The God Who Sends

img_4733The God of the Bible is a sending God – a Missionary God, as some have said, with Jesus as the first Missionary. Missiologists have coined a fancy phrase to describe this idea: missio Dei—the mission of God.

In reading John 17 this morning for worship, this idea hit home with me as I noticed a phrase that Jesus used four times in the chapter. He repeatedly notes how it was His Father who “sent Me” (vv. 18, 21, 23, 25). In fact, it was one of His great missions, for which He prays in John 17 – that the world would know that God sent Him.

The word for “sent” in these verses is the Greek word apostello­—from which the word “apostle” comes. An apostle is “one who is sent.” This is precisely what a missionary is (“missionary” is the Latinized form of the Greek “apostle”): it is someone who is sent out for a specific purpose—in this case, to reveal the heart of God.

John 17 is not an isolated chapter when it comes to this refrain, however. In fact, establishing the reality of Christ’s sentness-of-God is one of John’s major themes. In just 21 chapters, Jesus declares this idea 34 times. For whatever reason, Jesus wants to make it abundantly clear that He was sent by God—both to establish the legitimacy of His mission and, no doubt, to remind people of His mission (and perhaps to reveal the dynamics of His relationship with His Father?).

All this speaks, of course, to God’s soteriological attitude: He’s a God who takes the initiative and sends out on mission, rather than waiting for those who need to be rescued to come to Him. Mission and salvation are initiated by God—which is what we see right in the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 3, when God comes searching for Adam and Eve after they’ve sinned and are enveloped by guilt and shame. He doesn’t wait for them to approach Him.

Thus, the incarnation—of God taking on flesh, moving into the neighborhood, pursuing lost humanity.

But here’s where it gets practical: Jesus not only employs the word apostello repeatedly in John to describe the posture He has toward humanity, He also uses it repeatedly when explaining what our posture is to be toward humanity. Turning to the disciples—who would become the apostles, “the sent ones”—before His ascension, He declares: “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (20:21).

God still sends! Just as Jesus was sent to a hurting and lost world, so we are sent to a hurting and lost world. And just as Jesus didn’t wait for us to come to Him, so we are not to wait for others to come to us. This is what it means to be “missional.” It means we, as a church, take on the same posture that God takes toward us. We are “sent out” to reach others. We live life always “on mission,” as “sent ones.” And in so doing, we give an accurate picture of the gospel.

We don’t put on fancy programs in our buildings and wait for people to walk through our doors. “As the Father sent Jesus, so He sends us”—out to a lost world that doesn’t have enough strength or even desire to come to us, stepping into an unknown and confusing religious world featuring a language they don’t speak. 

To be “sent” means we leave the place of comfort and predictability and step into the land of uncertainty and vulnerability, just as Jesus did, for the sake of revealing the God who sends.

And this becomes the modus operandi of the church. In Alan Hirsch’s words, “The church’s true and authentic organizing principle is the mission of God revealed in Jesus. When the church is in mission [sentness], it is the true church. The church itself is not only a product of that mission but is obligated and destined to extend it by whatever means possible” (The Forgotten Ways, p. 88). Indeed, as Hirsch and others have noted, it is not accurate to say that the church has a mission, it is more accurate to say that the mission has a church—a mission that began in the heart of God, Himself, and was revealed through Jesus Christ.

Note well: the God of the Bible is not a God who plays it safe, who plays things close to the vest, who conserves for the sake of conserving, who keeps, who stays. He’s a God who sends, who becomes vulnerable, who incarnates, who takes risks for the sake of rescue, who spends Himself to the very last ounce—and a God who sends us out to do the same.


The Death of Lazarus and a Simple Particle

Do you, like me, find yourself discouraged at times – wondering where God is when things are rough? Theodicy –  trying to figure out how God can possibly be good when everything seems so bad – has probably been the subject that has occupied more brain cells in the human mind than any other in this world’s history.

But perhaps an encouraging word from the death of Lazarus and John’s use of a seemingly inconsequential Greek particle can buoy your spirits.

Let me explain.

I have been reading through the Gospel of John for my personal worship time and two days ago I came across an interesting grammatical nuance that, at first glance, seems to be a curious shift in the narrative. Lazarus, a man that was very dear to Jesus’ heart, has taken deathly sick and the word is sent from his sisters, Mary and Martha, to Jesus, to come quickly to heal him. The family knows, and believes in, the power of Jesus to perform miracles. So they figure Jesus, quite fond of Lazarus, would make a beeline for Bethany.

Further bolstering such an assumption, the reader of John is let in on the secret of how much Jesus cares for the family. “Now,” John explains, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister, and Lazarus” (John 11:5). 

It’s a very simple sentence that is pregnant with significance on its own. But its inclusion primarily provides context for what comes next. John inserts a simple, yet very profound, particle in the next word (two words later in Greek). “So,” he writes. And what follows is where the rub is. The reader quite expects John to continue, “So . . . Jesus traveled as quickly as He could to Bethany, where He healed Lazarus.” After all, Jesus loves Mary and Marth and Lazarus!


But that’s not what comes after the particle. Instead, John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, writes, “So, when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was” (v. 6). And, of course, as the narrative goes on to say, it is during Jesus’ delay that Lazarus passes away.

Such a juxtaposition! Seemingly. John deliberately inserts that Jesus “loved” Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, yet in the next breath he describes how Jesus intentionally chooses to stay put rather than rushing to Lazarus’ to heal him.

