I’ve been focusing a lot of attention and study lately to Isaiah 61:1-3 for the R&R Women’s Retreat in January. (Which if you haven’t registered yet, get after it.)
61 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;[a]
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;[b]
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.[c]
This passage contains a “beautiful exchange”…in which Isaiah prophesies the replacement of all our mess with something beautiful, something peaceful, and something purposeful. As I’ve been meditating and studying on this part of scripture for a while now, I’ve run into a problem. Evidence of this beautiful exchange is lacking…lacking in the church.
“If you can’t show the difference between religion and the gospel, people will confuse morality with a changed heart.”-Timothy Keller
My husband advised me that there’s already been a lot of ink spilled over the whole religion vs. gospel argument. Perhaps, but the very heady conversation has heart level implications of which I am becoming more aware. When we “confuse morality with a changed heart”, the church cannot function in a way that honors Jesus and the beautiful exchange described in Isaiah 63. Until one experiences the effects of a religion/gospel discrepancy, the emotional hurt and distrust that follows can’t be fully realized. Often we don’t even realize our gospel has switched over to religion, it’s a slow slope that we ever-so-slightly slip down.
I believe a vast majority of churches have unknowingly muddied the distinction between religion and the gospel, so much so, that those within confuse authentic transformation in others for self-righteousness. And conversely, even more confuse working really hard through behavior modification with their own spiritual growth and transformation. The first example leaves those who are experiencing risky, yet honest, spiritual change discouraged, hurt, and deflated by the church. The enemy uses this to hinder further spiritual maturity and he attempts to tear down that which Jesus has built up in the person. The potential blessings this person offers to the church as a whole and to the community around them are derailed. The latter results in the perceived spiritually mature trying to pour into others, while they are empty from their strivings and performance. If our church leaders, staff, and volunteers are driven by this, they will burn out trying to maintain their own performance and that of the church. When we are focused on the perfection of our practices, we are fueled by fleeting successes and extinguished by everyday failures. Grace goes MIA. Without grace, we’ve got nothing to give.
We are called as Jesus-followers to let Him live and work through us. This is the Gospel: that He (who is pure and blameless) has taken my place–the place of death and destruction–and has set me in His place–the place of righteousness and sonship. His Spirit now lives in me and guides me. What an exchange! This absolutely results in personal change, without any effort of my own! This absolutely means things start to look different. So where’s the “change” within the church? How does the church “look different?”
By definition, the church is the bride of Christ, set apart as Holy and blameless, through the blood of Jesus. Therefore, one can expect that the church and its people should act and look differently than those who have not embraced Christianity. However, today the church, whether traditional or contemporary, looks more and more like big business, commercialism, and materialism, as well as, biting sarcasm, deception, and lawlessness. We’ve exchanged-out undeserved grace and favor for the exhausting work of maintaining face and trends at any cost. We stress making sure our practices look different and appealing, but miss how we as the children of God should look different, and therefore, what we have (Jesus) will naturally become appealing to others.
Religion as defined by Webster’s Dictionary is: “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; OR scrupulous conformity”. We have become so tied and conformed to our institutions and what the Sunday morning routines and practices look like, (and how they might look to others), that we have forgotten the lack of “systems” that Jesus had. We acknowledge the fundamental belief in the Gospel but rarely leave space and time to live it out…through each individual and their personal transformation.
A whole city believed because of the personal interaction between Jesus and a single woman.
We have become consumed with our overall performance and growth as a church instead of simply sharing our individual stories of redemption. In an effort to put on the best show, we’ve spent less time letting the love of Jesus transform our hearts and minds, conforming us into His image, and more time trying to conform those around us into our image and preferences. What we really need is a Gospel transformation of our own hearts. If we are losing our voices of intellect to sarcasm, bitterness, crudeness, and apathy towards our sin, what really needs to happen is a change in us. Jesus cares about the way we treat each other, speak to each other, and represent Him. Thankfully, He has a beautiful exchange for all of our misgivings and disgrace. He offers something better, richer, and more satisfying. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen church communities thrive on grace alone.
