Tuesday, 29 March 2011

A Vision for People

How do we get people to move from being interested in Jesus and coming to church to being actively involved? What are the steps that will help them on such a journey? And what is our responsibility in that process?

John the Baptist was the forerunner to Jesus. He prepared the way. He prepared hearts to encounter Jesus. In John's gospel we see how he did this. When Jesus walked by he spoke to his disciples, "Behold the Lamb of God! ", John 1.35. John's preaching had consistently told people that someone greater was coming, After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie, Mark 1.7 NIV; one who would baptize with the Spirit and fire, Matt 3.11. So John's disciples knew that Jesus was significant. They trusted John. They believed his preaching. They had followed him. Now he was pointing them to someone greater, the fulfiller of all the promises he had spoken about.

You see John was putting his weight behind Jesus and these disciples trusted his word. He had sufficient trust and integrity with these men for them to take what he said seriously. Now that is an important lesson for us in the church. We can find ourselves in life situations where people get to know us. They learn to trust us. Our opinion matters to them. So when we point people to Jesus we can in fact pique their interest. Notice too how subtle John was; "Behold the Lamb of God". Within Jesus culture this is highly suggestive, but not explicit.

So these two men begin to follow Jesus - from a distance; until He finally turns around and asks what they seek, John 1.38. They are the original stalkers of the NT! Imagine being followed by two men who when you ask them what they want ask you where are you staying!! That's what happened here. And Jesus said, "Come and see!" He meets their interest with an invitation; an invitation to explore and discover for themselves. Now they begin to take initiative. Later in the same chapter Andrew goes to fetch his bother Peter. Philip seeks out Nathaniel. Like John they now put their weight behind Jesus. And like Jesus they extend the same invitation; "Come and see".

This interest is then translated into the first phase that I believe is crucial to people becoming involved; illumination. Illumination is like an aha moment. It's when light breaks in and you see something clearly for the first time. You now have understanding. You get it. This happened to Peter in Matt 16. Everyone had an opinion about Jesus but Peter received a revelation from Heaven. He got it. Flesh and blood didn't tell him. It came from above. Light broke in and he saw who Jesus really was; more than a carpenter; more than a prophet; more than a Rabbi. He was and is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

2Cor 4.3-4 NIV tells us about three realities.

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

These three realities are; a devil who blinds minds, preventing people from being saved; a God who commands light to shine into hearts, saving and transforming them and finally God's servants who bring the saving message of Jesus. Notice how Paul links the saving power of God with the account of creation. The first thing God commanded was for light to shine. This is crucial. People may express interest in the gospel but until light breaks into their spirit they are still in darkness. Like Peter in Matt 16 they need an aha moment.

In Luke 24 we have the story of two of the disciples on the Emmaus road. These men are believers but they are selective believers. As Jesus drew near to them the text tells us that their eyes were blocked from seeing Him for who He truly was. They knew Him but didn't recognise Him. I call them selective believers because later Jesus says in Luke 24.45; "O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken" They believed, but selectively. They didn't believe in all that was spoken by the prophets. And so they missed Jesus, even when He was right in front of them.

I see this problem in the church today; selective faith. We believe certain parts of scripture and hold other parts at a distance. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes we are lazy. We plateau in our faith being content with knowing what we know and not bothered by what we don't know. But this is dangerous. True discipleship is about constantly growing and learning. When we think we have arrived we can get careless and pride can set in. We are setting ourselves up for a fall. What areas of your life do you have 'selective faith'?

In John's gospel Nathaniel came to check out Jesus because of Philip. He didn't have a high expectation; "Can anything good come out of Nazareth? John 1.46." Nathaniel was incredulous. But then he met Jesus who had insight into Nathaniel; "Behold an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile". This was a high commendation. But Nathaniel was not easily moved or given to flattery. He is still suspicious of Jesus. "How do you know me?" is his retort, John 1.48. So Jesus takes it one step further. He demonstrates prophetic insight showing Nathaniel that He knew what he was doing earlier that day; "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree I saw you".

This is like an aha moment for Nathaniel. Light breaks in. He goes from unbelief to faith in a second; "You are the Son of God, You are the King of Israel". Jesus response is telling. "I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man". It's almost like He is saying, "If that impresses you, you haven't seen anything yet". Each one of the disciples had to come to the place of seeing Jesus for who he truly is. This is a God event. We preach, but He commands light to shine. So when we preach we must also pray that God will break through the darkness and bring about a new creation event. "Let there be light, in the face of Jesus".

The next phase that is crucial is to get people initiated. We seem to have lost our sense of how important this is with every community. Under Jewish law male babies were presented for circumcision eight days after their birth. This incorporated them into the covenant of Israel. Then at thirteen they came to Jerusalem for their Bar mitzvah. Through it he was seen to have the same rights as a full grown man. A boy who had become a Bar Mitzvah was now morally and ethically responsible for his decisions and actions. The term "bar mitzvah" also refers to the religious ceremony that accompanies a boy becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Today a celebratory party would follow the ceremony and that party is also called a bar mitzvah.