What’s going on? 

I think the particle makes all the difference. The word, in Greek, is oun. It can be translated a number of ways and carry a number of different meanings. Without getting into all the technicall nitty-gritty, it can be used in an inferential way, carrying the meaning of “therefore” or “consequently.” It connects the previous thought – namely, that Jesus loved Lazarus and his family – and says, “Consequently, He stayed where He was.” Fully contrasting with this, it can be used in an adversative way, denoting contrast. After explaining Jesus’ love, John thus would be saying, “However, He stayed where He was.” In other words, despite the fact that Jesus loved the family, He decided to stay away. Lastly, it can simply be used in a simple sequence of events, transitioning from one part of the story to the next.

It seems to me that one can legitimately make the case that all three could be an appropriate way to translate it. And they all carry their own theological significance. After all, when things go wrong in my life, I find it very assuring that even though God may not have wanted those things to happen to me, He still loves me. This is the particle in the adversative sense. God loves me, but things do happen that aren’t good – and despite the junk, despite the mess, I can still rest in the assurance that God loves me.

I think this is the case with a lot of bad things. I do not believe, contrary to hard Calvinism, and other deterministic philosophies, that “everything happens for a reason.” I do not believe that God wills for bad things to happen to anyone so He can teach us a lesson. I think He can take the bad and make something good out of it – if we allow Him to – but I would never propose that every bad thing that happens to a person is because God has deliberately wanted it to happen. There is, after all, a devil in this world – and it is his desire to bring suffering and hurt, not God’s.

However, I do also believe there are times when God does allow bad things to happen to us precisely because He is pursuing a higher good. And this story with Lazarus seems to be one of them. John explains to the reader that Jesus loves Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and – check this – precisely because He does love them He allows Lazarus to die. The oun is inferential. “Jesus loved them,” John writes, “Consequently, He let Lazarus die.”

The rest of the story plainly demonstrates this. After finally arriving in Bethany, and receiving a little guilt-trip from Martha, Jesus pulls back the curtain on this. “Did I not say to you,” he asks Martha, after requesting that the stone from Lazarus’s tomb be rolled away, “that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” (v. 40). And then, of course, Jesus proceeds to call forth Lazarus from the grave, raising Him from the dead.

So this is the greater good! This is why, precisely because Jesus loved them, He let Lazarus die. He wanted Mary, Martha, and Lazarus to see the glory of God – which is also something He wanted His disciples to see (v. 15). Healing Lazarus of his illness would have been faith-building; raising Him from the dead was faith-cementing. It also grounded them to a greater degree in His love. 

We cannot know, of course, in any particular moment if Jesus wants something “bad” to happen to us or simply allows it to happen. But we do know that He loves us and that, sometimes, in ways that don’t make sense to us at all in our near-sightedness, He always has a munch longer view in mind. Sometimes we are content with far too little. We want to experience healing; God wants to give us resurrection. We want to be spared of temptation; God wants us to experience victory through temptation. Even Jesus, perfect as He was, “learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).

Further, God wants to give us much greater evidence of His love, and a far greater belief in His power – but in our impatience and haste we, like Martha, are tempted to say, “Lord, if only You had acted sooner, then . . . . ”

To us, as to Martha, He says, “I love you . . . and because I do, I want you to be witness to far greater evidence of my love and power.” 

The Lonely Paul

Paul paintingSometimes you don’t always appreciate the full context of the biblical books when you read them – but I’ve just been given a fuller appreciation for Paul through his letter to the Galatians.

I’m preparing a little teaching series on Barnabas, and I am reading an article on his role in Galatians. In Galatians, you’ll recall, even Barnabas gets sucked in by the Judaizers (see 2:13), essentially leaving Paul – who is young in his ministry – on his own. So think of how lonely Paul felt! He had preached this powerful gospel to the Gentiles, only to have Peter, the other apostles, and Barnabas – the guy who stood up for him after his conversion and partnered with him in his gospel ministry to the Gentiles (see Acts 9:27) – abandon him.

In the light of this, I’m sure Paul must have done a lot of wrestling about the gospel he was preaching and the ministry he’d been called to.

All this was brought to my attention in an article by Richard Bauckham, who has been Professor of New Testament at St. Andrews, Scotland, but is now a researcher at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Notice what he writes:

Paul’s evasion of reference to Barnabas in Galatians, his sorrow and embarrassment over his partner’s defection, highlight his loneliness in the crisis which called forth this letter. This was the first great crisis of his apostolic career. The very existence of a Gentile mission as Paul understood it was called into question, and with it Paul’s own existence as an apostle of Christ on the basis of the Damascus road experience. We can scarcely be wrong if we suppose that Paul’s response to this crisis involved an intensification of his apostolic consciousness, such as we find expressed in Galatians. His awareness of direct divine commissioning had determined his activity from his conversion onwards, but in the extreme loneliness of the crisis at Antioch he was thrown back on this as never before, deprived both of the partnership of Barnabas and of recognition from the Jerusalem apostles. Characteristically he finds the validation of his Gospel in his personal experience of Christ, of which he says more only in 2 Corinthians, and his confidence in the “marks of Jesus” with which he is branded Christ’s slave (6:17).

Talk about seeing Galatians in three dimensions and highlighting its relevance! And sometimes Paul is viewed as one who was very arrogant and opinionated – but this picture gives me a greater sympathy for him and his situation, as well as admiration for his convictions, even in the face of loneliness and hostility.

