How Much Do You Sacrifice in Your Worship?

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess his name. Hebrews 13:15 (NIV)

I have some favorite t-shirts that I love to wear around the house because they are so comfortable. The collar is all stretched out and doesn’t strangle me. The shirt is nice and loose and doesn’t hug my expansive chest, I mean gut. And the fabric is so thin you could still get sunburned if you wore it out in the sun. But I don’t wear it out in the sun or anywhere else for that matter. It’s really not something I want to wear out in public. It’s strictly a “house shirt.”

Some of us in the church tend to throw the word “sacrifice” around like a comfortable old t-shirt. We can quote memory verses and sing praise songs about bringing our sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord, but doesn’t really translate well outside of church. The word “sacrifice” is part of our church vernacular, one of those words we call “christianese”. It’s used a lot inside the church house, but rarely ever outside of church. I think part of the reason it rarely gets used outside of church is because we don’t really grasp what it actually means to sacrifice in worship.

In the Old Testament, the worship of our Hebrew ancestors was based on animal sacrifices. The worshiper would bring the best of his flock or herd and sacrifice it on the altar. But Jesus changed all that when he offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice on the cross. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, followed by his resurrection, his followers are free from having to offer blood sacrifices as a means to worship.

Today, we are called to bring a sacrifice of praise. Hebrews 13:15 describes that as the “fruit of lips.” We speak and sing our praise by confessing Jesus as the one true God worthy of worship. But then the writer of Hebrews adds this statement in verse 16, “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”

The sacrifices of praise that please God are when we do good and share with others, in other words, when we put the needs and desires of others before our own. When it comes to corporate worship, our sacrifice of praise could actually be the sacrifice of our preferences. Instead of demanding our way, we can choose to live in harmony with our church community and sacrifice our own agendas and desires, so the church as a whole can come together in unity and offer our worship together in one voice and one heart.

Maybe I need to do what my wife suggests and “sacrifice” my old comfortable t-shirts…Nah!

Popularizing the Gospel?

Since the day Christ commissioned his followers to be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth,” (see Acts 1:8) the church has been striving to faithfully fulfill this God-sized mission. Indeed, the church has grown from a floundering, persecuted little Jewish sect into a world-wide movement over the past 2000 years.

Throughout our history the church’s first and foremost challenge has always been the need to translate the good news of the gospel into the language and the culture of the people so they could understand it. The missional term for this is “contextualization.” The church must find ways to communicate the gospel to every new culture in order for our message to be understood and received.

But this contextualization does not only apply to the foreign mission field, it also applies to the mission field here at home. The church in America today is slowly realizing the very culture in which we live is experiencing major changes, and as a result, needs to “re-contextualize” the gospel for this new post-Christian culture.

But I’m afraid many of us in the church are ignoring this challenge or we are accepting it only on our terms. Some of us spend most of our time bemoaning and demonizing the post-modern culture, instead of finding ways to contextualize the gospel in more effective ways to reach this new “foreign” culture. We are acting on the premise of that old song, “Give Me that Old Time Religion,” thinking to ourselves, “Since it was ‘good enough for my father’ and ‘good enough for me,’ it ought to be good enough for this next generation.” But it’s not; at least not in the “context” of old-time religious forms. The gospel is the same, but the style and context needs to change.

Others of us have accepted the challenge to contextualize the gospel, but we have only done so in the context of Sunday morning. We’ve put all of our eggs in one basket and decided to invest most of our energy trying to make the worship service the only place where we contextualize the gospel, in other words, change to a contemporary music style. While this may be beneficial in many ways, I don’t believe it’s the answer to reaching post-moderns for Christ.

In reality, when it comes to Sunday morning, I think the church in America has spent most of its energy trying to “popularize” the gospel, not necessarily contextualize it. Contextualization is about engaging the culture while popularization seeks to emulate the culture. Contextualization is about adjusting the style in which the message is presented while popularization tends to adjust the message itself in order to make it more acceptable. Contextualization is more concerned about maintaining integrity while popularization concerns itself with maintaining image. Contextualization values authenticity while popularization values production.  Contextualization is driven more by love while popularization seems to be driven more by pride.

