is the work of the Holy Spirit.  So, if you want to overcome some area of sin and unrighteousness – if you want to be a better model of godly character – your first mission is not to try harder, but rather to pray harder.  Pray for the presence and work of God in your life by the Holy Spirit.  At this point, it is probably best to quote that passage mentioned before from Galatians 5.16-26.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

The Bible teaches that the way to overcome the desires of the flesh (some translations call it the desires of the sinful nature, which is helpful) is to walk by the Holy Spirit.  It then contrasts being led by the Spirit versus being under the law.  For my take on this, read here.  In short, we don’t look to the rules/Law for strength (which really means looking to ourselves for strength) but rather to God, himself.

Additionally, the Bible tells us in this passage that the while the Holy Spirit empowers righteous living, we have the responsibility and opportunity to crucify the sinful nature with its passions and desires.  More pointedly, it says that those who belong to Jesus already have.  How’s that for brash.  You already have crucified your flesh.  You just don’t act like it.

Imagine a butterfly who refuses to fly because as a caterpillar he always walked.  Imagine a toddler who refuses to eat solid food because as a baby she always drank milk.  Imagine a sinner who wasn’t righteous because he still thought he was a slave to his flesh and the sin that entrapped him before he was set free and made a new creation by the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross and the powerful hope of this resurrection.  Yeah, sounds crazy to me, too.  And yet, I forget every day.  I live like the old man over and over again.

What the Fruit Looks Like

527183562If we walk by the Spirit and crucify the flesh in our frontlines, what will it look like?  And what impact will it have?

It will look like doing the right thing even if you team or boss or co-worker takes a shortcut or lies to get ahead or cheats a client in billable hours.  It will look like standing up for the kid in school who gets bullied or made fun of because he looks/sounds/smells/acts differently from his classmates.  It will look like refusing to gossip about the suspected layoffs because gossip doesn’t honor God and you don’t depend on this job for you peace or provision anyway – you trust in the Lord for those things.  To take that further, the peace and joy and patience and kindness and faithfulness you can show in that moment will stand in stark contrast to the normal types of responses people will give when facing impending layoffs.  To put it mildly, you’ll stand out a bit.

This is fruit in itself.  This honors God in itself.  God cares about these things.  Additionally, extending our layoff scenario, this will bring a level of peace and calm to everyone in your office.  People who were worried will be able to gain a new perspective and do their job without as much fear.  God cares about that – his shalom taking hold in your workplace.  Some will notice your unwillingness to gossip and so will be able to trust you when they are struggling.  They know you are a safe person.  They’ll listen to your godly advice.  God cares about that.  Finally, some there will want to know the reason for your hope and you will be able to tell them about Jesus.  God cares about that (though let’s be careful not to present this as the only thing he cares about).  He wants your co-workers to know that they can experience the same peace, not only for their immediate future related to income and work prospects, but also to their eternal future.  God longs to bring them to himself through repentance and trust in Jesus.

What About You?

How do you model godly character?  What impact have you seen in make in your frontline?  Where would you like God to increase your holiness so you can model his character for others?

A Fruitful Frontline

Finding Your Frontline

fruit frontline bookI recently read a book called Fruitfulness on the Frontline by Mark Greene.  The basic premise of the book is that God has given each of us a place to be faithful ministers of the Gospel – our frontline.  Just as a frontline in a battle is that place where the army engages the enemy, a spiritual frontline is a place where Christians find themselves outside of their “holy huddle” and face to face with unbelievers.  This frontline could be at the office, school, neighborhood, Boy Scout meeting, or even a Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family.  Where ever God has placed you that you engage unbelievers, that is your frontline.

It should be noted that unbelievers are not our enemies, but rather the spiritual forces at work (world, flesh, devil) that hold our friends and neighbors captive to sin and death.  That is our enemy.  Our fight is to reconcile those people to God through the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.  When we’re honest, however, that is not usually our primary focus on our frontlines.  We’re usually concerned with tasks, assignments, having fun, or some other concern.  None of these are bad, but that type of focus doesn’t make a lasting impact on the Kingdom of God, nor who will inhabit it for all eternity.