Ephesians, Racism, and the Church’s Opportunity

bricks-459299_1920I’ve been thinking a lot about the book of Ephesians lately and its relevance has particularly struck me over the last 24 hours. In brief, the book of Ephesians, as a number of Paul’s letters do, addresses the rift between Jews and Gentiles, and Paul does his best to work through the challenges.

But buried in the middle of the letter, Paul makes one of the most profound statements in all of Scripture: the unity that can, and should, exist among all of God’s people (aka “the church”) from every walk of life is actually the very thing that demonstrates “to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” “the manifold wisdom of God” (3:10) – wisdom that “from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God” (v. 9).

So check this out: the very thing that reveals God’s wisdom to the universe is when people from diverse backgrounds – in Paul’s case, Jews and Gentiles – come together in fellowship and mutual love. After all, it is not all that impressive when people who are alike love one another (as hard as this actually is); what is most remarkable is when people who are so different are so united.

Could this message not be more timely? It may not be specifically Jew or Greek these days; in fact, here in the United States, 50 years after the civil rights movement, and 150 years after slavery ended, racism continues to be a damning problem. Might the church have the opportunity to reveal, not only to the world, but to the onlooking universe, that people from diverse backgrounds can actually live together not only in toleration, but in love? And might this demonstration be the precise mechanism by which God’s wisdom is revealed – His character vindicated?

The devil is trying hard to divide us – because he has a vested interest in making sure God looks as bad as possible. He’s desperately trying to divide us into camps – Democrat, Republican, White, Black, American, Syrian, British, Progressive, Conservative, Liberal – knowing that the more we set our stakes down in camps, the harder it will be for us to demonstrate a united (though multifaceted) picture of God.

We can refuse to allow division to win the day, however. We can choose, instead, to show that God’s love is powerful enough to make us loving – even toward those who are so “different.”

Of course, none of this can be accomplished apart from the cross. That is one of Paul’s main points in Ephesians as well: God is seeking to reconcile “them both [Jew and Gentile] in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (2:16), and to ground us deeper and deeper in His love (3:14-21).

Beautifully, amazingly, though the current political and racial climate may look bleak, Paul encourages us: God “is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus” (3:20-21).

We often cite this last verse when it comes to our personal “wish list,” but the original context is what God is trying to do in, for, and through the church as a body (notice the plural pronouns “we,” “us,”): He’s trying to ground us in His love so that we experience a unity that demonstrates His “manifold wisdom” to the universe – thus showing forth His glory “in the church.”

We stand at a critical crossroads – but God has called us for “such a time as this.” Instead of fracturing, those who are honest of heart will press together, recognizing the awesome opportunity that is before us as we work jealously for God’s honor and Christ’s vindication.

So let’s allow God to work His power in and through us!

Your Methodology Is Showing

Photograph 068 by Ashley Schweitzer found on

It’s been a long time coming, but I have come to a conclusion that I should have arrived at long ago: methods matter.

A lot.

For some, this may not seem like all that profound of an idea; others—especially those who share a love for the message of justification by faith like I do—may be a little skeptical.

I always used to assume that the only thing that mattered—the only thing—was the message. If we could just get the message right, then everything else would fall into place. If we could just have the opportunity to preach the message of God’s boundless love to a large enough audience, then everyone would be swept up in its current, and revival would break out. And I used to roll my eyes when people would talk about methods and innovation and the like.

But no longer.

I won’t recount the whole story as to how my thinking shifted on this, but the bottom line is that methods are critically important.

To begin with, there is no such thing as a methodless presentation of the gospel. Preaching is a method; writing is a method—and these are the two main methods we have traditionally used. To be clear: there is nothing wrong with these methods, per se, so long as we recognize that they are just that: methods—and so long as we realize that if our gospel message is to be coherent, the methods we employ must be consistent with the message we proclaim.

That is to say, the methods we use either validate the message we proclaim or they contradict it. Methods are the unspoken body language that are often louder than the message itself. As I shared last week, most of the time our methods are so loud that people can’t hear our message.

As an example: I make a big deal about the fact that Christ took on our fallen human nature. He incarnated Himself in our situation, taking on our flesh and blood and meeting us where we are—rather than expecting us to reach Him where He is. This is good and important and pivotal.

But the methods I employ often contradict this with the audience I am seeking to reach: many people, especially from younger generations, do not find it all that meaningful to travel to a building and listen to someone talk at them for 60 minutes. They would rather sit in a café and have a conversation about it. Yet in my presentation about Christ’s meeting us where we are, I am not willing to meet people where they are.

I am thus making the gospel literally “unbelievable” since I am insisting on my method instead of being willing to utilize their method. And we do this sort of thing over and over again.

The reality is, message and methods are two sides of the same coin. Our praxis must be consistent with our proclamation. Some of us have done a great job with the content, but we’ve failed to realize that the content must be presented in fresh ways that are in the language of those we’re trying to reach.

If we ignore the importance of methodology, insisting that the only thing that matters is the message, we run the risk of spiritualism—not realizing that the message must have flesh and blood.

This is essentially what Jesus meant when He said we can’t put “new wine into old wineskins” (Mark 2:22), lest the old wineskins burst and we lose both wine and wineskin. Instead, we must continuously put the new wine—the eternal message of God’s boundless love—in new wineskins—the changing methods that complement the message we’re proclaiming.