I know it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people, but I worry about how far off course some churches have strayed when I see the amount of money and resources that go into weekend “productions” led by the young and attractive. It’s as if we are trying to convince the world, and ourselves that we can love God and be hip at the same time. I can’t tell if our main motivation is about getting the world to accept Christ or to accept us. I guess we all still have a desire to be popular.

Oscar Romero, martyr of the church in El Salvador, said, “A church that suffers no persecution but enjoys the privileges and support of the things of the earth – beware! – is not the true church of Jesus Christ. A preaching that does not point out sin is not the preaching of the gospel. A preaching that makes sinners feel good, so that they are secured in their sinful state, betrays the gospel’s call.”

Please understand this; I’m not pointing one finger at anyone without three more fingers pointing back at me. I’ve fallen into this pit many times through my three decades of ministry. I’ve spent more time and money than I care to admit on trying to popularize the gospel by updating the church’s image and attractiveness. Instead, I should have been leading the church to be honest with God, the world and ourselves about who we really are; a dysfunctional family who doesn’t always get along, that is filled with insecure and fallen people of all ages and appearances, not just the young and the beautiful, encouraging each other as we journey together seeking to contextualize the gospel while living in two cultures; post-modern America and the Kingdom of God.

What do you think? Have you seen churches that tend to seek popularity over the integrity of the gospel? Have you seen churches that are able to get this right; contextualizing the message that engages the current culture but without becoming driven by a deeper need to be popular at any cost? Which is worse in your mind; a church that “popularizes” the gospel or a church that does neither and maintains the status quo?

What’s Buggin’ You? Part Two

Last week I shared my saga of battling the horse fly. (You can read about it here.) I compared my story about how I handled that mutant horse fly with how we all tend to deal with the more dangerous pests we each face. Pests like: greed, anger, lust, and any number of addictive behaviors.  When I shooed the fly away, it only gave me temporary relief because, as it turned out, I became deliriously paranoid that it was hiding somewhere close by preparing an attack. Instead of shooing it away, what I should have done was kill it…exterminate the sucker! If I had been able to kill it, I could have avoided embarrassing myself in the QT parking lot dancing around swatting at imaginary bugs.

So let’s take a closer look at how we can exterminate some of the pests that are truly bugging us, things like envy – that leads to jealousy over a coworker’s salary or position, greed – that leads to stiffing a waiter on a tip or cheating on our taxes, lust – that leads to sexual temptation that can then cause us to act out inappropriately online or in person, or perhaps it’s anger – that left unchecked becomes an out-of-control temper that can permanently damage  our most cherished relationships. The Bible tells us to put these and other sins to death, to crucify the sinful nature. (see Galatians 5:24) But that’s easier said than done. Most of us spend our lives just trying to “pray it away” or “white-knuckle” it through sheer willpower, only to find ourselves deeper and deeper into hopeless despair and defeat.

Jesus said he was “the Way” and Paul in many of his letters talked about showing followers “a more excellent way.” For centuries the church has seen Christianity as a “way” of life, a practice, not a philosophy or a program. In the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, they still continue teaching a “three-fold way” as the best practice in putting these sins to death. When someone converts to Christianity, they are introduced to this practice and then taught to follow it throughout their lives. The three steps include; Purging or Self-examination, Illumination or enlightenment, and Unification or harmonization. This three-fold way is a practice where Christ-followers are encouraged to take inventory of their lives and confess all their sins, intentionally and individually. (Today, we are more inclined to just pray, “Forgive all my sins.”) Then they continue to allow God to clean house by shining his light in every nook and cranny of their lives. In the third practice, the believer is so filled with the power and light of God’s grace, he becomes a conduit of grace to others. This is all done in community with other believers. Community is essential in the three-fold way, just as it is in any successful life-changing practice.