Where is your frontline?  Where do you engage unbelievers?  How good do you feel about the way you shine a light for Jesus there?

An Encouragement

One of the wonderful reminders Mark Greene gives us is that many of us are already doing wonderful work on our frontlines without even knowing.  Sometimes, we get so focused on what we’re doing at church – or what we’re not doing at church – that we simply forget that God cares as much about our 9-5 every weekday as he does about our 10-11 on Sunday morning.  But God cares just as much about these weekday hours (or more?) as our Sunday hours.

The first great reminder is that simple – God cares about your whole life.

The second reminder is that we often times so narrowly define ministry and faithfulness that we miss out on what we’re already doing and how God is using us already.  For many of us, the only thing that counts as ministry is what happens in the church or direct evangelism.  But God cares about so much more than that.  He cares about how we conduct our lives.  He cares about justice and mercy.  He cares about how we treat our kids.  He even cares about expense reports and clients and product development and shipping infrastructure and homework assignments.  He cares about it all.

This does not me we may not have room to grow.  For example, if we’re neglecting evangelism, God cares about that, too.  But let’s take encouragement from what we already do well.

If you keep your cool in a heated board meeting, you’re living out God’s Kingdom values.  likewise, if you treat a fellow student with kindness who is usually excluded or made fun of, you are doing Kingdom work there.  If you didn’t cheat a client, that’s God’s work.

6 Ms

Mark Greene shares 6 keys to faithfulness on our frontlines.  I’ll note them here, and then take each in turn over the next few blog posts to explore how we can live faithfully in the places God has planted us.  Each starts with an M (some a little more forced than others).

  • Model godly characterFOFL_A6Cards
  • Make good work
  • Minister grace and love
  • Mold culture
  • Be a Mouthpiece for truth and justice
  • Be a Messenger of the Gospel

Let’s explore these together to see how we can be fruitful on our frontlines.

Staying Forth

Where Do We Go From Here?

Like no other time in history, we live in a migratory world.  The news is regularly reporting on forced migration caused by war, famine, and persecution.  Just recently it was reported that Jews are leaving France in record numbers.  Additionally, families regularly uproot themselves to pursue job or educational opportunities.  There was a slight decrease in this trend when a significant number of people were stuck in homes due to being underwater on their mortgages, but now the numbers are rising again.

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, there has been an increasing desire to seek a better life in a new locale.  Admittedly, the United States exists because of mass migration for this very reason.  However, within the country a change began with the modernization of American cities.  Early on, the desire for a better life meant leaving the rural farms to look for work in the city.  This shift has undeniably altered the landscape of our world.  On a recent trip to China, I visited Beijing and Shanghai, both top ten cities by population with 20,000,000 and 23,000,000 people, respectively.  In contrast to the bustling megalopolis of Shanghai, we found deserted towns and countryside areas that used to be major population centers.  Now, they are inhabited only by the very old and very young.  The young are left with their grandparents so their parents can seek employment in the nearby urban areas.

Most residents of small towns understand well the problem this poses.  The most capable young people leave, thus decreasing further the economic prospects for the children who will soon come of age in the town after those who leave.  This, of course, makes the likelihood of their departure almost a forgone conclusion.  And so the cycle intensifies.


Whether adding or losing people, the regions of the U.S. are experiencing a major population movement.

The dynamics are different, of course, in the big cities.  Some major U.S. cities – Detroit is a powerful example – are in decline as people leave seeking better opportunities elsewhere.  But for most cities, it isn’t that declining population is necessarily a problem.  Many cities are experiencing growth as a new urban movement and revitalization trend are taking hold.  However, the population in the city and among the cities is churning constantly.  People in.  People out.  Migration – without a major change in the overall population numbers, to be sure – that leaves the cities constantly in flux.

