Archives For Mystery

Why are we drawn to beautiful things? Why do 3.5 million people visit Yosemite National Park every year? Why do we plant flowers, paint our house, choose just the right car, have a closet full of clothes, go to art museums? We are drawn to beauty and to beautiful things, and there is a reason for that. John Piper is quoted as saying “There is in the human heart an unquenchable longing for beauty.”

Do you think of the local church as a place of beauty? Probably not. The local churches of today have come a long way from the cathedrals of Europe. Instead of soaring and lofty architecture, we have warehouse boxes or strip mall slots that serve as our houses of worship. Instead of structures that lift our eyes upward toward God, the only things we see when we look up are heating ducts and electrical conduit. Granted, we paint those mechanical albatrosses flat black so they ‘disappear,’ but it still just isn’t the same as the towering spires and vaulted ceilings.

I had never heard a sermon on ‘beauty’ before. At least not that I can remember. Do a concordance search on the word ‘beauty’ or ‘beautiful’ and you will get a lot of material. The Bible has a lot to say about beauty. So why, in 54 years of church attendance, had I never heard a sermon on beauty? Regardless of the unknown answer to that rhetorical question, this past Sunday I heard a sermon on beauty. It was powerful, and amazing. Dawn and I looked at each other after the service and in essence said the same thing to each other: ‘that was the best sermon I have heard in a long, long time.’

The pastor of this local church, a mere 10 minute drive from our house, expounded with great conviction and freedom on how all beauty points to God, the Ultimate Beauty. “From Mount Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines in glorious radiance” (Psalm 50:2). We have a deep longing for this Ultimate Source of Beauty, so we are drawn to beautiful things on earth: mountains, sunsets, symphonies, architecture, clothes, flowers, fabric, sonatas, and so much more. These things of beauty draw us to the Source of beauty. But sometimes the earthly things of beauty can become idols and take our focus off of that Source. Usually when we find something beautiful, we want to share it. “Hey, check out the amazing sunset! Quick, look out the window!” Just as we should desire to share the Ultimate Source of Beauty Himself.

It opened my eyes to new dimensions of the world around me. It gave me a new, deeper understanding of why my wife was always redecorating the house, and perhaps made me a little more willing to paint the walls a different color, yet again! God was so present in this average-sized local church. This past Sunday was the first week they had gone to two services: the first service was more traditional with choir and hymns, while the second was more upbeat with the classic rock-style worship band. It was in so many ways so typical of so many churches. And, as in so many churches in so many places, it was a living, breathing, Holy Spirit infused expression of the Bride of Christ. It was alive and well. It was beautiful!

And it got me thinking. Should we incorporate more beauty into our places of worship? Into our homes? Into our lives? Of course, with the awareness that this earthly beauty should always point us to the ultimate Source of beauty. But what are we missing by being drab and mundane? Does our view of God get skewed when we don’t have ‘enough’ beauty in our lives? I would love to hear thoughts from our readers on this topic!

Everyone wants to be part of a church where they are somebody. They want to feel a sense of belonging, a part of the whole. We want our pastor to know us and love us and care for us. We don’t want to be a number on a stat sheet, or a just a chair-filler in a worship service. Nothing wrong with that, since the Bible is full of admonitions about the shepherd caring for his sheep. But how does that work in a “megachurch”? I decided to find out.

This was big, really big. And confusing. I wasn’t sure where the entrance was, where the worship center was. It was a like being on a college campus with numerous buildings and never quite being sure where I was supposed to go. But I plunged in. I wanted to see what worship was like at the infamous mega-church—10,000 worshippers at five weekend services.

The first thing that impressed me was that I found a parking spot that was walking distance to where I thought I was supposed to go. Impressive, especially since I am not a fan of large crowds, or of parking shuttles from distant parking lots. The next thing that impressed me as I walked in and found a seat was the ethnic diversity of this church. It was as if I had entered the throne room of heaven where worshippers from every nation and tribe and people and language express their adoration to the Lamb. I actually had to turn around and look at the faces of so many different races, all worshipping the same Savior. This is the Body of Christ as it some day will be!

But what really caught my attention is that this pastor knew his people. And his people responded to him. There was a shepherd-sheep connection that was unexpected for such a huge church. His preaching was directed specifically to his people. And they were engaged. Listening, taking notes, responding to his tender calls for interaction. It struck me that there are pastors of much smaller churches that do not have this kind of knowledge of their people. It reminded me of Jesus whose sheep know His voice and follow Him.

