Should We Embrace a Social Gospel?

Though many are quick to criticize the social gospel, we would be mistaken to do so

Should We Embrace a Social Gospel?The primary way we learn words is through divining their meaning from context and everyday usage. That’s how children learn to talk and how most adults expand their vocabulary. We presume their meaning, deduce their function, and discern how to use them. Basically we make educated guesses. And sometimes we make a wrong conclusion. Or at least I do.

Such is the case with the term social gospel.

Whenever I heard the phrase it was with negative connotations, so I assumed it was a bad thing. That was my first error.

Next, I assumed the negativity must arise from the social half of the term, certainly not the gospel half, the good news part. I then shifted social to socialize and envisioned a church that so majored in socializing that they forgot the gospel. As a result I assumed the social gospel was a social church that had forgotten its original purpose, morphing into a purely social organization, like a country club. I wanted nothing to do with a country club church, so I dismissed the social gospel as meaningless. That was my second error.

As an aside, we need the social part of church. We call it community. Community is critical. Consider the directive in Hebrews to not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). This is a call to live in community more so than an order to go to church on Sunday morning. Also consider all the “one another” commands as a charge to pursue community.

Now back to the social gospel. I wouldn’t have shared my misunderstanding of the phrase except for the fact that I’ve met others who similarly reached the same wrong conclusion.

The social gospel, however, is actually a call to move faith beyond a personal conversion experience to help others on a grand scale, specifically through social reform. While some Christians want to segregate the two or dismiss making an impact on the world in which we live, the Bible has other ideas. The first half of the above verse says we are to encourage one another to love others and to do good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).

Furthermore Paul tells the church in Galicia to persist in doing good (Galatians 6:9). James talks about the importance of proving our faith by what we do. He even says that faith without action is dead (James 2:14-26).

Whether we wrongly assume the social gospel is about community or rightly understand the social gospel as helping others, we need to do both. The Bible says so.

Church Community is Key: Seek Connection At All Costs

If the church service you attend doesn’t provide meaningful connection, then you need to fix it or find a different church

Church Community is Key: Seek Connection At All CostsDespite being the most connected generation, Millennials are also reportedly the loneliest. It seems their massive number of online friends and followers offer them only superficial relationships that lack meaningful interaction. They crave connections with others that touches them at a significant level, but social media falls short in accomplishing this deep heartfelt need.

That’s why “hanging out with friends” seems to be their favorite, most desired activity.

I think that’s what church is all about. Or at least that’s what it should be all about.

The early church spent time together. We need to reclaim this, not just for the Millennials, but for our own wellbeing, too.

But hanging out doesn’t mean passive pew sitting, staring at the back of people’s heads for an hour. True community can’t occur when listening to the Sunday lecture that we call a sermon. Meaningful connection with each other doesn’t happen during the concert-like atmosphere we label as worship, where a couple of skilled musicians attempt to lead a largely unresponsive throng in singing. And don’t get me started on the disingenuous greeting time wedged into the middle of a service: it is too long for the socially challenged and too short for meaningful interaction.

This opportunity for true, meaningful community does not take place during the church service; it occurs after the benediction. When the final “amen” is uttered the clock-watchers flee, and a few people hang out to talk. Every church has a few of these folks. Though they may be the social butterflies, they may also be the ones who understand why we are supposed to not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). They seek profound community.

Although this time of hanging out could reside on the surface, talking about safe (and meaningless) topics, such as the weather, the game, or the Sunday dinner menu, the wise people focus on discussions that matter. We listen to each other on the heart level. We minister to and serve one another, we pray and are prayed for, and we encourage and are encouraged. When we do this, we prepare ourselves and our church community for the week ahead so that we can go out into our greater community and be Jesus to them.

True church community is the key to make this happen. Don’t let the official church service get in the way.

The Bible Tells the Church to Meet Together, Worship, and Witness

How can we go and be witnesses for Jesus when we sequester ourselves on Sunday mornings?

The Bible Tells the Church to Meet Together, Worship, and WitnessJust before Jesus leaves this world to return to heaven, he instructs his followers to go into the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:19). In an expanded version of this incident, Jesus tells his followers to wait for Holy Spirit power and then be his witnesses, both near and far (Acts 1:4-9).