These events were important in the life of the community and helped Israel maintain its sense of identity. This is one of the reasons that gangs function so well. Despite the violence and crime they often engender there is a deep sense of belonging in them. You can't just join a gang, you must be initiated into it. There is a task you must perform to show you are serious, that you can be trusted, that the gang will be something you will give your life for. And often there is a symbol you must accept, a tattoo, a dress code or even a way of speaking that includes a special vocabulary.

This is why Jesus required people to be baptised in water as a symbol of their union with Him. It was public, open for all to see and hear. It required genuine faith and courage because in those early days Christianity was seen as a fringe sect of Judaism. It also reminded people that to be joined to Jesus meant to be joined to His church, the community of people who followed Him. This initiation through water into the community was also a symbol of our baptism in the Holy Spirit. So the early apostles prayed that people would be filled with the Spirit. They actually laid hands on disciples and prayed for this experience. In every case it happened as close to their initial faith experience as possible.

This initiation marked a transition. They went from being outsiders to insiders, non members to members. Their faith in Jesus was expressed by embracing this initiation ceremony that identified them permanently with His people - the church. Not only that; when believers came from other churches and joined a new local church they would extend to them 'the right hand of fellowship'. It was a public display that they were now part of this particular local congregation. They had a new language too. It was the language of faith. All things were now possible through Christ and that was their confession.

When they sent out missionaries they laid hands on them with fasting and prayer. It was an event! They did the same thing when appointing new leaders. My point is that transitions were marked with a ceremony of some description that initiated them into a new phase of life. We need to maintain and recapture this in the church today. I remember my Baptism, my graduation from Bible College, my ordination. All of these events carried special meaning to me because they were attended by a ceremony of some description. And they were all public! Most of them were simple affairs, but they were memorable and became landmarks in my journey with God. What initiation steps have you taken? What ones remain for you to take? What is holding you back?

People who have been illuminated and initiated now need to be included. Including people is the best way of involving people. And the church should be great at this for it is fundamental to who we are as the people of God. It's interesting to see who Jesus included. He not very PC (Politically Correct) in His choices. Take his disciples; they are all mainly from the region of Galilee, four of them are fishermen. He chooses two sets of brothers and is not embarrassed to have Simon the Zealot on His team. The Zealots were patriotic fanatics who wanted freedom from Roman oppression and would use violence to achieve their aims. Today we call them terrorists! And then along side him is Matthew the tax collector. He collected taxes on behalf of the Romans who were the occupying force. Since 1940 the term used for such people is collaborator. In this context it is a pejorative term. Yet Jesus includes all the men, together!

Not only that, Jesus allowed people like Mary to 'sit at His feet', Luke 10.39. This is a technical term used by Luke to describe those who were the disciples to their teachers. Mary is referred to this way in Luke 10 and so is Paul who was educated at the feet of Gamaliel in Acts 22.3. The inclusion of women by Jesus is radical given the culture and tradition that surrounded Him. But Jesus isn't trying to act democratically or maintain traditions that do not further God's purpose. He is responding to something that He sees in each of these people and so He welcomes them and includes them. That is great leadership.

But to include people also means we exclude others. We need to be careful here that we do not become 'exclusive'. Jesus included Peter, James and John in the transfiguration event and in doing so excluded the other nine disciples. But this wasn't a clique. It was Jesus taking these few men to another level for that event. From there He comes down the mountain and ministered to others. He is never exclusive. So there may be times when we focus on a select few for a season; but let's make sure it doesn't become a permanent feature of our ministry.

Rom 15.7 NIV is instructive. It says; Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. The thinking of the past used to be that to be part of a church you had to believe in order to belong. Now we know that when we belong, we learn to believe. Relationship comes first. It is the transforming power of being yoked to a true disciple that changes us. By making room for others we create an environment of acceptance where people feel included. In such an environment they can develop and sharpen their gifting; they can learn to reach higher levels of faith and grow in confidence.

I often include inexperienced leaders in meetings so that they get the chance to see and hear how I do leadership. I don't expect them to make any significant contribution, (though I have been pleasantly surprised at times). I want them to understand and catch the atmosphere we operate in first. I include them! To delay including people in decision making processes is simply to delay their training. And you can be sure they will be learning how to do it from somewhere. Better for it to be from you - the leader.

People who feel included commit. They get their hands dirty. They get involved. They often go above and beyond what you expect of them. Involvement can be measured in three main dimensions: time, effort and money. Some people give more of their time. Others have less of this to give, but make a huge effort to see things happen. They use connections and networks to serve Kingdom purposes. Others show their involvement by releasing significant sums of money to the Kingdom. A few are able to do a combination of these and some have the ability to be involved in all three dimensions.

Think through where you are in your journey with Jesus. Do you need to go to a knew level of faith? Do you need to open your heart to more revelation? Is there another step of obedience you should be initiated into? Baptism? Filled with the Spirit? Tithing? Connect Groups? Do you include others into your world so that they can include you in theirs? How involved are you? Could you give more time, effort or money to what God is doing in your church?

Once you have some answers to these questions dare to take steps that show this is not just a paper exercise. Share your plan with a friend who can hold you accountable to implement these changes. As you do you will be modelling to others what it means to walk with Jesus in the details of life. And they will be provoked in a good way to follow your example. Your obedience will be their inspiration.