† “You Christians are all alike! Holier than thou narrow-minded people who think that your way is the only way and you look down on those that have a different opinion…
† “I’m trying to contact as many churches as possible. I am thinking about suicide and this is the only way I know to work through the pain!”
† “I have been facing many challenges recently, one of which involved signs and symptoms of cancer. I was in so much pain…”
All three people approached me within the last few days. All are suffering and need to be reassured in a way only God can offer. One could have been burned by a church or minister. Another suffers with emotional and physical disabilities. The third has been told of having a life threatening illness and is seeking healing. Their problems are not unique. How they found me is. I’ve never actually met any of them. All three approached me over the Internet by email. Why?
It is truly a different world! Surveys show heightened interest in spiritual issues. The phenomenal popularity of “Touched By An Angel” on television and the “Chicken Soup of the Soul” book series illustrate the general public’s newfound interest in God. Religious websites offering devotions, Bible study, chat rooms and prayers are the fastest growing segment on the Internet. Yet the typical mainline church is still declining and hundreds are even closing. In other words, many people seeking God are going someplace other than their local church.
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the story of a business owner going on a journey and entrusting various sums of money with three employees. After a time the owner returns and asks the three for a report. The first two employees give glowing accounts of how they doubled their boss’s original investment. The owner is very pleased and invites them to join the company as full partners. The third employee, however, afraid of failure, did nothing. The reaction of the owner was righteous anger as he took the money away and the timid one was sent into the darkness.
Jesus has gone on a journey and has entrusted the church to act as His holy messenger. The lesson clearly favors those churches that respond to today’s needs by creatively applying and teaching the active and penetrating Word of God. Churches that do not adapt, like our timid employee, will face a dismal future of too many funerals and too few baptisms.
Why are so many becoming tuned in to God yet being turned off by God’s church?
– They don’t understand my situation: The church is considered to be out of touch with typical career and family concerns. For example: More than fifty percent of unchurched adults are single. Yet few churches support any kind of singles ministry.
– All they want is my money: A group of men were asked to describe what the church expected of them. They said: Attend worship, write a check and don’t make waves.
– Worship is dull: Television, movies and sporting events offer exciting entertainment so worship services can easily be perceived as dull by comparison.
– Church members are eager to judge and slow to help: Most of us find God in the midst of great struggle or tragedy, yet the church often seems ill equipped to provide real aid.
If most folks think we are dull, badger them for money and offer criticism rather than understanding is it any wonder why they stay away? Yet, God’s church offers the reassuring message of God’s continuing love and grace to a world desperately seeking hope! But we must be willing to adapt the methods used to present that message to a changing world. Three people sharing their concerns through email and the Bible story of three employees investing their boss’s money vividly reminded me that we as the church can and must do better.
Part 2: Here is how!
After a long, tiring week at school, I just needed to walk to my parking place and begin the two-hour journey home. Only… something was wrong. My car was missing! “Can you believe this?” I thought. “Some dirty rotten, no-good… stole my car. Now what?” Furious, I stomped to the campus police station and demanded action. After filing a report the car’s description was broadcast over the radio. Within five minutes an officer called back saying, “I think I’ve found it!”
“What happened?” I wondered. “Did the thief take a joyride and then abandon the car? Would there be any damage?” A few minutes later, I was driven to a parking lot less than 200 yards from where my car was stolen. Or was it stolen? With a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach, I suddenly remembered that this particular week, I had parked my car in a different parking lot and out of habit simply expected it to be where it never was. “How embarrassing!”
“…out of habit, I expected them to be where they never were.” This statement also reminds me as a pastor that I have to be careful to guide our church to the right parking lot. In other words… As a church are we merely comfortable with doing what worked forty or fifty years ago or are we truly reaching out to serve God and meet the real needs of the world as it is today?
The last words of Jesus were: “I have been given complete authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
I see three lessons and a promise:
† Vision: I have been given complete authority… Jesus has been given complete authority from God. Does your church have a vision that reflects God’s authority? It’s hard to know what path to travel without an eventual destination. Where does your church want to go?
† Teach: Teach these new disciples… Are you teaching disciples? People are hungry to grow stronger in their faith. Is your church offering a good Bible Study that will allow them to ask tough questions? Do you offer small groups for prayer and support?
