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Finding a Healthy Church

By Brian Congdon

Healthy ChurchOver a span of about 25 years I have seen only a handful of churches in person I would consider “healthy.” Although rare, these churches were so skilled and effective at their mission that it would be hard to imagine anything better. For example, one of the best spirit-filled churches I know of was a small church of only about 200 people. Based in Walla Walla, WA, this church possessed the most outstanding men’s ministry I have seen anywhere, to this day. The Spirit of God was poured out on this place and people like few others. During my time there I met and fellowshipped several times a week with great men. Several took me under their wing and never stopped offering generous counsel and words of wisdom. Many solid relationships emerged from spending time in this church. These mentors served as loyal friends, encouragers, and fathers to many; they were extraordinary men. They spoke healing and fortitude into many lives, constantly giving and serving those in need unselfishly. They never had a need or desire for public recognition.

I have secretly dreamt of finding another church like the small one encountered years ago in Walla Walla, but have never seen another quite like it. I am reminded that with great moves of God, there are seasons, and the plentitude may last quite a long time, but is still limited to a season. Unceasing growth is not always healthy. For reasons we know very little about, these seasons evolve and then suddenly change course or disappear altogether. One day we abruptly discover the “water spout” closed. Contextually, it then becomes error to attempt to open what God has supernaturally closed, and unwise to build lifelong dwellings next to a dried up oasis. Like Moses, an obedient believer must leave the comfort of familiarity to be driven out into a barren (desert) wasteland by the Spirit. Jesus did it. How about Joseph? Yes. Paul? Check.

It is not necessary to recount the shortcomings of the prosperity Gospel in the West. Due to increasing media coverage and the embarrassing public foibles of several prominent evangelical ministries over past decades, the culture views “prosperous” or “mega” ministries with a very skeptical eye. And they are justified (not critical) in doing so. Said ministries’ underlying value systems are inward-focused, anthropocentric, and occasionally even anti-kingdom, no matter how cleverly presented or dressed down in supposed humility. To say so is not a blanket statement, since some of the most effective ministries in existence, in terms of conversions and developmental, long-term change, are very large in size (e.g. Hillsong Sydney).

It is not usually a matter of quantity that engenders malaise, rather, mindset. God is very aware of the motives and hearts that drive such a machine, and does not stand in condemnation, rather, sends warnings and confrontation to effectuate redemption. One could term the really bad ones “life-sucking” instead of “life-giving.” Sometimes I wonder why it is even necessary to have video cameras rolling in every single service. Some churches capture all 3 services in one day, then put one or more of the best recordings online. Maybe watching all 3 versions in simultaneity will make you grow faster? I think this is a waste of time and effort, even if it is run by a well-oiled volunteer machine. Why not focus more energy on developing relationships and training congregants through discipleship?

On the other hand, there are some churches that truly shine with their media and television ministries. Though critics always surface from out of the woodwork, and the bible-thumping blogosphere has little tolerance for “Christianity Lite,” I have found Joel and Victoria Osteen’s ministry to be highly beneficial and yes, hope-inspiring. For those who endure seasons with no church family, “the smilin’ preacher” speaks an anointed word, imparting palpable courage to go forward in strength and conviction. He is one of the best encouragers out there. He and his wife minister to the nations every week, all from inside a single, massive building (or city?) with a television broadcast. “Friends, if you prayed this prayer we believe you are now born again. Get in a good Bible based church. Keep God first in your life. He’ll take you places that you’ve never even dreamed of.” He may be a bit theologically shallow at times, but perhaps it is deliberate – the invitation is supposed to start with a simple, free grace gift afterall. He can be psychotherapeutic too, but it is amazing what will happen when someone eagerly seeks to obey God. Life flows. Needs are met. The Spirit of God can show up in ways that defy all logic and church management techniques.