For so long, though, I had to turn a blind eye to such Scriptural ideas—as well as Ellen White’s explicit counsel. Just look up the term “new methods” in her writing and do some reading.

Here are just two:

New methods must be introduced. God’s people must awake to the necessities of the time in which they are living. God has men whom He will call into His service,—men who will not carry forward the work in the lifeless way in which it has been carried forward in the past” (Evangelism, p. 70).

“Whatever may have been your former practice, it is not necessary to repeat it again and again in the same way. God would have new and untried methods followed. Break in upon the people—surprise them” (Ibid., 125).

These are quite the eyeful! Yet we seem stuck in the same traditional rut, betraying the fact that maybe, just maybe, we haven’t really embraced the message of God’s liberating grace, or understood its full implications. If we did, it would it secure us enough in God’s love so that we would be freed to take risks and refuse to condemn others who may not do things the exact same way we do.

It’s no wonder that Paul said he sought to be “all things to all people” so that he could “by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). He, of course, didn’t compromise when it came to God’s law, but he was willing to employ whatever method necessary in order to share and show the message of God’s boundless love.

This may sound extreme to some, but Ellen White draws out this idea explicitly: “When the practices of the people do not come in conflict with the law of God,” she wrote, “you may conform to them. If the workers fail to do this, they will not only hinder their own work but they will place stumbling blocks in the way of those for whom they labor, and hinder them from accepting the truth” (Review and Herald, April 6, 1911).

This is a bombshell! Sometimes we may think people are rejecting our message when they may simply never actually be hearing it because we are using “practices” that are so deafening.

So if we are so serious and concerned about our message, we must be insistent on utilizing methods that will not be distracting to those we’re trying to reach. We mustn’t therefore set up a false dichotomy between message and method.

Of course, there is a caveat: just as we cannot be message-centric to the neglect of methods, we cannot be method-centric to the neglect of message. There are many who do indeed go to the other extreme. They place all the emphasis on utilizing the new and latest and most innovative methods, thinking that if we can just get the methods right, it will all happen.

But this is equally troubling. It is essentially formalism (as opposed to spiritualism, which is what the “message-only” approach is).

But as someone said recently whom I heard speaking: you can build a sailboat and put it in the water—but you can’t make the wind blow. Thus, we can have all the most innovative and relevant methods, but if those methods are devoid of the Spirit and devoid of the motivating love of Christ, then it’s a dead-end street.

I write all this as an explanation as to why I have been writing about methodology so much recently—especially ecclesiology and missiology. Basically, I’ve finally become a practitioner and not just a theorist. When I finally got serious about pastoring, and especially as we’ve been laying the groundwork to plant new churches, I realized that our message must have some body-language, else it won’t be effective.

And I also realized that when we set out to plant a new church that we would be starting with a blank canvas, and thus have the awesome opportunity to fill up that canvass with whatever the Spirit wanted. I didn’t just assume that the way we’ve always done it is the way that it always has to be done.

And I came to the poignant conclusion that if an alien were to land on earth and read the book of Acts in order to start a new church, they probably wouldn’t come up with what we’ve come up with (which is an ecclesiology that may have “worked” in the past but is neither eternally normative nor presently effective).

So, going forward, this blog—and other things I write for other platforms—will be equal parts message and equal parts method. At least that’s the goal.

Table, Not Pulpit

FullSizeRenderWhat if, instead of church life revolving around the pulpit, it revolved around the table?

That’s a question I’ve been pondering lately—and encouraging others to do the same.

Of course, Jesus went to the synagogue every Sabbath (Luke 4:16), but the Gospel writers spend just as much, if not more, time talking about all the eating He did—and the ministry, teaching, and service He did through it.

Check this out. Luke alone records all the things that happened while Jesus ate:

  • 5:29ff—Levi throws Him a great feast
  • 7:36ff—One of the Pharisees provides Him a meal, where Mary anoints Him
  • 9:10ff—He feeds the 5,000 after teaching them
  • 14:1ff—One of the chief Pharisees feeds Him on Sabbath, where He heals a man with dropsy
  • 15—The Scribes and Pharisees complain that He eats with sinners, which prompts three parables—the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son—about what He was doing
  • 22:8ff—The last major experience He shares with His disciples before His crucifixion is a meal—“the last supper”
  • 24:13—After His resurrection, He eats a meal with the two disciples that He met on the road to Emmaus

It is obvious: eating was a significant part of Jesus’s ministry—as it should be for us. In fact, Caesar Kalinowski has made this fascinating observation. He notes how there are three instances in Scripture where the Gospels record that “the Son of Man came . . .” Notice those three instances:

  • “The son of man came not to be served but to serve, and give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)
  • “The son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10)
  • “The Son of Man came eating and drinking . . . ” (Luke 7:34)

“The first two are statements of purpose,” he notes, “But the third statement identifies Jesus’ method. How did Jesus come, serving and seeking and saving the lost? He came eating and drinking” (Small is Big, Slow is Fast, p. 83).

What would happen if we practiced “table evangelism” and “table church”? What would happen if the “fellowship meal” that we sometimes tack on after the “main event” of the “church service” was considered more to be the “main event” than just an add-on? It does, after all, create an optimal environment for organic fellowship and community, where great conversation can emerge and opportunities for service can surface.

So let’s think table more, not pulpit.

The Power of Small

photo-1414322058660-a4c56ab6c1e2I was reading this morning from the chapter in The Desire of Ages on the “road to Emmaus.” There was nothing explicitly that mentioned it, but something suddenly occurred to me: Jesus’s ministry was so effective to those two disciples because of just that – there was only two of them.

