Galatians 5 and Freedom

Yesterday I finished the rough draft of a paper I’ve been working on.  It is one in a series.  Not sure what will become of them yet.  This one came out to be 12,000+ words.  I’ll share it once I’m done editing.   Here is an excerpt from it. 

Only in the environment of loving others can we cast off the chains of sin.  Discipleship is not an act of isolation.  Rather freedom from sin grows in the soil of mission.  Only once we have joined God on His mission to reunite the world to Himself can we live as priests.  If we want to pursue holiness we must throw ourselves fully into serving others.  We must make sacrificial, die-on-the-cross-for-others love the motivation behind all our actions.  Paul affirmed this in his letter to the Galatians.  Writing to Christians struggling with whether or not they should pacify the ritual and rule following religious folk by being circumcised, Paul said:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.  Mark my words!  I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.  Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.  You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.  But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love…You, my brothers, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.  The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.  For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.  They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.  The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  (Excerpts from Galatians 5)

It is worth taking a moment to break down Paul’s argument a piece at a time:

  • The Galatians were freed from slavery to idols when they gave themselves to Christ.  To adopt rituals and rules (the manual approach to discipleship) would be to enter back into slavery.
  • Rather than entering back into the rituals and rules to pursue holiness (righteousness), the Galatians should believe that the Spirit is at work.
  • This faith is not expressed through legalistic manual building.  It’s expressed through loving others.
  • This is the purpose of our freedom.  We are not free so that we can party like wild children and not fear the consequences.  We are free from rituals and rules so that we can join in God’s mission and love others.
  • If we are living by the Spirit, loving our neighbors as ourselves, then the Spirit will develop in us things like joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, etc…  If we are instead living a life a self-focused sinfulness then idols will take root in us and our lives will be full of drunkenness, hatred, fits of rage, jealousy, lust, etc…

I’ve spent years sitting in classrooms learning the rituals and rules, listening to sermons explaining how various aspects of the manual work, and journaling about what a horrible sinner I am hoping the force of my inner strength will crush the idols around me – all in the name of discipleship.  The ironic truth is all those things served to focus me more on myself and in the end re-enslave me making the Law my master.  If I had just gotten up from the pew, walked out of the classroom, focused less on myself and taken the hungry homeless man on the corner to lunch I would have given the Spirit much more furtile soil to work in.

Galatians 5 and Freedom

Struggling with My Consumer Christianity

I’ve been processing what it means to have a lifestyle centric definition of church a lot lately.  If you want to jump to the beginning of the conversation click here.

Many will claim that one of the biggest problem with the American church is the consumer mentality of attendees; and I agree.  We come.  We sit.  We listen.  We leave.  We choose our church by whether or not we have been “fed” by the preacher, or moved by the music, or made comfortable by the security and appearance of the children’s programs.

Some of you right now, who don’t believe you have a consumer mentality, are wondering what is wrong with picking a church by their children’s program.

Am I saying that we should accept crappy unsafe programs for our kids and nobly attend a church that is broken and doesn’t inspire us simply because it is around the corner?  Am I saying that the solution to consumerism is that we all dutifully attend worship services we find irrelevant?  Am I saying that to avoid consumerism we should practice rituals simply because they are provided and not judge their quality?

No.  That is not what I’m saying.

What I am saying is that we shouldn’t define ourselves as “attendees” to begin with.  Defining ourselves as attendees of a church assumes an activities centric definition of church – that being part of a church means participating in a set of activities.  There is no where for this definition of church to lead accept to consumerism.

The first wave focused on combating this consumerism mentality I observed  (keep in mind that I am only in my early 30’s) was the push for “service.”  The theory went something like, “We need to combat consumerism by getting attendees serving in the church.”  So we, the church leadership, provided tons of places to serve – the worship team, sound team, ushers, Sunday School, ministries in the community, etc… The concept was that if you could move people from sitting in the worship gathering to serving in a ministry you would encourage spiritual health and shift people away from consumerism.

But for many of us this only created a funnel effect where most showed up to watch a few serve like crazy.  And in my experience it didn’t heal the consumerism.  Many of those serving like crazy still wanted to be consumers.  They had simply stepped up like martyrs to take on the responsibilities no one else wanted.

Now we are in the middle of this “missional” conversation.  The theory seems to be that to combat consumerism we need to teach and encourage people to see themselves as missionaries.  We need to call them to “be Jesus” in their communities.

Sadly, unless there is a direct assault on our definition of “church”, I fear consumerism will continue to plague us.  We must address this broken understanding that the church is a set of activities we participate in.  As long as church is defined by our activities we will operate as consumerism.

