Core, Fringe and World in Luke 15

I owe this one to my pastor, Pete Chiofalo, and his wonderful message from Luke 15 this past Sunday.

First, I’ll provide a quick interpretation of Luke 15:11-32; then, I’ll comment on how each of the three groups we have been discussing (i.e. core, fringe, and world) are represented in “the prodigal son”.

Luke 15:1-2 makes it clear that the next three stories (i.e. the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son) are in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees that Jesus is hanging out with “sinners”.  Each of these parables makes essentially the same point: God has great concern for the lost; He will in a sense leave those who do not need finding to look for the lost one; and, God (and all those of like mind) will rejoice greatly when the lost one is found. 

Focusing now on Luke 15:11-32, we have a man with two sons.  The younger requests his future inheritance ahead of time and leaves the home to squander it; he becomes “lost”.  The older stays behind to continue working diligently for his father.  The younger “comes to his senses” in v17, which simply means that God has convicted him of his sinful ways and his heart has repented.  He returns home to confess his sin, and his father is eagerly waiting for him – rejoicing to the point of throwing an extravagant welcome home party for his “found” son.  Meanwhile, the older son is angry, because he felt he had “earned” what the younger son did not “earn” and was given anyway.  He was jealous of the father’s forgiveness, grace and mercy toward the younger one.

A plain interpretation of this story is that the the father in the story is God; the younger son represents all of us who have realized our “lostness”, confessed our sin to to God, and received His welcome into the Kingdom through genuine faith in Jesus Christ; the older son represents all of those who have grown up in the church and yet continue to try to earn God’s favor by keeping religious rules, completely missing the importance of forgiveness, grace, mercy, and faith to the point that we look down on (and are even jealous of) those who are received into the Kingdom on the basis of God’s grace through faith alone.

If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, I’ll bet you know where this is headed. 🙂

What I have been calling the ‘world’ are all of those who are in the same position that the younger son was in while he was away from his family “squandering his estate with loose living”.  In verse 17, this younger son moved from the “world” to the “core”.  He confessed his sin to the father (v21) and received life (v32).  And the ‘fringe’?  You got it…the older son.  Though he grew up in the same house, he never realized it was grace and mercy that bound him to the father.  He always believed it was his efforts.  People in the ‘fringe’ typically have “grown up” in the church, hearing sermons on God’s grace and forgiveness every weekend (or, at least every Easter and Christmas).  And yet, somehow, their inability to rejoice when the wretched and poor are sought and embraced reveals are heart that was never right with the Lord to begin with.

I’ll end with two questions:

1. How do you act around “sinners”?  How do you feel about other believers who seek out “sinners”?  What is your immediate reaction when a known sinner walks into your church on Sunday?  What will you do to help move people from the ‘world’ to the ‘core’?

2. Do you love those in the ‘fringe’?  Or, do you feel superior because you are the younger son rather than the older one?  What will you do to help those in the ‘fringe’ move into the ‘core’?

Here’s one suggestion on how to answer each of these: keep reading this blog and engage with your feedback.  I have some ‘blue sky’ ideas on how we can help one another do both of these, and I’m going to need alot of help to make it happen!

http://seqhim.org

Is Spiritual Growth really Growth of a Spirit?

Let’s now turn our attention away from why and toward how

Willohroot made the comment of the year, “I don’t know how we’re going to pull this off”.  Of course, I agree, and if you are still reading this, I’m sure you do as well.  I’m sure all of you understand that we cannot do it…that if it is going to happen, then God is going to have to do it through us.  Our job is simply to be obedient, and I can tell you unequivocally that I’m personally compelled to push forward…to do otherwise would be a violation of my conscience and probably a form of sin (Rom 14). 

What I’m going to try to do now, over the next series of posts, is walk you through what I hope is a simple progression of some rather complicated thoughts that have been simmering for close to a year now between myself and a small number of like-minded buddies.

Shifting gears from the macro-issues of the church today, let’s talk about spiritual growth.  What exactly is it?  How does it happen?  How can Christians help other Christians to grow?

What is “Spiritual” Growth?