This realization was sort of the continuation of a series of realizations I’ve been having lately as it relates to the church, the gospel, and ministry. I’m not at all the first to arrive at this conclusion. In fact, I’m kind of a slow learner. But the truth is when it comes to ministry, when it comes to spreading the gospel, if we want to become big we need to become small.

Another poignant manifestation of this idea was brought home to me last week as I attended Exponential – the largest gathering of church planters in the world (where some six thousand people attend). Everything there is big: a big auditorium, a big crowd, big names. Dozens of pastors from megachurches get paraded onto the stage as they share their stories of how they grew their church from 15 to 15,000. And we all applaud and marvel at God’s power.

I have nothing against growth. We are, indeed, seeking to grow and advance God’s kingdom. But this type of sentiment was juxtaposed against some of the seminars I attended where the presenters were talking about more modest pursuits: things like discipleship and missional living.

It was there that I realized: it’s not about growing megachurches, it’s about growing microchurches. I don’t want to make my church bigger, I want to make it smaller.

This sounds counterintuitive to some, I know, and it goes against everything we’ve believed in the past. We are trying to make our churches bigger, trying to get more people to show up to our worship services. In some ways, being a part of a big crowd validates our commitment to the cause it’s propounding. It thus almost undermines our insecurities, we suppose, because if there’s a lot of people attending a program or event, it must be worthwhile – or so we think.

But I’m not sure that’s the way Christ operated: He looked for quality over quantity. He realized the power of small. He recognized that it was in the smaller circles, the one-on-one relationships, that real change occurred. He realized that His public preaching could only go so far. In fact, Ellen White shares this mind-blowing thought about Christ’s method of ministry. Don’t miss it: “His work was largely made up,” she writes, “of personal interviews. He had a faithful regard for the one-soul audience” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 229).

The “one-soul audience”? Isn’t that powerful?

To a large extent, we have glorified – perhaps even idolized – the large, public gathering, thinking it is the height of church life. But this allows for 99% of the church to sit passively while the other 1% – the pastor – gets to do ministry. Meanwhile, the pastor has no idea as to whether what he’s saying is making much of a difference, and it is not realistic for him to ever ascertain whether it is since he cannot do “personal interviews” with everyone after every sermon.

Perhaps we need to shift our thinking when it comes to church life, though. Perhaps we need to think less of the large worship gathering and think more of “little companies” (a term from Ellen White that my good friend Jarod Thomas reminded me of) that can serve as the real engine for Christian growth. These “little companies” are a lot more suited for true Christian development to occur. They are a lot more nimble, a lot more customizable and accessible, a lot more able to address the needs of real people in real places.

And, wonderfully, they require the active involvement of the 99% rather than just the 1%.

We have a lot to unlearn, though: we rely almost exclusively on the preaching of the Word at church, or at weekend conferences, and then we wonder why people aren’t growing.

It’s simple: we have bought into the allure of big rather than the power of small.

But check this: I would dare say that 25 people who are discipling 50 others can effect more change than one person who is preaching to 1000. In fact, Ellen White seems to say this very thing. Notice:

My ministering brethren, do not think that the only work you can do, the only way you can labor for souls, is to give discourses. The best work you can do is to teach, to educate. Whenever you can find an opportunity to do so, sit down with some family, and let them ask questions. Then answer them patiently, humbly. Continue this work in connection with your more public efforts. Preach less, and educate more, by holding Bible-readings, and by praying with families and little companies.

“To all who are working with Christ I would say, Wherever you can gain access to the people by the fireside, improve your opportunity. Take your Bible, and open before them its great truths. Your success will not depend so much upon your knowledge and accomplishments, as upon your ability to find your way to the heart. By being social and coming close to the people, you may turn the current of their thoughts more readily than by the most able discourse. The presentation of Christ in the family, by the fireside, and in small gatherings in private houses, is often more successful in winning souls to Jesus than are sermons delivered in the open air, to the moving throng, or even in halls or churches” (Gospel Workers, p. 193).

“Preach less and educate more,” she says. Listen to people’s questions. Have fireside chats with them. Interact with humility. Instead of having monologues, have dialogues. Through these conversations you can find avenues to the heart, and they will “often” result in more success “in winning souls to Jesus than [through] sermons delivered.”

Such an approach has the power to really effect change precisely because it involves more people in ministry. When we rely on big, however, it limits ministry to a specific program at a specific time and a specific place led by a specific person. But when we embrace small, it allows God’s kingdom to invade our communities – precisely because a whole army of Christians already lives, breathes, works, and plays in those communities.

So are we going to embrace the power of small?

Are we going to get small so God’s kingdom can get big?

Ellen White: “Missional” Before It Was Cool

BelieveProphetsI, along with a handful of others, am currently gearing up to plant a new church in Bangor – which is easily the biggest reason why my blog, and, really, all my writing pursuits, has been neglected lately. And though I am still trying to find the proper balance between my local pastoral/planting ministry and my writing ministry, I must say that I cannot remember a time in my ministry when I’ve been more excited. God is on the move!

As I’ve been preparing to launch a new church, I’ve been reading a lot of material and listening to a lot of podcasts on the “nuts and bolts” of planting particularly – but, really, ecclesiology (the study of the church) in general. It has been very informative and eye-opening!