The church of Jesus doesn’t do a good job of being witnesses and making disciples. To do so requires an outward perspective, yet most all churches have an inward focus: they care for their own to the peril of outsiders, with many churches excelling in doing so.

Yes, God values community and wants us to meet together (Hebrews 10:25). And the Bible is packed with commands and examples of worshipping God, with Jesus noting that “true worshipers” will worship God in the Spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24).

Most churches do the meeting together part reasonably well, albeit with varying degrees of success. Many of those churches have a time of worship as they meet together, though perhaps not always “in the Spirit” or even “in truth.”

Yet few churches look outside their walls in order to go into their community to witness and make disciples. Though Jesus said to wait for the Holy Spirit, he didn’t say to wait for people to come to us, to come to our churches so we could witness and disciple them. No, we are supposed to leave our church buildings to take this work to them. We can’t do that at church on Sunday morning, safely snug behind closed doors.

Yes there is a time to come together and a time to worship, but there is also a time to go. And we need to give more attention to the going part.

I know of two churches that have sent their congregations out into their community on Sunday mornings, foregoing the church service in order to be a church that serves. One church did it a few times and stopped after they saw little results and received much grumbling. The other church regularly plans this a few times each year and garners a positive influence on their community.

Shouldn’t every church make a positive impact on their community? Yet so few do. They are too busy meeting together and worshiping.

In terms of witnessing and making disciples, what would Jesus think of your church’s activities? What should you do to go into your community?

Are You One of God’s Chosen People?

Isaiah tells the people that God will choose them again, but did he ever stop?

Are You One of God’s Chosen People?One phrase jumps out from today’s passage in Isaiah’s prophecy to God’s people: “once again he will choose Israel,” (Isaiah 14:1, NIV). God, through Isaiah, gives his people hope for a better tomorrow.

At this particular time, however, God’s people are discouraged; they feel he has abandoned them. They have no reason to celebrate; they have no cause for joy. God, it seems, has turned his back on them; it feels like he has left.

In reality he’s giving them a timeout, a deserved punishment to get their attention over their repeated disobedience. He wants to remind them of who he is and how they should act.

Yet they despair. They call out for him, desperate for a response.

But God delays.

Yet as he tarries he offers them hope for a better tomorrow. He promises he will choose them once again.

He chose them in the past, and he will choose them in the future. And though they don’t realize it, he chooses them now. But they don’t see it; they don’t feel chosen.

We all have times when God feels distant, when it’s hard to pray, when his voice remains silent, when faith falters. Some people call these the dry times or their desert experience. Yet God will choose us again.

The reality is that God never un-chose us. We remain chosen by him – even when we don’t feel like it. We are his chosen people. May we remember to act like it.

Do you feel chosen by God? Are you in a desert place waiting for him to choose you again? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Isaiah 14-17, and today’s post is on Isaiah 14:1.]

Why We Need a New Vision for Sunday School

Designed to teach illiterate kids to read, Sunday School needs to reclaim its vision of community service

Is ESL Classes the New Sunday School?Quick, what is the purpose of Sunday School? Your answer is likely that Sunday School is intended to teach children about God. Yet, that is not why Sunday School was first started. Sunday School was launched as a community service to teach underprivileged children how to read. Yes, they used the Bible to do so, but I suspect that was as much pragmatic as strategic.

By the time public schools took over this task of teaching children how to read – thereby making Sunday School obsolete – it had become an entrenched institution within the church. To ensure its self-preservation Sunday School morphed into something else. It became what it is today: a means to teach kids about faith. Never mind that parents should be doing that.

So despite having fulfilled its objective, Sunday School lives on.

I had all this in the recesses of my memory when I read Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s excellent book From Times Square to Timbuktu. As one small part of a much greater theme, he shares about his church that started English as a second language (ESL) classes to serve the area’s immigrants (page 103). That grabbed my attention.

Connecting the dots, I suggested to Wes that ESL classes could be the new Sunday School. Indeed, ESL better matches Sunday School’s original mandate to serve the community by teaching kids how to read than it does functioning as an internal Christian education tool for lazy church parents.

