Change. Change is not something widely appreciated by most people – including me. I like my socks to be in the same place in the same drawer each morning. I enjoy kissing my wife and children at the same time each night before we go to sleep.
I’m the type of guy who tends to order the same thing at Cracker Barrel or the local diner – at least 8 or 10 times – before my awesome wife finally coaxes me into being “adventurous.” I guess I’m just a man who likes finding a good rut and staying in it for as long as possible. The repeated, consistent rhythms of life give calm to soul. There’s just something peaceful about using the same Bible I’ve read from for years or wearing my favorite pair of jeans that just seem to look better with age, at least I think so.
Change? Well, it just seems like more hassle than it’s worth or perhaps too risky. What if I lose something I highly value when I change what I eat or wear, or how I behave?
But it gets even worse: our current politicians are constantly talking about change – changing tax brackets and percentages, changing laws governing drugs, healthcare, marriage, military rules, even our personal religious freedoms. So we despise the label “change-agent,” and mutter threats and frustrations about anyone trying to change us. We shout, “There’s no way that is going to happen!”
And then, as if changes in clothing, diet, schedules, and politics were not enough, we find out the church wants us to change everything too! Emergent-liberal progressive change-agents like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Rob Bell, Tony Jones, Leonard Sweet, Phyllis Tickle, among others all proclaim we should deconstruct everything about the established evangelical church, including the fundamental doctrines of the historic Christian faith.
And so, we justifiably retaliate against the “emergent” change. [I wrote my master’s thesis on the subject of the “emergent church movement” and pointed out the dangerous trends of the movement and it’s proponents. You can access it by clicking here: Emerging from the Emergent. Thesis. Michael Breznau]
Yet still others, who maintain fidelity to sound doctrine and the Gospel mission, say we need to embrace changes in music, apparel, worship, and even preaching style, in order to reach the changing culture around us with the unchanging Gospel of Christ. And like many of you, I balked, ranted, and squawked at the very idea that the church needed to change at all. In fact, I gathered a little following of people who would listen to my rants with nods of approval.
I was proud to be unchanged, strongly traditionalistic, and most importantly – right. I needed to know that I was right.
But then a rather strange thing happened. I started to deeply study God’s Word, and I noticed that the Bible – from beginning to end – was filled with change. In literary terms, God is the static, unchanging character. Yet His goal throughout the biblical story is all about change: redeeming, re-creating, and re-forming humans into the likeness of God the Son, Jesus Christ. You see, you and I are the dynamic, changing characters in God’s story.
Abram and Sarai are changed to the faith-filled Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 17; Heb. 11:8-11, 17-19). Jacob, the Deceiver, becomes Israel (Gen. 32:28-32; Heb. 11:20-21). A bitter, doubting woman named Naomi is restored to joy and faith (Ruth 4:14-17). A Moabite widow named Ruth is brought into Israel’s royal line (Ruth 4:17-22). A young shepherd boy becomes King David (2 Sam. 5:1-5).
God changes the great King Nebuchadnezzar from an egomaniac to a humble worshiper (Dan. 4:28-37). He changed fishermen like Peter and tax collectors like Matthew into legendary missionaries and pastors. Societal outcasts and prostitutes became devoted followers and evangelists. God changed Saul, the hate-mongering, racist, religious fanatic, into the apostle of grace, Paul. And the list could go on and on with names like Joseph, Moses, Mary, Peter, and Timothy, John Mark, James, Thomas, and John.
God changes lives and calls every Christ-follower into a journey of change.
More than all the dynamic, human examples from the Bible, stands the God-man, Jesus Christ. Jesus came to offer Himself as the Way, a way to new life – a total change from something old to something radically new (John 14:6). His forerunner (the announcer or appetizer, per se), John the Baptist, lived and ministered totally outside the accepted religious system as an intentional picture of this new presentation that was about to arrive: Jesus Christ (Matthew 3:1-12).
And when Jesus arrived on the scene everything changed. The conservative religious leaders (the Pharisees) were madder than hornets on a hot summer day, the liberals (the Sadducees) scoffed and mocked; but the needy, hurting, and broken flocked to hear His words of grace, hope, and forgiveness.
My Following or His Mission?
And this is what is wrecking my life… in a very wonderful way. I found I was fighting the wrong fight and my life was only looking less and less like Jesus Christ. The lost, hurting, and needy were not flocking to receive help, hope, and love from me. Instead I only had my following of people just like me.
And the church across the Western hemisphere? Well, by and large we are really good at being “us.” But are people with diseases, hurts, needs, and bruises flocking to us to receive the mercy and message of Jesus Christ, the One we are supposed to fully put on display for the entire world to see?
It is time to change. Yes, it is going to be risky – and I probably will still have my balking and squawking moments. But God the Father has ordained the mission of Jesus to be accomplished by His people as they change into the full, mature picture of His Son Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christ’s call to unity in love and truth will only happen through Spirit-wrought humility and grace. This is exactly what God inspired Paul to write about for the church in Ephesus:
“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” (Ephesians 4:11-13)
The singular purpose of God’s gifts for the Church is life-change: real, lasting growth toward Christ-likeness. Our lives together should actually begin to look and sound like Jesus. To this, one of my teachers and mentors said rather simply, “Change is the calling of every Christ-follower” (Dr. Howard Hendricks). Change is the goal, not stagnation, fermentation, preservation, or isolation.