Another significant impression I took from here was that the name of Jesus was exalted and lifted high. They were just beginning a series on Revelation and it was made very clear that this final book of the New Testament is all about Jesus. King Jesus. Savior Jesus. Lord Jesus. Messiah Jesus. The one and only name worthy of our praise and worship and allegiance. It was so encouraging to realize that this mega-church had not been distracted from her main priority.

I fully acknowledge that one visit to a public worship service cannot paint a complete portrait of a local church. But I also realize that one visit is a fairly significant indicator. I have attended churches where one visit was all it took to realize that there was trouble in that place. But as I left this gigantic expression of the Bride of Christ, I was so encouraged. Here was a pastor that knew and loved his people. Here was a local body that was a reflection of the ethnic diversity that is the Body of Christ. Jesus was central, and His name was exalted. This was a beautiful expression of the Bride of Christ, an earthly, localized Bride that is deeply in love with her Groom.

It is always a struggle to make communion meaningful. I have taken communion my whole life. When I was a kid growing up in a Baptist church, communion Sunday simply meant that the service would go extra long. As a pastor, I always grappled with the texts and rituals to make communion meaningful yet again. Didn’t always work. Sad to say, I have lost a lot of the beauty of the communion elements of the bread and cup.

So this was most unexpected. We were simply trying out a new church in the area, doing a reconnaissance to see what it was like, to see if I should recommend students attend here, that sort of thing. Neither of us was expecting to be moved, touched, like this.

It was a church of some 400-500 people and they had two morning services. The music was very well done—there were some hints that the worship leader had Hollywood connections in the recording industry. The senior pastor was away on vacation or something, but the staff pastor who preached was rock solid. His style was far more classroom type teaching than preaching, but good meat nonetheless.

It wasn’t a particularly friendly church—only one person talked to us. We made it through the gauntlet of donut tables, coffee stations, and door greeters without a single personal contact. Even the door greeter didn’t say anything or hand us a bulletin. We had to go back later and ask for one. But OK, I guess that is pretty normal.

This is a church that has communion every week. The plate of tiny wafers is passed, then the tray of juice cups. It is done near the end of the service with little or no instruction. Each person can take the elements when they are ready. A bit new to us, but OK. I can flex. As I held the broken body of Christ, and a symbol of His blood, I found myself deep into the presence and communion of Jesus. I was not expecting that. I have sat through hundreds of communion services, and unfortunately can be pretty numb to the beauty and mystery of the elements. But something was different. I was swept away.

We stood to sing the final worship song, and something or Someone filled my soul with such love and emotion that I could not sing. God was truly present in this place; the mystery of the cross became incredibly tangible in a quite intangible way. Tears came down my cheeks, and I realized my wife Dawn had been moved in the same way.

We didn’t know a single person there, still don’t. Only one person talked to us. There are no doubt lots of problems and issues—marriages in trouble, board members who don’t like the pastor’s vision, some who thought the music was too loud or soft or modern or old. But this place is the Body of Christ, the mysterious bride. And that is where the Bridegroom likes to be—with His bride. He was there today, and He revealed Himself in a mysterious way through the elements of communion. So cool. So mysterious. So supernatural. So unexpected.

How often do we expect the unexpected at church? Have we lost our sense of the supernatural and the mysterious?

In my previous post, which initiated this series on the mystery of the church, I opened up a potentially deep and painful wound about how the church seems to be dysfunctional. It seems best to explore this a bit more before we take our exploration tour of various expressions of the Bride of Christ.

Why is the church so dysfunctional? (Let me be clear—that is a broad generalization. There are many healthy churches, as I will demonstrate in this series of blog posts!) At the risk of gross oversimplification, let me suggest a few thoughts:

First of all, the church is made up of sinful, dysfunctional people in relationship. We are all sinners saved by grace and are in process. Growth is painful, messy, and uneven. There are bound to be mistakes made along the way, which inevitably will hurt someone. What married person has not hurt their spouse? What parent has not disappointed and hurt their child? Where there is love and relationship, there will be pain. Period.

Secondly, and quite frankly, much of the pain we experience within the context of the church is at least partly of our own doing. We were deeply hurt just a few years into full time ministry. My leadership was rejected and we were told we shouldn’t even be in the pastorate. It hurt. Deeply. We nearly lost our house to foreclosure. There were physical ailments within our family because of the intense emotion. And so on. But in hindsight, I recognize that my leadership was pretty lousy—it was taking the church in the wrong direction, and the elders knew it. Granted, they handled it poorly. But don’t we all handle things poorly at one time or another? I handled leading the church poorly; they handled addressing the situation poorly. People got hurt. But Christ-like character developed in many lives. We were all the richer for it, and today my wife and I consider ourselves blessed to have suffered in this way early in ministry.