One thing that has caught my attention, and has been very helpful in evaluating how we “do church,” is the basic distinction between “attractional” and “missional” models to church. Though they are, of course, generalizations, it’s interesting to use these two approaches as “filters” by which one can evaluate the way a particular church approaches evangelism and mission – both historically and presently.

There is plenty of material one can find that explains the differences between these two approaches, but the long-and-short of it is that “attractional” approaches essentially view the church as programs that one puts on in a building – and then people are invited to participate, whether actively or passively, in those programs. In short, “church” is defined, whether explicitly or not, as programs that take place in a building.

A “missional” approach, however, views the “church” not as a building or a program but a living, breathing, active people. Under this model, a person doesn’t go to church; the person is the church (or is a part of a body of people that constitutes the church). Thus, “church” takes place as much in the workplace, in the school, or in neighborhood as much as in a building that is referred to as “the church.” It is a living body of people who go to others to live and show the gospel, rather than a program that takes place at a specific time and at a specific place that people are invited to come witness.

Further, it seeks to understand the culture in which it resides so as to be able to express the gospel in ways that are relevant and make sense to that culture.

By and large, this second approach is very much in vogue today. Many evangelicals, and of course Adventists, are recognizing the merits of this approach as America becomes more secular and more people are less willing to set foot in a church building. Also, the traditional ways of expressing the gospel – of sitting through an hour-long worship service where a person speaks from up front – are becoming less and less relevant to many people.

Thus, “church,” or the way we’ve defined it to people, has become meaningless and unappealing. And many people reject “church” without realizing that they are simply rejecting a version of “church” that has been the de facto definition of “church,” despite its lack of biblical support.

What has been interesting to me, however, as I’ve been reading through a lot of material on “missional” approaches, is how a lot of it has been second nature to me. It’s almost like I’ve kept saying, “You’re just now figuring this out?” No offense! I don’t say this because I have access to some secret superior knowledge. It’s just been funny to me because the evangelical world seems to now only be discovering what Seventh-day Adventists have known all along. But it has come across as a revelation to them.

That’s because a century before evangelicals caught on, a little old lady wrote the book on “missional church.” Her name was Ellen White – and, in fact, she wrote many things in many books that were missional in nature, though perhaps her book Ministry of Healing is the most systematic explanation of this approach.

For example, here’s just a sampling of a few quotes from her which are missional to the core. This first one is the very first line in Ministry of Healing, and I love it!

Our Lord Jesus Christ came to this world as the unwearied servant of man’s necessity (p. 17)

Elsewhere, she explains:

While He ministered to the poor, Jesus studied also to find ways of reaching the rich. He sought the acquaintance of the wealthy and cultured Pharisee, the Jewish nobleman, and the Roman ruler. He accepted their invitations, attended their feasts, made Himself familiar with their interests and occupations, that He might gain access to their hearts, and reveal to them the imperishable riches (p. 25).


Though He was a Jew, Jesus mingled freely with the Samaritans, setting at nought the Pharisaic customs of His nation. In face of their prejudices He accepted the hospitality of this despised people. He slept with them under their roofs, ate with them at their tables,—partaking of the food prepared and served by their hands,—taught in their streets, and treated them with the utmost kindness and courtesy. And while He drew their hearts to Him by the tie of human sympathy, His divine grace brought to them the salvation which the Jews rejected. (p. 26)


The badge of Christianity is not an outward sign, not the wearing of a cross or a crown, but it is that which reveals the union of man with God. By the power of His grace manifested in the transformation of character the world is to be convinced that God has sent His Son as its Redeemer. No other influence that can surround the human soul has such power as the influence of an unselfish life. The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian. (p. 470).

In The Desire of Ages, she offers this very missional perspective:

[Christ’s] work began in consecrating the lowly trade of the craftsmen who toil for their daily bread. He was doing God’s service just as much when laboring at the carpenter’s bench as when working miracles for the multitude. (p. 74)

Then, there’s this bombshell:

When the practices of the people do not come in conflict with the law of God, you may conform to them. If the workers fail to do this, they will not only hinder their own work, but they will place stumbling blocks in the way of those for whom they labor, and hinder them from accepting the truth. (Review and Herald, April 6, 1911)

Lastly, there is this quote, again from Ministry of Healing, which is really the missional statement par excellence – and one that just about every Seventh-day Adventist will be familiar with.

Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, “Follow Me.” (p. 143)

It’s hard to get any more “missional” than all these quotes – especially the last one! And this is just a small sampling! Ellen White was as missional as one can get – and we should be too.

Of course, one might legitimately wonder why, if Ellen White wrote it a hundred years ago, we would resort to reading current authors who may not hit the nail as squarely on the head as she does. It’s a legitimate question. However, I don’t think we should have an either/or attitude. I read Ellen White voraciously; in fact, I’m going through Ministry of Healing again right now – after just finishing Acts of the Apostles (as a side, if you want to see another strongly missional statement, just read the first paragraph in that book. She defines the purpose and mission of the church and nowhere does she say anything about buildings or programs. The church is, according to her, “God’s appointed agency for the salvation of men,” and “was organized for service.”).

But I also find that contemporary authors sometimes write many of the same things in very succinct and practical ways that are “how to” in nature. That can be very helpful – at least for me, since I tend not to be an “X’s and O’s” kind of guy.

So I’m most grateful for the writings of Ellen White – and I’m grateful for the contributions of contemporary authors as well, many of whom are outside my particular community of faith. Both have been a blessing.