Addressing this I’m learning is no simple task.  Forget addressing it with others…I’m simply talking about combating the consumerism within me.  You see, shifting to a lifestyle centric definition of church – in which being part of a church means living a common lifestyle in the world – is rough.  It demands a massive amount of personal responsibility on my part.  Showing up to stuff is so much easier.

When we first started the Thingy (the church Wendy and I are a part of that gathers on Monday nights) this was a major struggle for all of us.  Shifting from the centralized leadership providing activities focused on spiritual growth to taking responsibility for our own spirituality was rough.  A year and a half into this journey some of us still talk about it.  I constantly catch myself planning big events or asking myself, “So when will a time come when I can just show up to something?”  There was even a period of detox for all of us – a time of intense frustration and pain where we longed to just be consumers.

At the same time.  While the transition away from consumerism has been hard, I’ve never felt more alive in my faith.  I’ve never been closer to Christ.  I’ve never felt so in tune with the New Testament.  For so long I would read scripture and feel my spiritual life was completely disconnected from it.  There were so many things Jesus said that made no sense to me.  Moving to a lifestyle centric definition of church was like removing a veil.  All of a sudden passages that never made sense started connecting.  All of a sudden I felt like a part of the story, not just a reader.

The shift is hard…but it is worth it.

Struggling with My Consumer Christianity

The Adjacent Possible – What I’m Learning about Change

I’ve had the privilege of witnessing a lot of change during this past year.  I’ve watched individuals and institutions struggled with massive shifts in thinking and behavior.  Seeing all of this go on around me has helped me reflect on my own transformation and how I operate as a change agent…and I think I’m learning some stuff…maybe.

Recently I was listening to the Radio Lab pod-cast and picked up a phrase that has brought more depth to my understanding of how change works – “adjacent possible.”

By the by, Radio Lab is fantastic.  If you have and inquisitive mind and currently aren’t listening to it, I would recommend you go try it out.  Not only is it entertaining, its brilliantly informative and creative.

The episode that brought about my current enlightenment is called “What Does Technology Want?”  It is a conversation between Robert Krulwich (one of the Radio Lab hosts), Steven Johnson (author of Where Ideas Come From), and Kevin Kelly (author of What Technology Wants?).  One of the things they talk about in the episode is how ideas develop.  They make the point that people in medieval times could not have conceived of the internet because the necessary steps to the idea of the internet hadn’t been made yet.  Ideas, they explained, develop through the “adjacent possible.”  Change is evolutionary.  To achieve something the proper steps of development have to happen first.

One of the deacons at Valley, a brilliant leader who I admire, pointed this out to me earlier in the year.  We were talking about large system change in the organization and he made the statement, “You have to take people there in steps.  Before they can do it themselves they need to see someone else doing.  They need transitional moves.  They can’t just take a huge leap from A to B.”

I’ve observed that this is true about personal change as well, not just organizational change.

I will put myself up as my own example.  Why were Wendy and I able to embrace the ideas of guys like Alan Hirsch and Neil Cole so quickly?  How were we able to turn on a dime, move away from institutional church, and start thinking about being the church differently?  There were two steps that made the evolution in our thinking possible.

1) My parents were missionaries.  We heard and saw the missionary lifestyle through them.  Missional theology therefore wasn’t such a hard leap.

2) We experience a form of the Cell church model while we were in college.  It made the shift from institutional thinking to more organic thinking easier.

So now I’m really struggling with this statement – “before a leap from A to B can be made by an individual or an organization the adjacent possible has to be present.”

If this is true, should I be approaching change differently?  The vision-centric approach I’ve been taught says put the new picture out their and have people conform to it.  Give them the big end vision and start working to it.  The adjacent possible model (I think) would argue, don’t flood people with the whole all at once.  Work them in a series of steps putting the next necessary step of evolution before them, helping them move toward the goal a little at a time.

The problem is, this concept assumes we can figure out what the steps are toward the goal.  Is that even possible.?

Welcome to the chaos of my mind.  Pull up a chair and join in.  I would love to hear the thoughts of others.

The Adjacent Possible – What I’m Learning about Change

What about house churches? Activities Centric or Lifestyle Centric?

This is a continuation of a discussion.  Jump back to the start by clicking here.