But even if the source of hurt is not of our doing, God has a purpose. The church by definition consists of followers of Jesus, and Jesus is in the business of making us more and more like Him. Scripture is clear that the process of spiritual growth includes pain and suffering—a lot of pain and suffering (see James 1:2-4; Hebrews 12:3-11; 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10. Seriously, read these passages!). I am a better person, more mature, more ‘seasoned’, more Christlike, because of the hurts I have endured. And you are too, if you have allowed these seasons to train you in righteousness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11). We need to be reminded that Jesus was misunderstood, rejected, betrayed, abandoned—all of which eventually led to His undeserved execution. He deserved none of it. Christlikeness, by definition, requires undeserved rejection and suffering.

But what of those churches that grieve us because they are missing the point. They are in-grown with a fortress mentality. Their entire existence is about sustaining their comfortable institution and familiar practices, rather than making disciples of all the world. Their battles are over music style and what color to paint the nursery, rather than fighting the good fight of faith. What of them? I don’t have a great answer to that one, except to reiterate: the church is made up of sinful, dysfunctional people. And sin and dysfunction rears its ugly head in many different forms, including self-serving fortress thinking.

So where do we land? These are a lot of random, rambling thoughts that hopefully strike a chord with some of you. But let’s get beyond the negative and quit viewing the glass as half-empty. Let’s change our perspective and see the glass as half-full. We acknowledge that the church is not perfect. But you know what? The church is the glorious bride of Christ, the bride for whom He died, shed His blood, offered salvation by grace, and loves unconditionally. God has entrusted to the church the task of taking the Good News to every ethnic group. The church is the only institution that God has ordained. He has given New Testament instruction to the church. We must see the church as primary to the plan of God. I can’t wait to show you some pretty cool ways that God is at work in the church—yes, churches that are imperfect and dysfunctional in some ways, but still infused with the Holy Spirit and doing good things for the Kingdom! Here we go!!

I am a pastor. My dad is a pastor. My brother-in-law is a pastor. My great-great-grandfather on my dad’s mother’s side was a pastor. I have gone to church my whole life—literally. I have attended a lot of churches, and been the pastor of a few more. Some of those churches I didn’t like. Some of them were good; some not so good. But what makes a church “good” or “not so good”? What does that even mean? I have been hurt by the church, and I have no doubt hurt some people in the church. Does that mean a church is not so good if people get hurt in it?

I talk to a lot of people who have been hurt by the church, and it grieves me. Many of these people claim they still love Jesus, but just want nothing to do with “organized church.” I know more than a few people who have rejected Jesus and His gift of salvation, arguably because they have been so hurt by the church and the hypocrisy therein. So we see a huge upswing in the “house church” movement where there are no elders, or pastors, or constitution, or business meetings, or buildings to maintain. The goal is noble—let’s return to the church doing what the church is supposed to be doing and forget all the politics. But is that the best answer? Is not every genuine local church an expression of the glorious Bride of Christ?

So what is going on here? The church is, after all, the glorious bride of Christ, the bride for whom He died, shed His blood, offered salvation by grace, and loves unconditionally. The whole institution of marriage is to picture the incredible relationship between Christ and His bride, the Church (Eph 5:32: This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.) Why is it so dysfunctional?

After many years of full-time pastoring, I have shifted gears. I now serve as Director of Church Relations for Eternity Bible College. A huge part of Eternity’s ethos is centered in the local church. Every student needs to be part of a local church, have a ministry in that local church, and be mentored by someone from that local church. A big part of my job is making that stick.

So my wife and I attend a different church every weekend, or at least, most weekends. That allows us to learn about these churches and therefore allows us to better pair up a student and a church. It struck me what a unique opportunity had been handed to us: I get to travel around and witness firsthand this mysterious thing called church, body of Christ, ekklesia, in many different places and expressions. It is an opportunity I don’t want to waste. I want to share it with you.

I have slowly realized that this is part of God’s prescription for me to heal, to recover from my cynicism about the church. For I too have been hurt by the church and been pretty cynical about ‘organized church.’ This journey is helping me recover, and maybe it will help you too.

I’ll be posting my thoughts somewhat regularly on this blog under the heading of “The Church Is a Mystery” so that you can journey with me through many different houses of worship and see how God shows up at church. Most of them will be in Southern California, but there may be an occasional odd location thrown in here and there. My guess is that God will show up in some pretty mysterious ways in some pretty unexpected places! After all, this is His Body we are talking about!