First of all, I believe spiritual growth is a bit of a misnomer because the reality is that a believer’s spirit does not need to grow – it is already perfect.  At conversion, all of us who believe in Christ, received a new spirit…a regenerated spirit…a reborn spirit.  This spirit is perfect and is one with the Holy Spirit.  The problem is not with our spirit but with our flesh.  All of the tools God gave us to interact with one another on earth are still corrupt; i.e. our minds and all they control.  Therefore, Paul can face the dilemmna that all of us face: what I want to do, I do not do; and, what I do not want to do, I do.  The desires of our perfect spirit conflict with the desires of the flesh.  Therefore, the goal os “spiritual” growth is to tranform the flesh (or, “renew the mind”).  It is to make our flesh obedient to our spirit as a slave.  It is to understand that the flesh has no power over the spirit (it is dead), and behave accordingly.  This happens over time, as we intentionally surrender our flesh to the spirit (which is one with God’s Spirit indwelling us).

Hopefully this is all sounding quite biblical.  If not, call me on it and let’s change it.

How does Growth Happen?

After years of careful observation, I’ve concluded that there are three dimensions to genuine spiritual growth: knowledge, character, and behavior.  All believers are called to grow in their knowledge and understanding of God’s truth, transform the way we think, and become increasingly compliant to God’s standard of behavior.

Iterative Growth Model
Iterative Growth Model

I’ve also concluded that the way in which we grow along these three dimensions is by hearing, believing and obeying God.  Generally speaking, it is by hearing God that we grow in knowledge; it is by believing God that our internal thoughts and attitudes change; and, it is by obeying God that our external behaviors change. 

And, this process is iterative…you don’t go to school or bible study, learn all you can, grow to maturity in knowledge, and then begin working on your character.  Rather, we all learn a little, apply the spiritual disciplines to train our belief to some extent, and obey what we have learned and become, then repeat.  And we do this forever.  Again, I think willohroot made the point that it’s not about the destination…it’s about the journey, and I fully agree.  We can’t think of this as winning a race; it’s about running the race well and finishing strong.

How Can Believers Help Other Believers to Grow?

First of all, let me say that it’s not necessary.  There is biblical precedent for God capturing and growing His people without much help from other believers; e.g. Abraham and Noah.  The core of my own personal testimony is that God used mainly unbelievers and ‘fringe’ to drive my own growth, not by encouragement but by friction.  That said, I’ve also concluded that this is the exception and not God’s desire for His Kingdom today.  God’s desire is that his people work together to build-up the Kingdom together.

In short, I believe the most effective means of helping other believers is not to call them but to personally lead them.  It’s not to talk about it, but it is to provide them an example to follow.  And, once that example is provided, then you have the right to talk about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and give advice to another on what you think they could do to grow in the same way.  This is the essence and purpose of practical, intentional and effective one-on-one discipleship.

In the next few posts, we’ll keep diving deeper into how we can make this real together.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your feedback on these thoughts!

Are ‘fringe’ building churches such a bad thing? Maybe not…

The problem is not so much with what churches are doing; it’s with what they are not doing. 

Many churches are so focused on growth that the majority of their resources (money, materials and people) are focused on growth initiatives; i.e. building campaigns, community events, etc.  This leaves little left for internal growth initiatives.  In other churches, particularly those overseas, there is precious little resource to invest in either external or internal growth.  Either way, churches are struggling to help people to grow.  We are adding to our numbers, but we’re adding ‘fringe’ and we’re not helping ‘fringe’ move to the core.

BUT, what if there existed a community of ‘core’ believers whose sole purpose was to birth new believers from the ‘world’ and develop baby believers in the ‘fringe’? 

If this community was effective, it would complement churches of all sizes, shapes and styles while filling this all important gap of internal spiritual growth.  It would have to be orthodox and yet inter-denominational.  It would have to be united on the essentials of the Christian faith, but mature enough to give and receive the freedom granted by grace.  It would have to be seemlessly global, not bound to a region or local church body.  It would have to be large in number, but it would have to be more concerned about the maturity of the community than it’s size.  It would have to be simple for community members to communicate with one another; it would have to be accessible, transparent, authentic, and helpful to those outside of the comunity.

