"When you make up your mind that you will do whatever it takes to get people to come to church, then you will get just the kind of church you deserve: a congregation of fickle religious consumers who will leave you as soon as the church next door opens an espresso bar."
That was one of the better lines from my recent, two-part sermon series called "The End of the Road." I had been talking about how the church in America is in decline, and how some church leaders seem willing to do whatever it takes to get people back into the pews and their dollars into the plates. I followed it with this story:
Not long after I graduated from college I was I was called to serve as a part-time youth minister at a small church in Kentucky. I wanted to have the biggest and best youth group in town and one of the first things I did was weigh every kid who came on Wednesday night because it sounded so much more impressive to say that we had a 1,136 pound youth group than to say we had a group of fifteen kids. I did everything I could to increase attendance: we started our own radio station, held the "World's Biggest Kite Contest," and made regular trips to the amusement park. But I remember the day it changed for me, when I called to invite one of our youth to something we were doing and he said no thanks, that he and his friend were planning to go to a movie. And that's when it hit me that I could never compete: that these kids had all the entertainment they needed and a whole lot more, and the only thing I could give them that they weren't getting everywhere else...was Jesus. So, I made up my mind to do that-to give them Jesus-and to keep it up even if the youth group withered away to less than a thousand pounds.
In one way or another, that's what I've been trying to do ever since.
But what I said in the sermon is this: that "giving people Jesus" can mean more than one thing.
I was reminded of that when I was at the BGAV meeting in Fredericksburg recently. There we were-a thousand Baptists from Virginia all gathered together in a single room. You would think that we all held the same views, wouldn't you? But as one speaker after another talked about Jesus I could tell that we thought about him in different ways, and maybe that shouldn't surprise me as much as it does. After all, there are four Gospels in the New Testament, which means that we have four different accounts of Jesus' life and ministry. And then there are Paul's letters, which are more about the risen Christ than the earthly Jesus, and about what his death and resurrection mean for us. And then there are the other writers, like Peter, James, and the author of Hebrews, who each have their own perspective. And finally the Book of Revelation, in which the risen Christ appears with "hair as white as wool and eyes like flames of fire" (1:14). So if I'm going to "give them Jesus" I have to ask: which Jesus am I going to give them?
Because I think we tend to "cut and paste" when it comes to Jesus. We take what we like about him from the Bible, and from the hymn book, and from the pictures that hang in our Sunday school classrooms, and the songs we learned as children, and we put them all together to make this composite picture we carry around in our heads, and that's "our" Jesus. Sometimes the confused looks I see on your faces when I'm preaching are not because you don't understand what I'm saying, but because "my" Jesus doesn't look like "your" Jesus. My Jesus is always talking about the Kingdom, and urging people to join him in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. Your Jesus may be saying, "Go, make disciples of every nation," or, "Come to me, all you who are weary," or, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." I was thinking about that on the way home from Fredericksburg when it occurred to me that even if you put all these cut-and-paste images together you still get the picture that God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us. I said it out loud: "God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us." And something about that rang so true I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since.
Stage One: to Love Us. In John 3:16 we learn that God loved the world so much he gave his only son. I've pointed out to you before that the word world is often used in a negative way in the New Testament, as in, "Love not the world, nor the things of the world" (1 John 2:15). We are led to believe that the world is a sinful, dirty, and unrepentant place, and yet God loves it anyway; he loves it so much he gave his only son for it. And if you read the Gospels even casually you can see that the son he gave loves the world just as much as he does. Jesus is always spending time with the sinners and the tax collectors, always hanging out with the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. God sent him to love the world and he loved it, he loved it enough to die for it, which makes me think that as the body of Christ we should love it, too. What if we believed that our first responsibility, as Christians, was simply to love people? Not to judge them, or condemn them, or convert them, but to love them? Is this the way Jesus approached his ministry? Did he think, "I've got to begin by loving the world, because that's what my father sent me to do"?
Stage Two: to Save Us. Jesus himself says that he didn't only come to love the world, but "to seek and save the lost" (Luke 19:10). I've told you before that the word save in the Gospels is a bigger word than we sometimes imagine. It doesn't usually mean to save someone from hell; it usually means "to help," "to heal," "to make well," or "to make whole." More often than not, this is how Jesus used it. He said to the woman with the flow of blood, "Your faith has saved you." He said to that one leper who came back, "Your faith has saved you." He said to Blind Bartimaeus, "Your faith has saved you." In other words it has helped you, healed you, made you well, and made you whole. What if we believed the second responsibility of Christians was to do that? To help people, to heal them, to make them well, and to make them whole? One of the most important ways we can do that is to let people know that their sins can be forgiven-those things that fill them with guilt and shame, that cripple them and keep them from becoming all God made them to be. They need to know that all those things can be forgiven, forgotten, washed away, so they can move on to Stage Three.
Stage Three: to Change Us. Marcus Borg says that every major religion is about transformation, and Christianity would be at the top of that list. Jesus didn't think it was enough to save us: he wanted to change us, to help us become what we have it in us at our best to be. And Paul, perhaps more than any other writer in the New Testament, takes up that charge. In dozens of different ways in his letters he describes what a Christian life might look like. In Galatians 5, for example, he talks about giving up the works of the flesh in favor of a life full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control-the fruit of the Spirit. Those of you who have tried it know what a constant struggle that can be: the flesh keeps doing its work. And yet, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are called to keep on trying, keep on changing, until we grow up at last into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph. 4:15). And well before we get there we may be ready for Stage Four.
Stage Four: to Send Us. After Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to his disciples and said, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20:21). As I've said before, this is the moment when the disciples became apostles: when they were no longer "learners," but "sent ones." And you've also heard me say that I think Jesus intends for us to do the same: to graduate from Sunday school and go out into the streets, to be sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves. Don't get me wrong: I don't think we need to give up gathering for Sunday morning Bible study, but when we stand before Jesus I don't think he is going to ask us where Paul went on his second missionary trip; I think he's going to ask us where we went on ours. We believe that we too have been sent, that we are on a mission, and that we can't give up until it is accomplished.
Which stage are you in? Which stage are you in today? Which stage will you be in tomorrow? And which stage will that person be in you encounter on the street, the one who shuffles along with her head down, wondering if there's any reason to go on?
Which Jesus will you give her?