When I recently discovered this three-fold way, I realized how far off course the evangelical church has traveled from these early church practices. We tend to focus on conversions and baptisms and Bible study but neglect anything else that the church has historically practiced over the past 2000 years. But in recent years, evangelicals are rediscovering these ancient practices and embracing them in their own spiritual formation. You can learn more about these and many other spiritual disciplines in a set of books entitled “The Ancient Practices Series,” edited by Phyllis Tickle.

Those of us familiar with the 12 Step program of AA will recognize the similarity of the three-fold way of purging or self-examination with the 4th Step, “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” I have found the 12 Steps are a great tool to begin crucifying my sinful nature. Working the 12 steps has been beneficial in helping me cope with my pests that bug the fire out of me. My small group and accountability team challenge me when they see me merely swatting at my character defects and encourage me to work at killing them permanently. That’s the only way to be free from the “Return of the Mutant Horse Fly!”

If you would like more information about a Christ-centered 12 Step program, check out Celebrate Recovery.

What’s Buggin’ You?

It was one of those rare, but gorgeous days in between the last two major heat waves when I decided to go for a drive with my windows down. I love driving “al fresco” with the wind in my hair, left forearm getting a nice burn. But before I got very far I decided I better get some gas, so I stopped by Quick Trip for a fill-up.

Just as I went to reach for the pump, I noticed a HUGE horse fly sunning on the nozzle. I mean HUGE… somewhere between the size of a VW Beetle and a Single Engine Cessna.  Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but believe me when I say it was HUGE with all capital letters. Now, I’m not one to act afraid of bugs (in front of my wife), but she wasn’t there, so I anxiously stood there a minute contemplating my next move. I didn’t want to touch him or her (it was HUGE, but I still couldn’t determine its gender) because I’ve been bitten by horse flies before and they hurt like crud. So, instead, I decided to kick it off.

I had temporarily forgotten that I was actually 53 years old and hadn’t actually kicked anything since the Jimmy Carter presidency, so my aim was a little off. Instead of hitting the bug and killing it as intended, I kicked the hose instead, sending the bug to flight. With my hamstring throbbing from shock and my balance sending me into temporary vertigo, I lost sight of the flying mutant. It just sort of disappeared.  But where did it go?

Did it fly up my shorts?

What was that I just felt down there?

Was it on my back crawling towards my neck?

Was it in my hair?

Now envision me standing there not only thinking these thoughts, but also acting on them. The people coming out of QT must have thought I was attempting to start a flash mob, doing the Macarena right there in the parking lot. But I never could find any trace of my invisible dance partner. I thought about going into the restroom and doing a body scan, but was afraid it would get loose in the store and frighten all the customers. Instead I just shrugged it off and told myself that the bug had moved on to find a genuine horse’s behind, the kind that was actually attached to a genuine horse.

But then as I got back in the car, I feared the horse fly may have flown into the open window of my vehicle seeking refuge from the spastic old man. Now what should I do? What if I get on the road in the middle of traffic and the horse fly decides to take revenge on me? This could lead to my tragic demise or to the deaths of any number of innocent people unfortunate enough to be in the path of my car.

I’m happy to report that I never saw that horse fly again. But it got me thinking, is that how we tend to experience other “bugs” in our lives? You know… those things that bug us and pester us like gnats on a hot, humid day. Things like anger, pride, fear, unforgiveness, lust, envy, bad habits, and addictive behaviors. Do we just sort of “shoo” them away, only to live in fear that they come back and bite us in the behind later? Galatians 5:24 says, “And because we belong to Christ Jesus, we have killed our selfish feelings and desires.” We need to put to death those things that bug us and bite us, not just swat them away. Otherwise, we will constantly be living in fear of future attacks. The only way to deal with bugs is to exterminate them. In my next blog, we’ll explore possible ways we can do just that.

So, what’s buggin’ you?