If such a community existed, ‘fringe’ building churches could leverage the community to supplement their existing internal growth initiatives, practically free.  If such a community existed, a small town church in west Texas, an isolated body of believers in Zambia or an underground small group in a communist or muslim country would have equal access to the same global support structure as a mega-church in the USA.

Does this sound exciting?  Do you want to engage?  Let me know…

Zero Church Aptly Named?

A few posts ago, I alluded to a mailer I received that provided a pretty good example of a “fringe building” church rather than a “core building” church. 

Note that I have never attended this church nor do I know anything about it or their leadership…I’ve only received the mailer.  Therefore, the only comments I intend to make are about the mailer and the audience it is obviously designed to reach.

A mailer I received from Zero Church
A mailer I received from Zero Church

Here are some observations:

About Zero Church

  • “Most churches are okay, but we think…”.  In other words, if you are unhappy with the church you are currently attending, then come to zero church.  Is this church reaching out to unbelievers or to people who already have a church home but are hoping to find a church that is more entertaining?
  • “We have a talk, but no preaching.”  Can you imagine the apostle Paul or any hero of the faith telling it’s audience, “hey, i’m not here to preach…let’s just have a talk.”  God calls us to teach His Word…why are we ashamed of that?
  • “We have an offering, but not for us…”  Does this mean that 100% of what people give to zero church goes to the poor and oppressed?  If that’s true, wonderful!  But, I wonder where the money comes from to pay salaries, rent space, buy office supplies, etc?
  • “We have a band, but not much worship music”.  If it’s not worship music, then what is the purpose of the music?  Entertainment is all I can think of. 

“Talk” Series

The good thing about how this series is described is that at least the word “biblical” is included.  These topics are wonderful for a Christian counseling session.  And, believe me, I’m all for Christians helping other Christians “learn how to say no”.  But, the mission of the church is to make disciples, right?  How do these topics help us make disciples?  How do they call people to Christ?  Again, my point is not about style of worship/preaching…it’s about what the style is producing.  Series like this educate people on how to live their lives in a western materialistic culture, but they do not educate people as to their sin condition, God’s grace, genuine faith in Christ, and the ultimate importance of obedience.  People become better parents, spouses, friends, and co-workers not primarily by studying how to become a better parent, spouse, friend or co-worker…they do it primarily by learning God’s word, believing is, and obeying it.

At the end of the day, I just don’t understand why churches feel like they cannot be proud of the God we serve and that somehow God is pleased when we hide Him for the sake of “building His kingdom”.  My belief is that God does indeed save people in churches like these, but he does it despite faithless methods and not because of them.  The natural fruit of churches like these is ‘fringe’ which, as I have argued, is actually hurting the Church not building it. 

We ought to be going out into the world, sharing the good news of Christ, and serving them in His name; we should not be not pulling the lost into our communities and calling them part of the Church when God has not made them part of the Church.

I understand my stance is probably not very popular.  My intent is not to be unpopular…just aligned with the God we serve as best I can be.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and observations.

Choosing Sides in the Unseen War

“When surrounded by war, one must eventually choose sides.”

The opening line to a recent Star Wars: The Clone Wars episode (above) struck me as applicable to our discussion.  In his comments from a couple of posts ago, Bob ended with “At least we’ll all know where we stand!”  One day, we will certainly know where we all stand b/c all will be forced to take up sides at some point.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent considerable time researching and developing small group strategy.  I’ve participated in small groups, led small groups, coached small group leaders, and helped churches start and grow small group ministries.  Through all of this, I’ve tried to keep the focus on the role a small group plays in the spiritual war we are presently engaged in (Eph 6:12).  Unfortunately, the momentum is to think of small groups more as social clubs than army platoons.  Small groups ought to be more than friends being friends; they ought to be a means of mobilizing God’s people in our struggle against the “spiritual forces” Paul speaks of. 

This trend is another driver toward the need to go back to one-on-one discipleship.  If the Church has an effective means to grow people (and the forming consensus is that small groups are not an effective means to grow people spiritually), then small groups can safely be more “communal”.  You would train your small group leaders to identify those in their small groups who are willing to be disciples, then take them aside for deeper training or pair them with someone else who can.