The title “House Church” encompasses so much stuff that even simply defining the model is hard.  Some describe every church that meets in a house as a “house church”, but this definition isn’t helpful because it brings a massive amount of variety under one umbrella.   I’ve known of house churches, for example, that are worship obsessed.  They sing.  They dance.  They do crazy worship stuff that makes me uncomfortable (like Holy laughter…I’m not down with the Holy Laughter).   I’ve known of other house churches that are super institutionalized.  Even though their are only fifteen adults in the room, they have a paid pastor and deacons.   They take up an offering; and they belong to a large denomination. I’ve known other house churches that are all about freedom. There is no planning for each gathering beyond time and place.  “What ever the Spirit leads us to do we are going to do,” a leader once told me.  The point is, there are so many different types, so many different expressions, that the term “house church” really isn’t helpful…but it is out there so we have to use it.

I’ve seen a lot of people moving into these smaller venues of worship in hopes of recapturing vitality in their faith.  “Maybe if we get away from the crowd” they think “our faith will be better.”  Often there is someone in the back ground holding a piece of scripture describing how __________ church met in a house telling everyone that if they would just go small everything else will fix itself.

Just as a side note – the Thingy (the church who gather on Monday nights that Wendy and I are a part of) is not a house church.  We don’t even meet the simplest criteria because we don’t always meet in houses.  We’ve met in restaurants, parks, coffee houses, and back yards.  Really we will gather wherever we can find space for our kids.   I once got in an argument with a Baptist reporter about this.  She was doing an article for the state Baptist paper on all the different church plants going on in Baltimore so she asked me for the name of our group.  I replied, “Well, we intentionally don’t have a name; but we refer to ourselves the as Thingy because we have to call ourselves something.”  She condescendingly said, “Well, I’ll call you in the article ‘the Hamilton House Church.'”  That she thought she could name us really made me angry.  It was on like Donkey Kong.  In the end she ignored me and did what she wanted to.

Back on topic now…

In my experience, house churches are usually comprised of people trying to escape the institutional church setting.  They’ve been burned by church, or they hate the money involved in the institution, or they are put off by obsession with growing the organization, or one of a thousand other bad tastes have formed in their mouths.  They go to the house church model because they find the intimacy of the small group setting refreshing.  It’s different than where they have been so on the outset it has an exciting momentum about it.

Sadly though, in my limited experience, house church people rarely address the underlying issues that brought about the institutional model of church that frustrated them.  They attack the symptoms not the problems.  For example, they leave the large gathering because they are angry about the consumerism it encourages, but they never take the time to figure out what caused that consumerism in that large group setting, so they end up duplicating it in the house church.  After a time they find themselves in a room with 15 adults who want to be fed rather than sitting in a room with 150 adults who want to be fed.

So while I would like to say that moving your faith into a smaller venue will help you move from an activities centric understanding of church to a lifestyle centric understanding of church, the truth is it won’t.  The activity you define church as will simply have less people and you will get to sit on a couch instead of in a row of chairs.

A friend of mine gave me a great illustration today that I’m going to blantantly steal.

When the foundation of a building is cracked you can repaint the walls all day long, but you won’t fix the building that way.  If you hope to fix the building you are going to have to address the foundational problems.

Moving to a lifestyle centric understanding of church doesn’t happen automatically because there are less people in the room…although it is easier to change the hearts and minds of a small group of devoted friends than a mass of attendees.

What about house churches? Activities Centric or Lifestyle Centric?

The Assembly Line that Makes Me Feel Great

Jackson and Julianna’s school is fighting to develop new ways to educate urban kids.  I have learned so much from them in the past two years about myself, about organizations, about education, about leadership…and about church.

Which is funny because it is not a Christian school.  It is a public school lead by brilliant people who are seeking justice for inner city children.

The leadership at the school consistently struggles to explain their vision of education to parents like me.  One illustration they use that has touched my soul is of an assembly line.  (I’m probably going to mess this up some…bear with me.)  They explain that our contemporary form of education was developed during the industrial revolution, the same time as assembly lines and factories.  The system, because of the context in which it was developed, is focused on producing factory type workers in assembly line style.  We bring the kids in.  We sit them down in rows.  We tell them what they need to know.  Then we test by asking them to regurgitate it back to us.  Critical thinking, creativity, and individualization are spoken of but not valued by the system.

Instead, these wonderful educators say, we need to recognize that kids speak a thousand languages.  Yes learning the information is important; but even more important is developing the skill to process it and create with it.  Yes having a foundational instruction is necessary, but not all kids learn in the same way.  Some are visual learners.  Others are auditory.  Others need to experience it.  Others need to feel it.  The truth is every kid learns in many different ways.  Education then, these leaders have taught me, must to personal.  It must be individualized to the child.  No more assembly lines.  Let’s replace them with communities that learn together, embrace each other, and encourage one another to learn.  Teachers move from being experts to living as students of the children they seek to empower.

