God in the Present-Tense

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”  –Isaiah 43:19
 
 
 
 
            It is easy for people to get stuck in the past.  One of the problems the Israelites had was that they did not know how to grieve well.  They kept looking back to a golden age when they came out of Egypt and entered the Promised Land.  And when things began to break down in Israel and in Judah, they kept looking back instead of dealing with God in the present.  Rather than lamenting their losses, they just wished things were different.  When any church or any believer refuses to do the biblical work of grieving a significant loss or change, then the ghosts of the past roam everywhere.
 
No one can effectively move on into the future unless they confront the stark reality that things have changed and can never be the same again.
 
            They can, in fact, be even better, but that will not happen apart from doing the hard work of identifying our denial of the way things presently are, dealing with our anger, stopping the bargaining with God, defeating the depression, and coming out the other end accepting the new reality.  The Israelites were in exile.  It was not their new normal.  It was their present station of history.  God was ready to take them back to Jerusalem, but they were stuck in depression.  Jerusalem would never be the same city again, and they had to resolve to accept it.  But acceptance is not cheap; it takes a difficult journey to get to that point.
 
The healthy way to view the past is to see ancient miracles like the exodus be re-enacted in fresh ways for the present. 
 
When churches and Christians no longer experience God in creative, new, and fresh ways in the present, they are limited by their memories of what God once did back there in the past.  If we keep talking about the same things in the same ways, telling the same stories, we portray a God to others who is not present to us in the here and now.  It is time we talk about the God we know today.  If we only live off past experiences with God, we will be unable to connect with God today.  We need to tell present-tense stories of God.  When God is sealed in the past he becomes just an interesting person to be theologically studied and learned about, like any character from history.  But today God is alive!  Now, in the present, God wants to do a new thing!
 
            God is most definitely changeless is his character and attributes.  But that does not mean God is not into change and doing new things.  In fact, God’s work is to effect transformation in the lives of people who need redemption and new life. 
 
What kind of picture about God are we painting for people? 
 
That God is boring, lifeless, careless, or uninteresting?  The proof that something is alive is that it grows, develops, changes, and matures.  The new plants in our gardens and fields are undergoing astonishing growth and development.  What they are like now is quite different than what they will look like in August and even different than October.
 
            To simply state the matter:  new, different, creative, exciting things need to happen in the church today in the present.  As long as those things do not happen in the church, people will believe that God is dead or just does not care, that is, if he exists at all.  Because God is alive and works in the present, Christ’s church is to be alive with spiritual momentum, biblical drive, and Christian proactive love.
 
If we are continually underwhelmed by church, we will not be overwhelmed by God. 
 
When we look at Jesus, we get a picture of God.  We see a Savior who walks on water, raises the dead, and amazes the crowds.  Christ’s unpredictability led many to have a new and more accurate picture of God.  Jesus came to reveal who God is, to give us a good picture of him (John 14:8-14).
 
            Through his life on earth, Jesus revealed to us a God who is compelling, powerful, relevant, passionate, unpredictable, exciting, personal and present to his people right now this very day by means of the Holy Spirit.  The church everywhere has been given the assignment to reveal God to the world.  So, whenever the church seems boring, irrelevant, powerless, lifeless, and stuck in the past, people conclude that God is all those things.  When the church becomes like a stagnant pond it portrays the wrong image of God to the world.  What the world needs, and we believers must have, are churches that allow the awesome God who is gracious and powerful to stand out and be present to us all. 
 
To be present to God is to be alive to the possibilities that God’s Spirit wants to effect in the present. 
 

 

May it be so, to the glory of Jesus our present and eternal King.

Do We Change, or Not?

 
 
I had just one grandparent when I was growing up.  My Grandma was seventy-nine years old when I was born, and she lived to be ninety-seven years old.  So, I always knew her as an old lady.  But she had a lot of spunk to her, all ninety-five pounds of her.  I remember she had an old wooden cutting board in her kitchen.  I don’t how old it was, but it was probably purchased from Methuselah’s Kitchen Outlet.  It was cracked and nearly falling apart.  The board had deep furrows in it from the thousands of cuts made on it.  Grandma liked her cutting board.
 
            For Mother’s Day one year my Dad bought her a nice brand new cutting board.  And guess what my Grandma did?  She put the new board in the back of her cupboard and continued to use her nasty old cutting board.  Whenever my Mom or my sisters were in her house and helped her in the kitchen, they were not about to touch that old board because it was like a bacteria trap with its deep grooves.  But Grandma didn’t care about bacteria or that it was falling apart.  When my Dad asked her why she did not use her new cutting board, she simply answered, “Oh, it is much too nice to use.”  But we all knew that was just Grandma’s way of saying that she liked her nasty old cutting board, and didn’t think it was all that bad.
 