To the reader, I would say this: don’t neglect Ellen White on these things. While many people today are saying many of the same things, there is a richness in her writings that is not present in today’s counterparts – chiefly because she was, in fact, inspired – and ingredients that you may not get elsewhere. But I would also say that there is also benefit in prayerfully considering the methods of contemporary authors – filtering out the wrong and irrelevant, of course – as they very practically explain approaches to the contemporary situation.

The Selfishness of Salvation

FullSizeRenderYou’d probably be hard-pressed to find a person who thinks it’s acceptable for a Christian to be selfish. Selfishness is the antithesis to Christianity, implicitly at odds with it. Even non-Christians recognize this and are often quick to point out when the life of a Christian contradicts this principle.

This idea is, of course, underscored repeatedly in Scripture. “Do nothing from selfishness,” Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi (Philippians 2:3, NASB), adding in his first letter to the Corinthians that love “seeks not its own” (13:5, KJV).

Christ Himself perhaps put this concept in the boldest of terms, proclaiming that “whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25, NKJV). Though we perhaps don’t take this verse as seriously as we probably could, we still recognize the poignant call to abandon all self-interest.

Scripture is clear: simply put, in the heart of the Christian there is no room for selfishness.

And yet something strange happens when we discuss the most basic of Christian ideas: when it comes to framing the concept of salvation and eternal life, we typically express it in the most selfish of terms. Indeed, we often start people on their Christian journey on an implicitly-selfish road, only to try to pull the rug out from under them later on by telling them they shouldn’t be selfish as Christians.[i]

But such messages work at cross-purposes, since the whole foundation of their Christian experience rests upon a selfish motive to begin with.

Think about it. The average “gospel” presentation goes something like this: you’re a sinner who deserves death, but if you want to be saved and live forever you need to believe in Jesus. Salvation is thus always presented as something to attain from God for the benefit of self—and faith is the currency by which you acquire that benefit from God.

Just yesterday, I heard a well-meaning radio preacher who illustrated the whole concept in such terms. Comparing salvation to a woman who jumps out of a burning house and into the net that the fireman is holding below, he proclaimed that God has done all for our salvation but we must still take the “leap of faith” in order to be saved.

Such a scenario appeals to a person’s most primal emotions: fear, panic, self-preservation. But such emotions are implicitly at odds with the motive and way of Christianity.

In fact, one might go so far as to insist that presenting salvation within such a framework is anti-Christian altogether. “All pagan religions are self-centered in their appeal,” Robert Wieland has noted, “and since almost all Christian churches accept this pagan-papal doctrine, they get locked in to what is basically an egocentric mind-set” (Grace on Trial, p. 29).

Not to be outdone, secular psychologist Alfie Kohn, writing within the context of childrearing, posits that such an approach is actually “by its very nature dehumanizing” (Punished by Rewards, p. 25). Furthermore, the great challenge with using rewards as a motivator is that “the more rewards are used, the more they seem to be needed” (Ibid., p. 17). And thus, within a Christian framework, we are simply setting people up to live in an endless cycle of requiring future benefits in order for their faith-journey to be sustained.

With such a paradigm—and with faith as the currency I use to acquire benefits—my faith is only as strong as the benefit is in its appeal. And as soon as I can no longer detect an obvious benefit, my faith ceases to be active. Thus, Wieland notes, “when we distort faith itself to become egocentric, the gospel is paralyzed” (Powerful Good News, p. 33).

This is all an echo of what Ellen White has poignantly proclaimed repeatedly throughout her writings: “Love to God is the very foundation of religion,” she wrote. “To engage in His service merely from hope of reward or fear of punishment would avail nothing” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 523).

So, too, does it echo Jesus’s words quoted above. His followers, He shockingly declared, should not desire to save their lives. Personal salvation should not be the impelling force. On the contrary, Christ’s followers should desire to lose their lives—an idea that stands at incredible odds with the presentations we typically give.

So what’s the solution?

Instead of presenting the gospel as something that will yield a future benefit, let’s present it as something that has already benefited. “To the death of Christ we owe even this earthly life,” Ellen White explained (The Desire of Ages, p. 660, emphasis added). This transforms faith from being an instrument by which we attain rewards to an instrument by which we express gratitude. And gratitude, unlike self-interest, is an unstoppable force that enables the Christian to reach infinite heights.

Paul unpacked this when he explained to the Corinthians what the motive of his ministry was. “For the love of Christ compels us,” he proclaimed, “because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14). He recognized that by His death on the cross, Christ had already accomplished something for him—that Christ’s death was his death, thus already absolving him of the debt he owed by virtue of his life of sin. And he found such a thought to be compelling—to the point that all who recognized this glorious reality would “live no longer for themselves [that is, motivated by self-interest], but for Him who died for them and rose again” (v. 15).

Such distinctions are critical, especially for those living at this juncture in earth’s history. Those who stand in the last-days will be ridded of all selfishness. They will not stand tall for God as a calculated way of hedging their bets. Heaven will not be looked upon as the greatest retirement plan so long as they continue making regular faith-deposits. To consider it such sets a person up to be an easy victim of the enemy’s tactics.

On the contrary, God’s people in the last-days will love “not their lives unto the death” (Revelation 12:11, KJV). Standing firmly on the sacrifice of Jesus—grateful that He “emptied” Himself (Philippians 2:7) and, for all intents and purposes, gave up eternity for them—they will live ever for Him, regardless of the temporal or eternal consequences. Indeed, those living in the last-days will experience this mind-boggling idea that Ellen White laid forth in Steps to Christ: “We should not make self the center,” she instructed, “and indulge anxiety and fear as to whether we shall be saved” (p. 71).