What breaks my heart is that I see this same problem in our churches.  We bring the people in.  We ramp them up with music.  We then lecture them about life change.  Even when we break them into smaller groups, there is no room for customization.  There is no room for individualization.  We want every group to look the same.  Do the same stuff.  Learn in the same way.  Connect to one another as we, the experts, have deemed is the most effective way to connect.

And from this assembly line mentality our activities centric definition of church has arisen.   Now making the assembly line more effective is the point.

And here is the real problem for me.  I like the assembly line.  I like standing in front of large groups of people and speaking.  I like looking at systems on a white board and strategically planning how to move people from one environment to another.  I like writing curriculum for masses.  I like looking at statistics and debating numbers.

I like it because it makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something.  The problems of the city are so large.  When I am working on a mass of people it feels like I’m getting something done.

And there is the rub.  The church assembly line isn’t really about individuals.  It is about me.  It helps me feel like I’m making a difference.

Individualization is hard.  Sitting over coffee with one person, helping them work through their issues can be discouraging.  Trying to come up with a new strategy for each person you are discipling is tiring.  Not teaching crowds on cool subjects like “A Righteous Marriage”, not writing a series on the latest T.V. show or fad; but rather trying to figure out the core stuff everybody needs and keeping it simple with intense discipline so others can be creative with their own expression of it is tedious.

But it is wonderful because when I focus on individuals I see Jesus in them and am called to worship God as I have never been called before.

The leaders of my kids’ school are killing themselves to change the paradigm because they love kids and want to see them become the absolute most successful adults they can become.

If we, church leaders, also love our people and want them to become more like Jesus everyday, to experience the abundant life more today than yesterday shouldn’t we also be killing ourselves to change the paradigm?

I would be lying to you if I were to say moving to a  lifestyle centric understanding of church was easy.  Its not.  It hurts.  It is a journey full of self-doubt.  I consistently have to kill my ego – that voice within me that starts thinking movements, or masses, or anything beyond the individuals right under my nose.  Every time I put it to death its painful.  Repentance is demanded.  Confessions have to be made.  Surrender has to come.

Yet while the journey may be difficult, it is beautiful; and I am thankful that I live in such a time as this when I have the privilege of embarking on it.

The Assembly Line that Makes Me Feel Great

Activities Centric vs. Lifestyle Centric – The Example of Abraham

To get a basic overview of this topic click here.

It is one thing to hammer away at a problem, to point at something and say over and over, “This is broken.”  It is altogether a different and more challenging thing to offer an alternative.

I’m still processing all this myself and don’t fully have it defined…even so, in between describing what is broken (activities centric definitions of “church”) I want to give examples of what I believe we should be striving for.

Let’s start at the beginning – Abraham.

Genesis 12 marks a shift in the Biblical narrative.  Up until this point the stories have been fantastic and written in a mythical style.  Suddenly in Genesis 12 the stories become much more concrete.  They are stories we could imagine happening today.  This shift begins with a conversation between God and Abram (who God will later rename Abraham).   The conversation is foundational to the Biblical narrative.  It sets the ground work for the rest of the story.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.  And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

From the very beginning of the story it is not about activity.  Relating to God is not about doing certain things or following specific rituals.  There is a lifestyle, a redefinition of a person who in faith goes on mission with God, at the center.  God doesn’t lay out any rituals for Abraham to perform.  There are no rules for Abraham to follow.  Abraham’s relationship with God is defined by his lifestyle of journeying with God.  Activities during that lifestyle are going to come and go…but the journey remains.

Our definition of what it means to be followers of God, our definition of what it means to be the church should likewise revolve not around the things we do but rather our common life as people on mission with God.  Activities come and go.  They are simply tools – means to an end.  The end is the journey with God, joining Him on His unexplainably awesome mission to bless the world.

We must keep our lifestyle of imitating Jesus centric and hold our activities loosely.

Activities Centric vs. Lifestyle Centric – The Example of Abraham

Activities Centric vs. Lifestyle Centric – Playing it out some more

Like I said in my last post, I’ve been working this idea out recently and it has helped me explain a lot of stuff so I thought I would share it.

Over the last three years I’ve had to defend my missional thinking a lot.  What’s been strange is that when I explain it people are usually cool with the theology.  It is the practice they fight with.