            Sometimes churches and Christians can be like my Grandma, bless her stubborn old heart.  They just like the way they do things, and really don’t see what another person sees who doesn’t know Jesus.  They just don’t realize that unsaved people have absolutely no emotional attachment to the cutting board; they just see a nasty old board that they would never use.
 
            Sometimes we don’t realize how overwhelming and even intimidating church can be for someone who needs Jesus.  Because we are around our respective churches all the time, we don’t see what others see.  Just imagine being in a new place with people you don’t know.  Are you nervous?  Does it help to have someone you know bring you and introduce you to people?  Is it beneficial to have someone let you know what is happening and what is going on?  I remember walking into a beautiful new church building and sitting down and seeing a huge old pulpit that was literally falling apart.  Since I’ve been around a lot of churches, I quickly discerned it was likely the old pulpit from the old church building.  It was.  But, honestly, I had zero emotional attachment to the pulpit, and it was a distraction because it just looked like a big old ratty collar on a new puppy.
 
            The point is this:  The decision to change our lives, or not to change, must be motivated by upholding a biblical purpose and a scriptural value.  Our purpose is the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).  Our values are the Great Commandment (love God and love neighbor).  We are to make disciples, and, as believers in Jesus, we are to be characterized by our devotion to teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer in such a daily manner that others are coming to know Jesus (Acts 2:41-47).  So, how are we holding up to that template of the Christian life?
 
            If our purpose is people coming to know Christ, then we are always to be making decisions based upon that standard.  If any church is reaching new people for Christ and helping them to grow spiritually, then there is no need to change – there is nothing to be fixed.  But if the church has not seen a person come to faith in Christ in the last year, right there is a significant reason to change.  If a church has not seen anyone come to Christ in the last five years, that church is eating meat prepared on a cutting board full of bacteria and it is making that church sick.
 
            Have we known Jesus Christ for so long that we take the old cutting board for granted and just expect other people to use it if they are in our kitchen?  Or do we have a vision, a motivation, and a driving desire to see people, a lot of them, come to saving faith in Jesus Christ?  If you don’t like empty seats or pews in your church, then the biblical solution to it is to change our lives, change our practices, change our speech, and change our daily behavior by reaching people for Jesus and adding them to the church.  Change, or the lack of it, for any other reason than evangelism, is the wrong reason to change.
 

 

            Just so you know, after about a year sitting in my Grandma’s cupboard, my Dad took out the new cutting board, put it on the kitchen counter and threw away the old board.  It was about time.

Change without Compromise

 
 
The church is called to conform not to the world, but to the reality of new life in Jesus (Romans 12:1-2).  God himself has said, “I am making everything new” (Revelation 21:5).  God is doing the work of transformation.  God is doing an extreme makeover, brain edition.  In other words, if you have never changed your mind about anything in the church, then you will not be able to discern God’s will because we are called to transformation.
 
            The church is called to change its methods and means of delivering God’s truth without altering the message itself.  The church needs to be a clear reflection of who God is and what he does.  This means the church must be relevant.  It must communicate God’s truth and hope in the language of the culture it is situated.  If I say to you:  “The sacerdotal implications of infralapsarianism are holistic yet interdependent in scope and complexity,” I am speaking the language of professional scholastic theologians.  But if I say to you: “A clear explanation of God’s truth is important for our deliverance from sin,” then you understand what I am saying.
 
            Yet, this is how many people feel about the church, as if we are speaking in some secret code with secret practices.  Being irrelevant is really the compromise to truth.  Followers of Jesus are Ambassadors for Christ.  An ambassador’s job is to learn the language and culture of the nation to which he/she is assigned so that they can represent their country well.  An ambassador does not need to adopt the values of the other country, but the ambassador does need to relate to the other country in ways that are relevant and understandable.
 
            Truth never changes.  But the delivery of truth does and should change.  When I was a kid, I lived on an Iowa farm.  Every year we had a huge garden full of sweet corn, rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries, potatoes, tomatoes, radishes, carrots, peas, and every kind of vegetable under the sun.  Beginning as young as age four it was my job to water that big garden every day twice a day.  We had an old well with a hand pump.  It typically took eight to ten pumps to get the water up and several more pumps to fill the bucket.  It took a lot of buckets to water the garden.  I was so small that I literally had to jump on top of the pump and use all my weight to make it work.
 