For the Christian, this leaves us with a very serious question – Has the culture’s wanderlust been a welcomed or unwelcomed influence in relation to the disciples of Jesus fulfilling their calling in the world?

Judea, Samaria, and the End of the Earth

Some Christians have long had a desire the share the Gospel to “the ends of the earth,” as Jesus puts it in Acts 1.  However, the modern missionary movement where the Church equips and commissions numerous believers in an attempt to bring the Gospel to all nations truly began in in the late 1700’s as William Carey and others began to preach and share their sense that the words of Jesus in Acts 1 applied directly to them and that the burden for sharing the Gospel with the entire habited world lay squarely on their shoulders.

It’s no coincidence that this coincided with the advent of an easily navigable world.  Up to that point, world travel took much longer and was much more dangerous.  However, by the late 18th century, ships could take an Englishman or American, for example, across the seas to any continent in weeks instead of the months (sometimes over a year) required by land and short sea travel of previous centuries.  Both the accessibility and the excitement of world travel touched the hearts and minds of Gospel ministers.  William Carey, himself, was inspired by the adventures of Captain Cook, a British explorerWilliam_Carey

Thus it was that Christian conviction merged with the new adventure seeking culture of the modern world.  Today, over 2,000,000 Americans go on short term mission trips every year.  There are over 400,000 missionaries serving currently around the world.  While there is much we can rejoice about here, the situation is not uniformly positive.  There is a concern that the short-term teams are really just vacationaries – not missionaries – and therefore do more harm than good, that they are a burden on the full-time missionaries, or that the trips create a sense of the “greater thans” helping the “lessor thans” and so exacerbating a sense of American (or other) superiority.  For the long term missionaries there are complaints of financial abuses, a saturated field that results in underfunded workers who are therefore hindered in their work, the unquestionable historical link between missions and colonialism that may still impact how some missionaries view their role in the culture within which they work, and the ongoing debate about whether missionaries or “nationals” make the best workers for the cause of Christ in any given place.

The questions are good, but are not the primary focus here.  What about those of us who stay in our nation, and yet still have no deep roots in a place because we move too often?

Stay Forth

Many Americans have reasons to move – and move often – that have nothing to do with the propagation of the Gospel.  And yet, the deep seated impulses in modern Christianity impact how we look at those moves.  We might move for a better house, better schools for our kids, a better job, or access to certain types of recreational opportunities.  We might even see it as an opportunity to have a new harvest field.  This is especially true if we do not feel that the harvest has been plentiful where we are now.  What we often do not consider is that each time we do this, we pull up our roots and must plant again.  When this is done regularly, it leads us toward an attitude that deep roots are not worth the hassle, or may even be too painful when we know we will be moving again sometime soon (even if soon is 5-10 years away).

But what if God has you in a place for a reason unrelated to your comfort in your home, the quality of your kids’ schools, or the level of salary at your job?  What if he placed you there on purpose for a purpose?  How could you even know?

Before I go further, let me acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons to move, and for a few people, to move often.  Some people have jobs that require them to move, such as the military or any other career that gives you an assignment over which you have little control.  Someone needs to do these jobs.  Even some churches assign pastors and the pastor knows it will be impossible to stay long-term.  Some move back to their childhood home or community to care for ailing parents.  Still others move with a sense that God has placed a calling on their life and in their heart that they must respond to in order to be faithful.  Sometimes we are forced to move due to economic hardship or circumstances beyond our control.

For most of us, however, this is not the case when we move.  We move to attain something.  While this may not be inherently wrong, it is worth considering how your move will impact your effectiveness as a disciple of Jesus.  What relationships will you lose?  What respect have you earned that will be underutilized?  What inroads have you developed in your job, your neighborhood, or your broader community that will now bear no fruit for the Gospel?  For the most part, we need to engage in relationships and communities over the long haul in order to have the respect and trust needed to have a deep impact there.  staying going

When we are given an opportunity, oughtn’t we at least compare the opportunities for us against the lost opportunities for others?  Or is this too much of a sacrifice for the average American Christian?  I sure hope not.