A genuinely healthy church is the product, first and foremost, of people with a right heart. To arrive there, we must undergo a thorough reality-check. Bypassing this step is bypassing God. To be challenged into a position of accurate alignment with God’s heart, is synonymous with godly love. Transformational agape is not a psychological feeling. A core aspect of the prophetic, and the Fatherly heart of God for that matter, is for His people to turn in their hearts toward Him. John the Baptist prepared the way for the coming of our Savior and a paradigmatically new Kingdom. He did so by offering the baptism of repentance.

From a worldly, man-centered, and misguided life (everyone’s testimony for a season or three) we are confronted in love with a superior way. This way is the only way, and direction, worth going in. That it is the only way does not mean experiential monotany for every individual. In the style of the GEICO man in suit and tie, one eyebrow raised, “Does a Baskin & Robbins ice cream shop come with only 1 flavor?” Following this way, there is hope and purpose, and rescue from the clamoring imitations, and shiny yet hollow promises of the Babylonian experiment we are in but not of. Cradled in the arms of the One who singularly saves, and deeply planted in the company of a vibrant church body, we can finally say “I’m home!”

To get there, a re-alignment of mind, heart, and will is strongly recommended. Without the clarion call to repentance, all the church programs, ministries, and activity, are meaningless exercises. The contemporary Church is sleeping. A shift must begin with a wakeup call. The faithful need Kingdom truth stripped of dogma, passé teaching, and christianeeze talking points. Old patterns of “doing church” can and should be replaced with a death-resurrection model which points to the Cross, exalts the character of Christ, and beckons believers to follow in the pattern of Christ. People from all walks must taste and see living, life-giving examples of the love and exemplary death of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, there is little point to Sunday morning. Change may be hard, but the wide road alternatives, lest we be fooled, are actually much harder when viewed through a ‘lifetime’ lens. Instead, let us willingly and boldly choose to be part of the new generation of leaders God is raising up for His eternal purposes!

Effective Evangelism

By Brian Congdon

EvangelismEffective evangelism is the product of a heart burning for the cause of the unreached, the defenseless and voiceless. There is a compassion and desire for disseminating the hope of salvation and relationship with Christ which drives the evangelist. Its effectiveness is most obvious when the evangelist lives a specifically identifiable lifestyle, pointing to the likeness of Christ.

Kenneth Boa’s Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation, describes various approaches and examples of evangelism in the New Testament. “Scripture illustrates different methods of evangelism, and three of these are proclamational, confrontational, and relational. The apostle Peter used a proclamational approach in his sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). About three thousand souls were added to the family of God that day (v. 41). Philip the deacon illustrates a confrontational approach in his one-time encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39). All of us are called to represent Christ, but a few believers are given a particular gift of personal evangelism that enables them to be effective in sharing the gospel without first developing a relational history with outsiders. The relational approach is portrayed in the apostle Paul’s description of his intimate personal engagement with people in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:1-12).”

Barriers to evangelism stem from misconceptions of the task, held by both Christians and unbelievers. Many Christians are reluctant to present the gospel intuitively sensing it may result in rejection. Unbelievers who have had sour experiences with forceful, insensitive ‘would-be’ evangelists will view all contact with Christians through giant eyes of skepticism. And the truth is that they are right to feel this way. Charlatans and some who were not even born-again have taken it upon themselves to force condemning interpretations of doctrine down people’s throats. Unfortunately, this has pre-polluted the atmosphere needed for successful evangelism and gospel presentation. The next and possibly most important barrier to evangelism is learning how to let one’s life to speak. It will always be tempting to shout out what we know in a way that makes us feel powerful and noticed. The trick, however, is to let personal character and lifestyle, do all the talking.

In general, the power of God is desperately needed in the church today. Doctrine borne out of cessationism has threatened to squelch the Holy Spirit altogether in some churches. Young people in particular, unless drawn to religion for performance-reward reasons, are not likely to be impressed with a stale, powerless, philosophical sermon series in a church. The power of God, demonstrated in myriad ways, with theologically sound underpinnings, will draw young people in droves. For example, Hillsong church in Sydney, Australia has a worship ministry which powerfully draws in the lost and ministers life in an undeniable, free-flowing Spirit way. It is truly exciting and attractive, not dull and repetitive, or worship track monotony as some churches specialize in.