            I did this every summer for years.  Then one year my Dad had a new well dug.  A new pump was put in and I did not need to hand pump water into buckets anymore.  In fact, I could get a hose out, hook it up to the new pump, use a sprinkler and sit in the sun and just watch the delivery of the water to the plants.  Praise the Lord!
 
            The water didn’t change.  It was still the same life-giving water that the garden needed.  But the delivery changed.  It would be ludicrous if I would have said to my Dad, “Dad, I’m a pump guy.  If hand pumping water into buckets was good enough for you and for my grandparents, then it’s good enough for me.  I don’t know how this new pump works, but I’m against it.  In fact, this newfangled well and pump is evil.  If anybody uses it they’re going to hell.  I’m not touching it.”
 
            Here is a crucial question that every church and Christian must ask today:  If the church is really concerned about getting God’s truth and Christ’s gospel of grace to people, then what is the best delivery system available today? 
 

 

            When the church does not do everything in its power to communicate God’s truth to people in a relevant way, then that church is not following in the way of Jesus.  Therefore, the focus in decision-making within the church is to determine the best delivery system for the water of eternal life.  So, when it comes to the environment, the music style, and the language, we must be relevant.  We use these things to deliver truth so that people might connect with Jesus and have their thinking renovated, their minds cleaned, and their lives improved to the glory of God.

The Challenge of Change

 
 
            People are all for change – we just typically want everybody else to change but ourselves.  Just say the word “change” in a church and you will get responses from some guy going apoplectic about not changing ‘on his watch’ to another person lamenting loudly over the lack of change within the congregation, to every response in-between.  Peter Steinke, a respected church consultant who deftly applies systems-theory to congregations, has made the most basic of observations:  “Change is a magnet for emotional reactions.”
 
            Every church leader has inevitably run into an emotional buzzsaw when attempting some sort of change, whether minor or major.  When people feel they are losing control or not getting what they want from a proposed change, they might try and throw a monkey wrench in the whole deal through some means of sabotage.  Yes, it does happen in churches.  People do not always play well or fair.  There are individual parishioners who will go to almost any length to have things their way or keep an existing system entrenched.  As a result, some pastors and leaders wither under the pressure, afraid of the emotional reactivity that might result from implementing some sort of change.  But when we take up the mantle of leadership, like Nehemiah of old, we regulate ourselves to staying on task even when the naysayers and saboteurs look for a way to frustrate the vision (Nehemiah 6:1-15).
 
            It must be kept in mind that every healthy living organism will grow, change, and reproduce.  Churches that never change are unhealthy.  At the least, they are just plain ineffective at ministry; at the worst, they become stagnant pools dispensing spiritual death.  But good outcomes can and do happen as leaders take courage to address issues and implement change without abandoning the goal.  The Apostle Paul stated the goal like this:  “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8-11).
 
            Sometimes, we as church leaders do not immediately think like Paul.  We desire a successful ministry, full of resurrection power, but neglect the bald reality that there must be suffering.  You cannot have a resurrection without having a death.  Paul embraced suffering and death as the means of attaining new life.  It would be sage for us all to reflect on this and how it applies to our ministries.  Change is typically a slow, often painful process, of dying to self and old ways and re-awakening to a new spiritual life of knowing Jesus Christ.  In order to truly know Christ, we will experience difficulty.  Our congregations are going to know Christ not by always having their way and/or never having to endure the hardship of change.  No, they are going to know Christ through sharing in his sufferings.
 
            Resistance to change will come.  Bank on it.  Plan for it.  Anticipate it.  It will happen. I have to admit that I am no expert in this area.  I have made more mistakes and flubbed more ideas and attempts at ministry than you can possibly imagine.  From the school of hard knocks, here is what I have learned:  it takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to move an existing congregation to a new way of seeing and living; and, there needs to be a biblical goal in order to stay the course and realize transformation.  I believe the best goal is to help people know Christ better, and introduce people who don’t know him to a new relationship with Jesus.  All our strategic plans need to keep on track toward this grand pursuit of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.
 

 

            So, what will you do to help move such a goal forward?  How will you work together with others to achieve knowing Christ?  In what ways will you deal with the inevitable resistance to change?  What things do you need to put to death in order to realize new life?  Where do faith, hope, and love fit into your plans for growth and change?  Let’s all pray for one another, so that we come to maturity in Christ together, knowing Jesus better and living and loving like him in all things.  So may it be.  Amen.