For many of us, we never stay in one place long enough to really see the fruit of our labor.  The harvest never comes because we have only planted seeds and cultivated long enough to see plants grow but not long enough for those plants to bear fruit.  We need deep roots and time.  Just as trees do not bear fruit for years, so our efforts to impact our neighborhoods or offices may not bear tangible fruit for years.  But if we are willing to press in and be faithful over the long haul, we will see more fruit.  Trust must be developed between neighbors before active sharing and a willingness to hear from you can be formed.  Trust takes time.  It takes consistency.

Consider this – How many of your neighbors move each year?  If the number is high, what impact might that have on the energy, time, and emotional effort people in the neighborhood are willing to give towards true community in your neighborhood.  This must be overcome by someone – you – staying and showing that you are both willing to invest in relationship with others and are worth others investing in relationship with you.  After all, being faithful where you are is just as clear a mandate as going to the ends of the earth.

The same holds true for your office.  The same holds true in your church.

If our lives have purpose beyond ourselves, it stands to reason that our choices about where we live and where we work and go to school should at least have these concerns factored in.  I do not believe Christians should never move.  I just think we need a new calculus when deciding if that move should happen.

What do you think?

The Incarnation and The Incarnated: Part 3

We Are Meat-ified

And so we come to it.  If we are not of this world but are sent into the world, we must become “meat-ified” like Jesus.  We must become like those God has called us to minister to.  We must move into the neighborhood and settle in to our new calling.  It won’t look like living in the world did before we knew Christ.  Back then, we were natives.  We were like everyone else.  Now, we’re outsiders who are different.  But we’re learning to be “like” again.

This can be very hard.  For some of us, we think that living in the world means living like we used to.  This mistaken view will lead to either fear of living in the world or living in a way that is indistinguishable from others.

Living By Fear

The fear can take on many forms.  Most of us remember for ourselves or know someone else who didn’t go to the movies, didn’t go to dances/clubs, refrained from certain social gatherings – all in the name of holiness.  While there are certainly some movies, some dances/clubs, and some social gatherings that would be inappropriate for Christians, none of these activities are inherently evil or worldly.  While there are many reasons not to drink alcohol, as some Christians abstain, this is not inherently evil or worldly.  Jesus went to the parties hosted by alcoholics, spoke and ate with prostitutes, and even befriended those pesky tax collectors (Matthew 11.19; Luke 7.36-50).  Jesus’ first miracle was making over 100 gallons of wine for party guests who had been drinking for days on end already (John 2.1-12).

shoe mud

Do your shoes get muddy or does the mud get “shoey”?

I had a youth pastor who gave me a great mental picture of what Jesus was like.  He talked about the fear of Christians who don’t want to be dirtied by the world.  He likened it to getting a new pair of shoes, all nice and clean.  The last thing you want to do is to step into a mud puddle and get your shoes all muddy.  But Jesus wasn’t like this.  When he stepped into the mud puddle, his shoes didn’t get dirty.  The mud got “shoey.”  The uncleanness of the world didn’t rub off on Jesus.  His holiness rubbed off on the world.  If we’re sent like Jesus is sent, we need to be strong enough to enter into the dirty places of life.  We need to be resilient enough to rub shoulders with all kinds of people without fearing that we’ll be tainted.  Rather, our presence should bring the cleansing power of the Gospel to those we interact with.

Granted, this kind of engagement takes wisdom and discernment.  Ministries to strip club dancers should probably be taken on by women, or men who are so sold out to Jesus that they find these environments to hold no temptation for them.  Going into the drug dregs might not be the best ministry for someone who got sober last week.  But maybe after an extended sobriety has taken hold, it would be a great place for a former addict to share the greater high of knowing the creator of the universe and being invited into the adventure of redeeming the world as part of his team.  I think you get the point.  Being like Jesus is something we grow into, and some ministry contexts would be better for some people than others.