A great way to make the gospel relevant is to bring it to the community by meeting their needs. This is highly effective outreach and doesn’t require others to join a church. Rather, unbelievers and strangers alike can freely become the recipients of outreach and blessing. One strategy as practiced by a local church in the Vienna, VA area, is to offer free ice water to thirsty cyclists along the 45 mile W&OD (Washington and Old Dominion) Trail. Most leave refreshed and merely say “thanks,” while some start up a conversation that may lead to sharing Christ. Overall, their kind and generous actions speak much louder than words.

The Faith of Abraham

By Brian Congdon

Leap of FaithJames emphasizes works as paramount for a Christ-follower (James 2:14-26)  because he is establishing the correct definition for faith. Any talk of faith divorced from corresponding deeds is not faith, but rather a false imitator of the real deal. Put another way, faith is only alive and well when paired with active works. “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works?” (James 2:14) To claim possession of faith yet being unwilling to exercise it through works of service (e.g. for the needy), is a complete contradiction of terms.

The book of James illustrates this principle with various examples, most notably with the life of Abraham, the progenitor of many nations. All Christians owe Abraham a debt of gratitude for his willingness to actively obey the Lord and become the father of the faith. The Scriptures say, “was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected…” (James 2:21, 22)

Abraham sought to obey God though he knew not the outcome of such obedience, to the point of sacrificing his own son, even though Isaac was his most prized possession. His sacrificial example serves to highlight how an active, participatory role with God’s commands, exemplifies correct faith. If Abraham were to offer mere mental assent to the concept of sacrificing his son, yet not actually build the altar, his “agreement” without action would be meaningless. Such behavior is akin to hearing the commands of God, expecting blessings from Him, then turning around and refusing to obey them. What is the point of hearing God’s words if we are not going to do them?

By design, faith is a verb, not simply a noun. God is searching for willing vessels who will obey and execute his commands, even if it has a high personal price tag. Abraham’s example of faith demonstrates the more perfect way to live by faith. The result? “‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God.” (James 2:23) In verse 24 it goes on to say “man is justified by works,” and this seems to please God, if Abraham’s rewards (father of nations, friend of God) are any indication.

Quixotic Thought: The Disease of Literalism

By Brian Congdon

Don Quixote “Obviously,” replied Don Quixote, “you don’t know much about adventures. Those are giants, and if you’re frightened take yourself away from here and say your prayers, while I go charging into savage and unequal combat with them.1” The adventure-thirsty knight charged after his “giant” foes ignoring Sancho Panza’s warnings, only to be flung violently to the ground, bruised and disgraced. Even if taken literally and the thirty or so windmills were actually giants, Quixote would have been far outnumbered and ill-equipped to slay them.

For those who have read Don Quixote, the reader knows all too well about his maniacal character. Each adventure or misadventure, depending on interpretation, is inaugurated by a drawn-out monologue of extraordinarily eloquent speech articulating the intricacies of some knightly code or custom. But when the speeches are compared with the stupidity of Quixote’s actions in “battle,” they do not make any sense. An incongruence between lofty statements made for the sake of justice, and such ridiculous actions, signal that at base something is not right. Quixote knows plenty about laws of knighthood and chivalrous conduct, but next to nothing when it comes to the intuitive nature of fear in the presence of dangerous individuals. Quixote has a very hard time sensing trouble, or any pernicious situation for that matter. He always finds himself right in the middle of them with too little time to escape.

The adventures of Don Quixote are relevant for contemporary study because the main character’s wild conduct reveals a gaping deficit in experiential knowledge. Despite his “informed” opinions and eloquent speech which always seems to defend a valiant cause, his actions are reckless and foolish. His extremely low capacity to intuitively or experientially navigate through a difficult situation becomes an overriding issue and major source of hardship. Cervantes wrote this novel using fictional characters, but regrettably the Christian church brims with persons of remarkably similar disposition.