Just as teaching reading was once a community service effort provided by the church, so too, churches can now offer ESL classes to serve their local community. While the children of immigrants will learn English in school, both directly or indirectly, who will teach the parents, who lack such opportunities? Though some ESL programs exist, there is still a void. And who better to fill this need then the local church?

Who better to serve the community than followers of Jesus? After all, Jesus came not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45).

We, as his followers, should do the same.

Can your church offer ESL classes to serve your local community? What are other ways Sunday School can reclaim its original purpose? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

[This is from Peter DeHaan‘s February newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

Is Going to Church a Spiritual Discipline?

Two weeks ago I wrote that a spiritual discipline is something we do to draw closer to God or to honor him. To be of value we need to do this willingly with joy and in anticipation. I gave 17 possible disciplines to consider. Going to church wasn’t on the list.

Is Going to Church a Spiritual Discipline?Should going to church be included as a spiritual discipline? Reflect on three spiritual disciplines that touch on the practice of church attendance:

1) Community: This is simply spending time with other people who follow Jesus in order to form meaningful spiritual connections. This can happen at church on Sundays; at least it should. Yet at too many churches community doesn’t happen at all, and for other churches the community is superficial. Plus true community can happen at times other than Sunday morning. And that community is often richer.

2) Sabbath: We treat one day a week differently than the other six. I’ve been looking at the Old Testament Law about the Sabbath. I keep reading that it’s a day of rest; I also see that we are to keep it holy, but so far I’ve not read that we are supposed to go to church on the Sabbath. Besides sometimes we pack our Sabbaths so full with well-meaning spiritual activity that we end the day exhausted, not rested. I doubt this pleases God.

3) Worship: A third spiritual discipline that could relate to Sunday morning church attendance is worship. Yes, we can worship God at church on Sunday mornings; we should worship him there. But we can also worship him on other days, at other times, and in other places.

I go to church on Sundays in expectation of community, and sometimes I worship God while I’m there, but I don’t find it restful. I do go in hopes of drawing closer to God and to honor him, so I meet the first two parts of this being a church discipline, but the willingness factor is often missing, while the attitudes of joy and anticipation are things I must strive to conjure up. I pray for all three of these mindsets each Sunday morning.

I suppose that going to church on Sunday mornings emerges as a spiritual discipline for some people. That might explain why I attend, but as spiritual disciplines go, I do a poor job at it.

Why do you go to church? Is church attendance a spiritual discipline for you? Do you go willingly with joy and anticipation? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Do You Remember the Last Sermon You Heard?

I’ve heard several thousand sermons in my life. I can remember parts from about six of them. Not the whole thing, just parts. Seldom does the recollection of one message even make it to the next Sunday. More likely I’ve forgotten it by the time I make it home – or even to the parking lot. That’s bad news for preachers.

I remember someone once asking, “What has God been teaching you lately?”

“Well,” I reply, “I heard a really great sermon on Sunday.”

“Cool! What was it about?”

I’m silent for a while. “Gee, I can’t remember – but I know it was good.”

I guess that’s why preachers often review last week’s sermon before they launch into a new one.

Some sermons are long and others are short. Some are shallow and others, deep. Some contain clever sound bites and others spew dry theology. Some preachers are accomplished communicators and others have trouble stringing two coherent thoughts together.

Do You Remember the Last Sermon You Heard?Their common trait is that the words are largely forgettable. Though I can usually walk out of church with one key thought, it is fleeting. I don’t gain new knowledge, no lasting change occurs, I don’t connect with God in a deeper way.

Even though the sermon is the focus at most all Protestant churches, it falls short of significance most every week – at least for me. That’s why I don’t go to church to hear the sermon or even for the music. I go for the community. That’s why I’m going today.

Why do you go to church? What’s your favorite part? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Do We Control Our Smartphone or Does Our Smartphone Control Us?

SmartphoneFor a long time I resisted getting a smartphone. It’s not that I’m technologically adverse; I love technology. And it’s not that I didn’t see how beneficial it would be to have Internet access anytime, anywhere. It’s that I worried about how having a smartphone might affect my interactions with others or distract me from fully experiencing what was happening around me.