Still, each of us is called into the world.  Each of us in called to be a friend of sinners (famous blogger’s opinions notwithstanding).

Living Indistinguishably

The other (equal) danger is that we live just like everyone else.  We go to the parties.  We befriend the prostitutes and alcoholics and IRS agents.  But while we’re there, no mud is getting “shoey.”  No holiness is rubbing off.  If we’re honest, we look more like the world after it’s all said and done than the world begins to look like Jesus.


“Resistance is Futile.  You will be assimilated and your distinctiveness will be added to the collective.

This kind of living is not incarnation- this is assimilation.  And make no mistake, the world wants us to assimilate.  Remember the Borg from Star Trek (TNG)?  A giant cubic space ship roamed the galaxy, operated by a group of beings with a collective consciousness – the Borg – each one stripped of personalty or individual choice of will.  The Borg’s tagline?  “Resistance is futile.”  They were going to get you, and there was nothing you could do about it.

While we don’t face such an obvious opponent, our adversary wants to destroy our joy in Christ and one way he can do that is to tempt us into the same sin (generically speaking) that Christ redeemed us from.  And there is a danger that we will be assimilated into the nebulous “world” that Jesus talks about.  C.S. Lewis described the sneaky tactics that Satan uses in The Screwtape Letters, wherein Screwtape, a sort of mentor for demons, counsels his acolyte to entice the believer into all manner of distractions.  In other words, rather than trying to convince us Jesus isn’t real or that salvation isn’t true, the key is to lull us into spiritual complacency through worldly living, fear of the future, overspending and consumerism, and just basically living like the rest of the world does.  To live as we did before both strips us of the power of the incarnation (Jesus became like us to make us holy) and denies the power of the Gospel (Jesus gave us new life so that we could live like he did).

The church, if nothing else, is an alternate community wherein God displays the power and virtues of his Kingdom on earth even before he arrives physicsupernatural-being-2ally to restore his rightful rule over all creation.  We’re called to engage the community as incarnated heavenly beings.  I know, I know.  I don’t feel like an incarnated heavenly being most of the time either.  But it’s true.  We are a new creation in Christ, and we are both present on earth and simultaneously seated with God in heaven (Ephesians 2.1-10).  Somehow, we are “in Christ” right now.  We are so closely connected with him that we can rightfully be said to be in him sitting next to God in the heavenly throne room which served as the basis for the earthly Holy of holies found in the great Temple of God built by Solomon.  You and I, if we’re disciples of Jesus, are in heaven right now.  Whoa!

But Jesus sent us back into the world to incarnate like he did.  How did he incarnate?  He was just like all of us except that he lived a holy life, he called all people – but especially those looked down upon by the religious types – to repentance through relationship with himself, and he gave his life for the good of others.  And so, that is what we must do.  We are empowered finally to live holy lives (though not perfect lives like Jesus did).  We are invited to join with God in his plan of reconciliation by calling people into relationship with Jesus.  We have the same mission Jesus had, as Paul points out in 2 Corinthians.

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5.11-21

And finally, we are called to give our lives for the sake of others.  We offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12.1) and we expend ourselves for the Gospel and for others.  1 Thessalonians 2.8 shows this theme, where Paul was pleased not only to share the Gospel with the Thessalonians, but also his life.  He echos this in 2 Corinthians 12.15 where he claims to be willing to spend all he has, even to the point of expending his life, for the work of the Gospel.  Nothing we have is worth trading for the privilege of sharing with Christ in this ministry to others.

This is what it looks like to be conformed into the image of the Son (Romans 8.29).  This is how we live like Jesus.

This is incarnation.

Part 1

Part 2