Much like Don Quixote, man does not function well when solely relying on intellect. More often than not, modern man displays a disproportionate reliance on cognitive, rational analysis. The schism of head and heart, or the distance between discursive reason and intuitive, symbolic-feeling, is the chasm situated between two necessary and complementary faculties. They form the essential makeup of man. Extreme circular and introspective analysis alienated from the intuitive, feeling faculties has a propensity to strip concrete thoughts of their actual meaning. The head and heart faculties are complementary and were never intended to be separate, lest one or the other suffer isolation and abnormal development. Man equally possesses a certain propensity to base understanding solely on his heart, isolated from the rational and logical ways of knowing. However, a balanced, healthy person relies on both faculties simultaneously as a means of interpreting and knowing everyday life.

Leanne Payne says “this schism probably began with the advent and universal acceptance of greek philosophies, then Rene Descartes’ dictum “I think therefore I am,” followed by the Cartesian world and its emphasis on scientific knowing.2” An extreme dependence on the intellect probably results from mental over-compensation for lack of integration with one’s heart. Subsequently, the imbalanced person must “balance out” the lack of emotional substance with the mind. Some might refer to this condition as hard-heartedness, or relational “dryness.” More precisely, this is the system of defense that one develops to combat estrangement from emotional or feeling-based types of knowing. It is “the terrible schism in the heart of man that Kierkegaard cried out about when he said that we have forgotten how to exist, and can only think and talk about being.3

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A Well Planted Presentation of the Gospel

By Brian Congdon

Baby PlantChristians tend to find evangelism a foreboding or unattractive task. Christians may be reluctant to evangelize due to our North American culture’s over-saturation with the gospel. The culture has been overly permeated with shallow preaching, shallow examples of Christian living, and in some cases charlatans have grabbed the spotlight. All these influences, when taken together, give Christians and the Church a poor name. Christians intuitively know the message will be poorly received and therefore shy away from it. After all, no one likes rejection.

Others are repelled from the ministry of evangelism because it is considered a violation of ‘sacred’ codes of individualism. Thinking one is going to disturb a stranger or co-worker’s personal space by making a passing reference to Christ or the church often lurks in the back of people’s minds. Others simply live far too private and/or isolated lives and as a result, evangelizing is never even taken into consideration. To make oneself vulnerable and step out of one’s comfort zone to share about Christ takes courage and conviction, and many would rather continue in a state of personal comfort. This, however, should not be confused with the careful discipline of respecting individuals’ lives and conscience. It should always be a top priority of the evangelist, especially for new Christians, to be trained in thoroughly respecting a “no” answer. Failure to do so is to willfully take on the job of the Holy Spirit and force the gospel on others, the very thing which many are so turned off by.

The forceful presentation of the Gospel does not make the Gospel attractive. It makes the Christian presenter come across as untrained and in need of character development. I have yet to meet an atheist who forced his atheistic values on me. Other reasons for people being turned off are: improper timing, lack of relationship, trust, or incorrect context. We would do well to remind ourselves that when the Holy Spirit is present and willing, any context will suffice. When God is not empowering the activity, it will be wasted (or carnal) energy.

Unless the LORD builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.
– Psalm 127:1

In John 1 we observe a principle of networking which can be highly effective for drawing others into the church. Here, Andrew “spontaneously spreads the word to his brother” (John 1:41). Having heard John’s words, he almost unintentionally brought his brother to Christ. In merely spreading the word, Andrew’s behavior is exemplary for Christians today at the moment of inviting others to a church service, small group, or other church-related event (such as a concert). This is effective because it is solely invitational, and does not impose another’s values on the unbeliever or the un-churched.

Overall, I believe the best way to truly share the gospel, in addition to the above, is to build relationship with those in one’s personal sphere of operation. There are many facets of wisdom to this approach, but the foundation is probably the issue of trust. People simply can’t trust an ethereal concept articulated in philosophical or business terms. Unbelievers/the un-churched need to see an example of the character of Christ in the evangelist. Once the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to the aroma of Christ, it may become hard for them to resist it! Otherwise, it is hard too hard to win a person to Christ if there is no investment in relationship or evidence or aroma of the Savior during the interactions.