When churches focus on statistics, numbers, and performance, we slowly morph the good news into an alternative works/righteousness slant. (This is not a traditional vs. contemporary argument. Both styles of worship fall victim to trying to impress their guests. Both manner of churches have taken on a “if you build it, they will come” philosophy.) When churches aim to look more like the world to “reach the lost”, we end up stifling genuine and true transformation in our congregations. If we started to look more like Jesus, maybe we’d look less like the world…and then we wouldn’t be “edgy” or “attractive” anymore. We’ve arrogantly got this beautiful exchange all twisted and backwards: we’ve secularized the spiritual, rather than spiritualize the secular…as if any of it was in our control or power to begin with. Our presence in the community shouldn’t cause churches to act more like the world, rather we can expect to see the world start to act more like the body of Christ because of the presence of Jesus in us.
Can we please give people who don’t believe in Jesus more credit? They see through our efforts to be trendy and cool. If they wanted to be entertained, they’d go to a show, or a movie, or go play putt-putt. If they are walking through the doors of your church, they are hungry for something different–not hungry to see a church that looks different…but rather for something that could make them different. They are craving something that could rid them of their broken hearts, their feelings of entrapment, their mourning, their shame, and their faint spirits. That kind of exchange is the lasting living water that truly satisfies, while a favorable Sunday morning experience will only last 1 hour and 15 minutes. When the people sitting in the pews have undergone this beautiful exchange, and share their personal stories of beauty from ashes, that’s what draws others to Jesus…that’s Gospel-centered ministry…and lasting church growth. Church growth is in the hands of the people who fill the seats. The function of leadership is to encourage and remind their people that they are empowered by the Holy Spirit to share God’s love through their stories.
Jesus is more than enough on His own. He doesn’t need us to make Him “more seeker friendly”, “more palatable”, or “less intimidatingly righteous”. Did Jesus hang out with prostitutes? Yes, but He didn’t start dressing like them. When we focus all efforts into how we practice our religion in one building, and ignore how we are to live out the Gospel with each other outside our four walls, we inhibit spiritual growth. We might be sweetly desiring our church to grow, but the spirituality of the people within will die when church growth and/or sustaining tradition becomes the end goal. If the goal becomes developing the best model, we’ve bypassed the fact that the Gospel most assuredly is messy and unpredictable, and personal transformation isn’t on a timed schedule. It’s can’t fit into a model.
In the beautiful exchange that Jesus offers, the s*** of life happens…and then Jesus happens. He takes away the crap and replaces it. Things will get messy, because acknowledging our sin is messy. But getting it out there, so it can be wiped away, is necessary. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” We WILL naturally look different. We WILL inherently be more joyful. We WILL unknowingly start to care less about what the Sunday service looks like, and more about what Jesus looks like. We WILL effortlessly start to discern that which pleases God from that which does not. Those who follow Jesus will be known by the fruit that they bear, not how cool they are…because He will be daily extracting the nasty flesh out and injecting much, much better. And when we see that in ourselves and in others, we can praise God that He is at work.
I’ve heard a lot recently of the church being compared to a sausage factory. The analogy suggests that churches put out a product, and if you knew what went into it, you’d never take part in it. Imagine the Oscar-Meyer sausage factory, beautifully exchanged for a tiny home filled with homemade family-recipe apple pies made alongside great-Grandma. The goal is not a product, but a family. It’s not very impressive, hip, tidy, or efficient. The kitchen’s small with out-of-date beaters and hand towels, your borrowed apron is awkwardly too big, there’s flour all over the place, and you’ve likely invested hours for one delicate pastry. But there’s nothing that compares to the sweet satisfaction and aroma of love that fills the air.
Let’s not get stuck–simply complaining behind the doors of a sausage factory. Our stories don’t end there. A beautiful exchange has been promised to us. Let’s hold on to the hope that times of refreshing are coming. Acts 3:19-20 says, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus.” Believe the LORD God when He says in Ezekiel 36:36, “Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the Lord; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.” He is in the business of bringing back to life that which we think is beyond repair. He has perfected taking our mess and making it beautiful. Will we allow Him? Will we humble ourselves and repent?
Let’s give Him our hearts. Let’s let Him draw out our sin, our death, and our destruction. Let’s let Him cover all our shame and brokenness with His perfection and grace. Let’s let Him take root in our hearts and exchange the bad for good. Let’s daily resolve to let Him continually transform us and those around us. Let’s get messy together and be comforted by all that Jesus has for us. Let’s encourage each other, pray for one another, forgive one another…and taste sweet grace.