To bring this back to where we started, the point is that we in the Church are indeed “surrounded by war”.  Not a war with flesh and blood, but with the spiritual forces that are trying (and will ultimately fail) to overcome God’s people.  Only the most core of the ‘core’ remember this on a daily basis and live their lives accordingly, yet all of us should. 

What does that mean in a practical sense?  It simply means taking spiritual growth (i.e. knowing God and his Truth more, developing a Christlike character, and obeying God in all things regardless of the potential sacrifice) more seriously than anything else.

Have you chosen a side?  Are you engaging the enemy?  If not, will you?  If you will, keep coming back and we’ll continue to discuss how we can do that together.

Fringe to Core; World to Core

So far, we have presented our fundamental mission as moving people from the ‘fringe’ to the ‘core’ and from the ‘world’ to the core.  In this post, we’ll begin to explore how we might do that.  Before we begin, let me say that while many of these terms may sound familiar, you will see in the next few posts that we’re going to land on an approach is that quite unique.  The drive toward a unique approach is not simply to be different but because I believe that if the current techniques were working, we would not be getting worse instead of better.

Let’s begin with a reminder that while God sees the black and white lines between “believer” and “non-believer”, we cannot.  To other people, it is a continMoving people from the fringe to the core and from the world to the core.uum of people who range from the obvious “non-believer” (world) to the obvious “believer” (core), with a wide variation between the two.  An obvious “believer” might be the apostle Paul or Billy Graham; and obvious “non-believer” would be anyone who does not profess belief in Jesus Christ (regardless of how good their behavior is).  The rest of us fall somewhere in between…we profess Jesus as Lord, but we either have not actually been spiritual born (i.e. we profess Jesus as Lord for social reasons and not because we actually want to follow him) or we have not “grown” spiritually to the point of, say, an apostle Paul.  More accurately, we have not grown to the point of being just like Christ (the perfect human and standard for all of us), in a spiritual sense. 

And so, our charter is to a) challenge people in the ‘world’ end of the spectrum to profess Jesus as Lord (spiritual birth); b) ensure that the ‘fringe’ understands what it really means to follow Christ as a genuine believer (maybe spiritual birth; maybe first steps of growth); and c) challenge, encourage, and support all those who profess genuine faith in Christ to move toward the ‘core’ end of the spectrum (spirit growth).

What is the technique that we use to accomplish these goals?  This is where we’ll spend most of our time in the next several posts.  Right now, I’ll set it up by simply saying that the technique varies per person.  Where the person is squarely within the ‘world’, pure evangelistic (or apologetic) techniques are appropriate.  Where the person is squarley within the ‘core’, pure discipleship techniques are appropriate.  Where the person is somewhere in between, a personalized mix of evangelistic and discipleship techniques are appropriate.

If you are interested to hear further on a unique approach, specifically targetted at discipleship and enabled by community and technology, keep checking back!

And so, our mission is…

… to help willing people move from the fringe to the core (discipleship) and from the world to the core (evangelism).

My observation is that the majority of local churches today, particularly evangelical churches in the west, are focused mostly on the evangelistic portion of this mission using mostly a strategy of “attractive” worship services.  It’s staggering to see how much money is being poured into these ‘attractive’ worship services; it’s even more staggering to observe that many churches are coming to the conclusion that to make the service ‘attractive’ they must minimize the role of God and the Bible in it.

This weekend, I received a flyer in the mail for a new local church in my area.  I don’t have it with me at the moment, but I saved it…maybe I’ll scan it and upload it if I think about it later.  But I noted that it did not have the word “God” anywhere on it.  It also contained a number of comparisons between it’s style and other (obviously, less ‘attractive’) styles of worship. The phrase, “we have a talk, not a sermon” comes to mind. 

Now, I understand the concepts and purposes of the “seeker” church and the “emerging” church, but what kind of a church believes they have to hide God to be effective?  Would God really call us to something that requires us to hide his Name to be successful?  Isn’t the power to save in the gospel itself?  Isn’t the biblical model for evangelsim Christians sharing their faith unashamedly with other Christians, in large group, small group, and one-on-one settings?  Looking at today’s churches, you would think that the power to save is in concerts, dramas, social events, community service, and pop psychology ‘talks’…that it’s more important to go to church, be in a small group, have a good marriage, help people find their parking spots and not be stressed out than it is to have a genuine, personal, saving relationship with the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ which demands that we give up many (not all) elements of comfort to do the right thing and not just the popular thing. 