† Empower: …baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Is your church in the business of empowering disciples? One good description of a church is as matchmaker: matching community needs with the unique talents of people. New disciples are encouraged to join existing ministries or form new ones which in turn, attract more new disciples to teach and empower. It is an endless cycle of growth and renewal.
Here is the promise: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. This wonderful assurance gives us wisdom to pray, patience to wait, discipline to prepare, humility to encourage and ultimately courage to take risks knowing that God always lovingly protects us. Some examples:
† A dying church participates in a special Bible study. During one class, they decide to start an after-school program. Three years later the church is back on it’s feet and growing.
† A coat salesman in Sunday school hears of school children with no winter coats. The coat project now provides those new coats for more than 500 children every year.
† A struggling church sends a discouraged widow to a singles retreat. She comes back with a vision to start a singles ministry. Thanks to her ministry, the church is thriving.
Larry, what about the future? It took a lost automobile to help me realize that looking towards the future first means knowing that I am in the right parking lot. If the church I serve has a vision and is faithfully teaching and empowering disciples then ultimately God will give us a unique ministry suitable for our church and our community. Meanwhile, I’m working on improving my memory.
The hospital informed June, a young single mother that her nine-year-old Melissa contracted a rare virus that affects the heart. Usual treatments would not be effective. Without a miracle her precious child could die within the next few days. Later that night, alone and feeling especially vulnerable, June gave in to her fears and began to sob uncontrollably. What would she do? Where would she go? The closest relatives were over 500 miles away and she had few friends.
Kathy, a nurse at the same hospital heard about June’s situation and after returning home, turned on her computer and went online. First she contacted a regular chat group and asked for prayers. Within minutes a reply appeared suggesting that she take the request to a national prayer web site that would literally reach thousands. Over the next few hours, hundreds of email offers of prayer and support arrived. Kathy printed each one to bring back to the hospital.
John, a pastor in the same community came home and checked his email. One message was from the same web site asking prayers for a young girl. Noticing the similar location, he called a church leader and asked her to contact other members of the church prayer chain. Then he slipped on his coat and rushed to the hospital to be with the little girl and her mother.
Sharon, a virile disease specialist stationed at a hospital in Venezuela also saw the prayer request and had a hunch that she could help the little girl. She emailed her reply to the message: “Please send the phone number of her doctor. An experimental drug just released for testing may be helpful.” Within minutes she received the phone number and was talking to the doctor. Within an hour the hospital received her fax including detailed treatment instructions.
Early the next day, it was evident that the treatment was beginning to work. Melissa was now in a regular room and was sleeping peacefully. Her mother, June was sitting nearby reading the stack of email notes offering support and prayer. Also in the room were John and several members of the church prayer chain. The atmosphere as if by magic was now full of the healing spirit of God.
This amazing story describes God’s power at work in a new medium called cyberspace.
The business world has been mesmerized by the profit potential of the Internet, but few people realize how much the digital world is also transforming the nature of the church and how we do ministry. Andrew Careaga, author of E-vangelism: Sharing the Gospel in Cyberspace writes: “On the ‘Net,’ any Christian with a home computer, a modem and access to one of many available online services can be a missionary to thousands of people without ever leaving home.”
Here are some common examples of Christian Cyberspace Ministry:
† A pastor continues to keep up with those who have moved through email.
† A Bible Study web site can give thousands a chance to understand God’s Word.
† A student beginning to explore her faith finds love and acceptance in a cyber chat room.
† My own devotions reach thousands instantly but also within a few minutes I can answer individual feedback and even offer counseling support.
† A Single Adult uses a Christian based Singles Ministry Website to meet new friends.
In the early days of the church, the book of Acts reports: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.” (2:42) The reminder is that our mission as the church should never change: only our method of transmission.
Can a Christian web site or email prayer chain ever replace the intimacy of personal contact? Of course not! What the Internet represents is a powerful tool that allows our church to teach, offer fellowship and be in prayer in creative new ways. Just as in the book of Acts we can be filled with awe at the many wonders and miraculous signs being done in the name of Christ. A single mother and her healthy child can certainly attest to that and are no doubt… very grateful.