We thus need to move beyond a gospel that makes “self the center.” Instead of framing salvation in transactional terms that confirms listeners in their primal selfishness, let’s lift up the heart-melting message of Christ’s self-emptying sacrifice and the benefits we’ve already been granted by Him as a result, thereby setting us on the path of gratitude.

[i] I realize it may not align with the Dictionary definition of “selfish,” but I would simply define selfishness, and the definition with which I am working in this piece, as the desire for personal benefit as the end goal. It is thus possible to want to be saved for unselfish reasons—e.g., to grant Christ the reward for His sacrifice as the end goal—but this is very rarely the framework within which salvation is presented.

Why Do Adventists Rebel?

3243868_b80ef2e9Like many of my fellow Seventh-day Adventists, I feel great sorrow about the level of spirituality that characterizes the church today – including in my own life. As one examines the landscape of Adventism, it would be hard to argue with the idea that, overall, the church looks more and more like the culture around it (I will resist using the term “worldly,” because I find it to be somewhat ambiguous).

Some could argue, of course, that the culture around us – as a general concept – is not bad, per se, and I would agree to a large extent (after all, the word “culture” is a morally-neutral word in an objective sense). However, the reality is, we as a people have become more and more enamored with the ways, practices, and fashions of Hollywood and have lowered the bar when it comes to our “standards,” to say nothing of how many of our views about sexuality have become troublingly liberalized.

For some, this is all a good thing. I am not completely convinced.

At the same time, it is also evident that, theologically speaking, the Adventist message has become more and more watered down and seems to be hardly discernible from evangelical perspectives. Our “peculiar” teachings are irrelevant to many and even a point of embarrassment to some. We hear more sermons about God’s love and grace than about sanctification and overcoming sin.

So why is this? Why does it seem as though Adventism and Adventists, whether in worship or in practice, look a lot less “unique” than we did 50 or 100 years ago – save for the fact that we go to church on Saturday?

And what do we do about it?

Many have offered various proposals: we need to preach the “straight testimony” and call sin by its right name. We need to stop reading evangelical authors. We need to emphasize the standards again and help our people know what it is that we believe and what makes us unique.

While all these proposals may have some level of truth, they fail to really understand the pathology of the problem. They fail to recognize what lies at the root – and, subsequently, what the solution is.

Here’s a thought: Adventism became more “worldly” not because people simply decided to get more rebellious. Adventism became more “worldly” because we failed to produce a gospel that was more attractive to them than the “world.”

At the same time, Adventist worship services became more amped up not because attendees wanted to be idolatrous but because our traditional services (saying nothing of the actual style) were genuinely lifeless, dry and – at their root – devoid of the Holy Spirit.

Similarly, Adventists became enamored with the love and grace that evangelicals offered not because they simply wanted to live a life of disobedience but because they were desperate for an escape from the guilt and shame they felt – something that Adventism had failed to deliver.

This last thought is an idea that became more clearly articulated in my own mind after listening to a series of sermons by the late J.W. “Bill” Lehman. He noted that we cannot underestimate the power of guilt and the lengths to which a person will go to escape from it. Every person experiences guilt and shame – and if they are not presented with a gospel solution to such guilt, they will either go looking for it elsewhere (hello evangelicalism) or deny the sin that produced the guilt in the first place (hello secular humanism).

Thus, in the absence of a clear articulation of grace within Adventism, Adventists don’t want to hear about obedience, sanctification – and especially not perfection. If there is, after all, no balm for the times we fail to obey, we’re just going to throw the whole program out altogether.

This last critical point is, I think, the root of it all. Laxity in standards, liberality in worship, all these other things, are coping mechanisms in the quest to escape from guilt and shame. We thus go to great lengths to medicate and numb the pain.

This is not to deny, of course, that some of us have rejected the standards and theology of classic Adventism simply because we are rebellious. But, among other things, I choose to ascribe the best motives to people – just as I’d hope they would do with me!

At the same time, we know, based on history, why we are where we are. We, as leaders, rejected the message that would lead to Adventism embracing its unique identity, rather than running away from it. The message of Christ’s boundless love and grace – which presented Christ not only as the solution to the feelings of guilt and shame, but would eventuate in the sanctification that our conservative brothers and sisters crave – was turned away. And we’ve been wandering ever since.

So the solution to our compromise is not to try to get more strict in our enforcement of standards or to ban evangelical books or to preach the “straight testimony” from our pulpits. Such tactics would simply address the fruit and not the root; they would deal with the external and not the heart. They would rob our people of the only medication they have found that works – leaving them to search for other sources of pain-relief that are perhaps more lethal. Indeed, we would leave them as the man that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 12:43-45 who had a demon cast out of him, only to have seven more inhabit him because he was left empty and not filled with something better, “the last state of that man . . . worse than the first” (v. 45).

Instead, the solution is to acknowledge our rejection of the gospel, repent of it, and then univocally present the message of God’s love and grace that would attract people away from the theology and practices that so trouble us.

In short, no one has ever experienced lasting change because they were told what they were doing was wrong. Such an approach can lead to conviction but not to victory. The only way lasting change can be realized is to present something better, something more beautiful, something more attractive.

Indeed, let’s light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.