I’ve seen too many examples of people fixated on their smartphone: texting, surfing, checking Facebook, tweeting, or playing games, all the while ignoring the people and events around them. Smartphones give us the ability to isolate ourselves in a roomful of people. I wanted to avoid that struggle, so I avoided buying a smartphone.

So when I finally succumbed to smartphone inevitability, I wanted to make sure I controlled it, instead of it controlling me, the things I did, and when I did them. Smartphones are adept at alerting, beeping, and shaking to get our attention, usually distracting us from something more important. The person I am with should (usually) take precedence over the person calling, texting, or emailing. The situation I am in should (usually) take precedence over the news or information waiting inside my smartphone. I intend to master my smartphone, not be mastered by it.

I want to be like Paul. He says, “I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Peter puts it a different way: “People are slaves to whatever has mastered them” (2 Peter 2:19). Though these men never struggled with smartphone interruptions, they seem to fully understand its threat.

Let’s live in the moment, and keep our smartphones in our pockets.

Has your smartphone ever gotten in the way of living life? What other things do you need to control better? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

[This is from the June 2015 issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter. Sign up to receive the complete newsletter each month via email.]

Experiencing Christian Community

My wife and I attended an-out-of-town wedding. We know both the bride and the groom well, having walked with them towards this joyous day. They met while attending seminary.

The overall ceremony was typical of most Christian weddings, but with enough subtle variations to give it added spiritual significance. Without singing a song or listening to a sermon, it was like attending a church service – only better. And the best part was still to come.

We knew many people at the reception. With some, we maintained contact, to varying degrees, since we moved out of the area. For others, we unintentionally lost connection. But in all cases, our reunion was grand. We talked about family and work, with God at the center and sometimes as the focus. Faith filled our interactions. We praised God, both directly and indirectly. We testified of his work in our lives and through our lives. He has provided; he has shown us love; he has poured out blessing. We spent hours in deep, spiritual community. It was good.

We went to witness a wedding and as we did, the happy couple intentionally pointed us to God. Then we relished in the spontaneous spiritual community that erupted afterwards. As we celebrated their union, we celebrated God. What could be a better way for them to start their lives together?

Eventually we had to leave. We drove home, full from the meal and overflowing from the kinship we shared. My soul was satiated.

Today is Sunday and attending a church service is part of our plan. I have little interest in going; I feel no need. We enjoyed “church” last night and today’s effort will surely pale in contrast. Yes, it could be a spiritual experience; we may enjoy meaningful community; but I doubt it will be a celebration as we had last night.

Why can’t church be more like a wedding, celebrating God in the midst of real community? I think that’s how it should be; I think that’s what he wants.

Two Types of Church: Institutional and Organic

There are two types of church in the Bible, and there are two types of church today.

In the Old Testament, there is the temple. At the temple, the priests lead worship and guide the people, as instructed by God through Moses. The Levites provide support to keep things functioning smoothly – at least that’s how God wants it to work. Old Testament temple worship is institutional, with much structure and strict procedure.

Institutions mandate order, reward conformity, and maintain the status quo – whether it’s good or bad.

In the New Testament, the people who follow Jesus start meeting together. They don’t have a building, so they just hang out in public places and meet in people’s homes. There are very few instructions for what they do, with little oversight in how they do it. However, they do eat meals together, share their belongings, and encourage one another. They live in community; it is organic. New Testament church is organic.

Organic gatherings nurture spiritual growth, adapt to their environment, and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit – regardless of what’s planned or expected. Organic is, at times, also messy.

Today we see a plethora of options for church; most are institutions, few are organic. Most churches follow the pattern of the Old Testament: they have a building, paid staff, and leader-led worship; structure and procedure are their guides.

Few churches are organic, truly following the pattern of the New Testament. Though I do encounter these types of organic spiritual experiences, they aren’t frequent or regular – and they seldom happen on Sunday morning.

My wife feels it’s important to go to a church on Sunday morning; I feel it’s important to hone my faith in organic community.

If only we could do both at the same time.