But here’s where change gets risky and difficult: Christ’s mission to reach the lost with His life-changing message will only occur through us when we release our cultural idolatries of clothing styles, musical preferences, embedded racisms, and myriad ethnocentricities, and, in turn, embrace change for the sake of the Gospel through the power of the Spirit. Christ’s call to change is part and parcel to Christ’s mission. The early Jewish Christians could have clung to their cultural traditions and prior religious system and enforced them on their Gentile brothers and sisters. And some sure tried to pull this pious looking stunt. Yet such cultural idolatry was sharply rebuked by the apostle Paul and ultimately found to be an enemy of the Gospel itself (Galatians 1:6-10, 2:1-21; Acts 15).
To the church in Galatia, Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery. Listen! I, Paul tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all! …For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight – the only thing that matters is faith working through love.”
Paul had zero tolerance for people who tried to enforce extra-biblical standards, traditions, and cultural idolatries. Jesus Christ radically changed Paul, and for him there was no going back to the old system. He had been changed forever.
Sub-Culture Pop Quiz
So what about us? What does God want to change in you? Maybe like me, you’re still holding onto Christian sub-culture idolatries that create unnecessary barriers between people without Christ and His message – lived and proclaimed through us, the Church:
Perhaps we still believe…
…Types of clothing equate to inward holiness or the absence of holiness.
…Styles of Christian music connect to spiritual maturity or the lack of maturity.
…Applying food restrictions and diets will bring God’s smile upon your life or His frown if you don’t fit the mold.
…Time spent at a church building always correlates to the depth of your relationship with God or the shallowness of your relationship.
…Sizes of homes, investment portfolios, and bank accounts always point to the blessing of God or the lack of His blessing.
…Quantity of Bible-reading and prayer will cause God to love a person more or love them less.
…Punctuality within an American-driven framework is akin to God-likeness (i.e. godliness). Note: the average person did not own a wristwatch until the early 20th century.
…Safety and relative ease is promised by God for us – in this age – if we are extra-obedient.
…Shows of poverty must mean the person has greater humility.
…Apparent wealth usually means the person has a great deal of pride.
…Watching television or going to a movie theater is inappropriate or even sinful for someone who is “sold-out” for Jesus.
Now, I might know what some of you are thinking right now: “Hey, wait a minute! God says for us to do everything “decently and in order,” so we ought to be punctual… and doesn’t this apply to how we do our music too?! The Bible also talks about showing modesty in what we wear; right? And sheesh… going to church is something I love to do! Am I supposed to change that!?”
I have no doubt a thousand other arguments could be raised against this short list of cultural expectations and idolatries. But hear me clearly: I am not saying that modesty, healthy diets, church attendance, punctuality, Bible-reading, and financial wisdom do not matter. They certainly do. However, God’s love for you and me in the Gospel of Christ does not hinge on any of these practices, qualities, or expectations, no matter how noble some of them may be. I love walking into a church building for worship. But it is very possible to spend lots of time in a church building and not even have a relationship with God. I love reading the Bible and spending time in prayer, but my motivation for doing so has radically changed. I do not attend church, read the Bible, or pray in order to gain more of God’s love, instead, I simply love God in return for the love with which He completely loves me in Jesus Christ. And most importantly for our mission: if we use our cultural preferences or expectations as cinder-block partitions between each other and those outside of Christ, we will never be living as God intended. We will fail to demonstrate unity and humility in His love and truth (see John 17), and thereby will never offer the world a clear message of hope in Jesus.
This is the change that is wrecking my life… in a wonderful way. Knowing and following God is not a frenetic chase to earn his favor and blessing; it’s a relationship rooted in His always-abounding and never-ending grace. This change is lowering the altitude of my nose. It’s cutting off my policing action that can become so common among pastors. Yes, pastors are not policemen – we are shepherds. And now, most of all I pray, hope, and desire that everyone under my care will not try to fix all their issues in order to fit a cultural mold, but instead fall wildly in love with the Savior who can change everything. He alone can fix all their issues, addictions, and sin. He is that good, that grace giving, and that powerful. So let Him change you…
Maybe you are not struggling with “Christian” sub-culture idolatries. But, like me, you see other huge areas in your life that need God-made change.
Perhaps you find yourself acting like…
…Having people ask you about the hope of Christ in your life is only supposed to happen on rare occasions.
…Radically engaging in the mission of Jesus (to “go therefore and make disciples…”) is something only pastors and official leaders are supposed to direct and pour their lives into.
…People immigrating to the USA from other continents – especially the Muslim world – should sometimes be looked upon with fear and frustration.
…People who speak clear English deserve more respect than immigrants who severely struggle to communicate (especially when they are trying to give you over-the-phone tech support).
…People with lots of tattoos, piercings, and “a past” should always be watched with wary eyes and asked to cover up their paraphernalia when in “your” church building. You don’t want them to scare away any other visitors…
…God’s love for you gives you license to live totally as you please, rather than in a return-act of love for the God who saved you.
…Your addiction to lust or pornography doesn’t really matter to God.
…Persistent anger, screaming matches, and gossip in your home are less offensive to God than an addiction to nicotine or alcohol.
Do you feel the tension between the God of grace and the problems in your life? You and I need change. God-made change. Perhaps like me, you’ve been creating more walls than bridges when it comes to the Gospel mission. Together, let’s ask God to change us for His glory through the power of His Spirit. Let’s fall wildly in love with the Savior who can change everything. He alone can fix our issues. He is that good, that grace giving, and that powerful. It’s time to embrace Gospel-driven change as God’s people. Change is the call of every Christ-follower. I just cannot believe I resisted His call for so long. May God’s radical grace change you more into the likeness of the Son as you follow His will.