Believers love talking about how…

  • …God is on a mission and we need to join Him in it.
  • …we need to be imitating Jesus and living out the incarnation by seeking to be “little Jesuses” in our communities.
  • …we should not seek to reach the lost by trying to attract them to a worship service but rather by loving and serving them where they are.
  • …every believer she see him/herself as a missionary to the community.
  • …leaders should see themselves as servants commissioned by the people to encourage and equip the people for their lives as missionaries.

All of this believers will overwhelmingly agree with.  Many have even rightly argued to me that this is how Baptists (the denomination I grew up in) have thought for a long time, that these statements are actually a return to Baptist theology.

Then when I begin to explain that these ideas caused Wendy and I to question and change the things that we do often believers’ attitudes will change.

When I encourage individuals to find a group of people in their community that they are going to love (a group he/she has been sent to) rather than build large group, top down organized ministries because the organized group ministries tend to turn believers into servants of a centralized vision, gears in a machine, the individuals become frustrated with me.   Even though they agree that the organized ministries don’t value their individuality as sent missionaries on mission with God, they will fight to keep them.

When I explain that the way we’ve been gathering together for worship (singing, announcements, more singing, some kind of offering, sermon, more singing) isn’t the most effective way to encourage and equip people to live as missionaries; that it tends to turn believers into spectators dependent upon the professionals to lead a show they minimally participate in at best; that we need to include dialog and debriefing from their time on the field, the believers get mad at me.  Even those that find no spiritual vitality in their  Sunday morning ritual will fight to keep it exactly like it is.

When I talk with believers about our systems, the whole picture of activities we do together, and explain how we need to keep them simple, minimal, and based on empowering others to be “little Jesus’s” rather than piling on more activities that pull us further into isolation, believers become angry with me.  Even those who agree that we do to much, that the last thing we need is another Bible study, that we need more time with people in the community to build intimacy through which the Gospel can flow…even those believers will fight to hold on to their current system and work to build upon it.

These conversations over the last three years  have left me to ask “why?”  How is it that as followers of Christ we can believe one thing and then practice something completely different?  How is it that brilliant men and women, captains in their professional fields, followers who are passionate about Jesus struggle to line their practice up with their belief?  Our practice does not enforce or build up what we believe, but we struggle to let go of the practice.  Why?

The problem is that our definition of what it means to be the church is activities centric.  We define “church” by the things we do.  Being part of the “church” means participating in this stuff.  We have this lifestyle, this way of being, that we find in Jesus.  Then we have these activities that we have done since before any of us were born.  At some point the activities were based on the lifestyle.  At some point the activities were tools that encouraged the lifestyle; but for most that has ceased to be true.  Now to be a member of our church means to participate in certain activities.

What is funny to me is that the previous paragraph should be offensive.  People should come to me with piles of evidence proving that our current practices do encourage us to be missionaries in our communities; evidence that shows that the way we are doing things is bringing justice and righteousness to our cities, that it is helping us to join God on mission, rather what I’ve experience is that very few people that will defend their activities in that vain.  Instead they argue that while their activities don’t encourage a missionary lifestyle, other good things come from the activities.  People find a feeling of family in the activities.  People have been drawn into a relationship with God through the activities.  Or that the community built through the activities has sustained them through difficult times in their lives.  Therefore they love the activities and find a sense of belonging inside the activities so they want to keep them.

I get that.

I understand.

And I’m not saying that the activities are bad.  I’m not saying that good stuff doesn’t come out of them.  I’m not saying that Jesus doesn’t use them.

What I am saying is that if we can all agree that we should be living a missional lifestyle (what I described above), if we can all agree with the thinking that every believer should be on mission with God, and if we can agree that for the vast majority of us our current activities do not effectively encourage and equip us to live that lifestyle

shouldn’t we then be willing to change and morph our activities until they do?


What I’m saying is that the activities we do (the Bible studies, the worship services, the ministries, the meetings, etc…) are supposed to be a means to an end…not the end themselves.  They are supposed to accomplish something.  They are supposed to be tools we use to build disciples.  When they have stopped effectively

accomplishing that end then they need to be reformed or let go of.  When the tool stops doing the job, we either need to put it down are start using it differently.

The end is discipleship.  The end is this lifestyle that Jesus called us to: a lifestyle of love, of healing, of justice, of calling people to return to right relationship with their loving God.

We must return to a lifestyle centric understanding of what it means to be the church and start holding the activities we do together loosely.

A lifestyle centric definition of church.  Not an activities centric one.

Activities Centric vs. Lifestyle Centric – Playing it out some more