My purpose in saying these things is to make a very specific point. 

That point is that unless something is done to reverse the trend, we will soon find the visible Church dominated by the fringe…an intermingled group of lukewarm believers and Godless non-believers united not by one faith in God but by one faith in the world’s system.  The core will be reduced in size, influence, and effectiveness.  We will all rejoice in our election of leaders who promise a hope that is of ourselves and not of God.

If the core is going to do anything to reverse the trend, it has to rise up now.  Time is running out …

Who is living on the ‘fringe’ of the Church?

I don’t want to belabor the ‘problem statement’ too much before getting into some thoughts on the solution, but I think it’s wise to go one level deeper before moving on.

Let’s briefly elaborate on ‘core’, ‘fringe’, and ‘world’ then conclude with “so what?”

Core

These are obviously genuine believers in Jesus Christ.  They know their Bibles, or are working hard at knowing their Bibles.  Internally, they struggle to think and act as Christ would, whether that is popular or not.  When they mess up, it really hurts yet move on in God’s forgiveness.  The core is seen by the fringe and the rest of the world as generally loving and ‘good’ but also a threat to principles they hold dear such as ‘tolerance’ and ‘relative truth’.  The core’s firm belief in one God and one Savior makes the world and the fringe very uncomfortable, and this causes constant friction with these groups yet also unites the core in one Faith.

World

These are obvious non-believers in Jesus Christ.  Whether they label themselves athiest, agnostic or a believer in some other faith or cult, all deny one of the beliefs that make Christianity, Christianty.  These include historic essentials such as the diety of Christ, the atonement of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the return of Christ.  In general, these people are not upset by being called ‘non-Christian’, for they are not trying to be Christian. 

Fringe

For those thinking I’m being kindof black and white, here is the gray area…the vague overlap of the ‘core’ and the ‘world’.  The ‘fringe’ includes those people who would call themselves a Christian but who think and act differently from either the world or the core.  People in the fringe may or may not be ‘regenerated’ (born again). Some are genuine believers and simply immature; others are not believers but really like being in community with other believers.  Regardless, they all look about the same; they have little knowledge of the Bible, little motivation of study it on their own, little motivation to be more like Christ, and little motivation to act as Christ would act in situations where that “Christlike action” comes with personal risk or sacrifice.  Their focus is largly on conforming to the norms of the “church” community; and, because the ‘church’ community is mostly fringe (more on this in a later post), these norms align more with the world’s guidance on how to become happy and comfortable and less with God’s guidance.

So, what does this mean?  It means that you, the reader, fall into one of these groups.  If you are in the world, you probably don’t care much about any of this.  If you are in the fringe, I am praying that God would call you to the core.  If you are in the core, I’m praying you might help me help those in the fringe whom God is calling to the core get there.

More to come…

Let’s begin…

…with a couple of assertions and see what happens.

There are three kinds of people in this world: “Core”, “Fringe”, and “World”.  The ‘core’ includes obvious, genuine, mature believers in Jesus Christ.  The ’world’ includes those who are obviously not believers but one day still could be.  The ‘fringe’ includes those who either are believers and yet look like the world or are not really believers yet look like believers.  Either way, those in the ‘fringe’ look and behave in a very similar way; and, it’s often really hard to tell the difference between a believer and a non-believer because of the way each have been ‘conformed’ by the culture around them.

For the most part, western evangelical local churches…especially ‘large’ churches…are doing a really good job of growing the ‘fringe’ but are not doing much to grow the ‘core’.  Therefore, the ‘fringe’ is growing at a faster pace than the ‘core’.

How are we so far?

Why would anyone start a blog?

Quite frankly, I don’t know. But then again, I did not know why anyone would want to join facebook until I did!

This blog is not intended to be simply my random ramblings. Rather, I want to stream some thoughts on the state of the Church and gather input in preparation for the launch of a discipleship ministry that God has placed in my heart.

I look forward to engaging discussion with whoever the Lord leads to this thread.

John