The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty
The Naked Church – Chapter 20 – A Real Jesus in an Unreal World
As the Father has sent me,
I am sending you.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty – Remember our poor friend Sebastian, the fictitious pastor marooned in the hot Negev by a plane crash? Well, his doubt and anger grew as their situation in the desert worsened. Finally a stewardess, seeing what a harmful effect he was having on the others, confronted him:
You’ve got to prove to yourself that you are more than a Biblical Band-Aid panhandler. You’ve got to prove to yourself and this miserable bunch of suffering humanity that God exists in the proportion that you’ve been preaching most of your life from the sterile, antiseptic, safe pulpits.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty – It is a challenge that we need to hear too, even though a naked church cringes from such a challenge, unsure that Christianity can survive in the cold reality of this world. The excuses are many: “Isn’t it a bit too old fashioned and confining?” “People are so focused on their own pleasure that they don’t need a Savior.” “How can I share with someone else what isn’t even working for me?” “You try to walk a real Christianity in this world and you could get killed.”
We’ve all heard and made those excuses and many more. Some of them are even right, especially the getting killed part. Many people already have, including our Founder and almost all of his first followers.
Can Christianity make it in today’s world? We can almost talk ourselves out of that one, but is it really the right question? Aren’t we really asking whether God can make it in the real world? With the ambiguity out of the way, it certainly is a ridiculous question.
Not only can God make it here, but it’s the only place he does make it. He is not afraid to meet people in the real world, where every battle is not won, where people hurt and die, where all don’t repent and are saved. He’s not afraid of hospital rooms and screams of anger by people who misunderstand his love. He knows better than we that everything in this age will not end in temporal joy, and that rarely are the righteous rewarded in the world.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty – He is not a God who can be real only in stained-glass hues on velvet pews. If that’s the only place we’re finding him, then we’re not finding the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What we’re finding may be an aesthetic feeling or a surge of compassion, but not the God of the universe filling our lives with the reality of his presence.
God only stays in a church building if that’s where we leave him, and that’s where many people prefer to have him. He’s there when we need him, but he won’t meddle in my business, my family, or my recreational time. But this is written for those to whom God’s presence is good news—those who want to know him more fully, not less so.
We’ve seen the conventional forms of citywide crusades, TV evangelists, and door-to-door visitations miss the mark. Even the best attempts produce few people who move on to the fullness of life in Christ. For all our efforts the level of spiritual life in the West declines rapidly, even among professing Christians. With far less sophisticated measures the church has grown profusely in such places as China, South America and Africa. Though this fact does not necessarily negate our methods, it should at least call us to question whether we should be putting all our efforts into them.
Broken people rarely seem to make it to our programmed settings, and neither do the hungry. They’ve sat through them before and found them lifeless. The only way to reach them is to go into their world and show them how much Jesus cares about them. But here lies the difficulty. Life in the world is built on illusion and pretense. People prefer personal comfort to objective truth, and self-sufficiency to dependence on God. But that is our task—to make Jesus real in a world that runs from his reality.
Substance over Style
Just how do we present a relevant gospel to the world? Like everything else, there are right ways and wrong ways, and the wrong ones are easiest.
Some people seek to be relevant by becoming just like the world in speech, dress, and actions. Singing groups, only identifiable as Christian by the words on the record jacket, imitate their secular counterparts. TV evangelists invite the dubious testimonials of Hollywood luminaries whose own relationship to God is at best questionable. And closer to home, believers tell off-color jokes or join in the office gossip so unbelievers won’t think they are prudes. But if we look just like the world, what will they find in us worth having?
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty – Look down the street at the professed Christians on your block. What do you see different about their lives that shows the world that Jesus lives in them And don’t say they go to church, because that’s not the point. People who go to church just to find some peace are already church-goers. The rest want to see if going to church changes anything. If it doesn’t, and they see us pursuing the same objectives as the world, they won’t see any sense in Christianity, and I don’t blame them.
Imitating the world is often only an excuse to join it. And once you’ve done that, you have nothing left to offer it.
Other people take the opposite extreme. Cloistering in their own subculture with dress, songs, and terminology from past decades or even centuries, they seek relevance by presenting a conspicuous alternative to the world. Such subcultures survive through legalism, and legalism can only measure outward nonessentials. The world is not interested. This attempt at relevance is an escape from the difficult challenge of having to live in the changing realities of the world without succumbing to worldliness.
Still others distort the gospel to fit worldly desires. Find out what the world wants and give it to them in Christian terms. To entertain them, we turn the church into variety shows, hoping that entertainment will substitute for truth. To satiate pride and egotism, we teach a gospel of self-esteem and self-works. To appease the greedy, we teach prosperity, making the gospel of God’s love and fullness into a materialistic orgy of health and wealth.
Whenever we attempt to achieve relevance by distorting the gospel, we also render it ineffective and alienate the very people we are trying to touch with it. It will promise benefits without cost, and by doing so never achieve the promise. People will forsake it, disillusioned with God even though they never had the opportunity to meet him.
If all that Christianity offers people is a philosophy of life, it is easy to see why people fall for these attempts. But God did not call us to convince the world of our creed or to conform their lives to our values. He called us to demonstrate to them the truth about himself. He loves them and wants to redeem them from the torment of sin. They can then choose to either believe in him or else reject him.
Such a presentation of the gospel requires that we let God live through us in ways which are obvious to the world. Jesus demonstrated himself how we can associate with sinners in their settings in order to demonstrate his life to them. We don’t need to be offensive in our dress or demeanor. We don’t need false attempts to imitate their behavior. We simply need to be real people treating others with the gentleness, compassion and respect we’ve found in God for ourselves.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty – The substance of our lives is more important than any style we try to adopt. The substance of our faith is not theology or morals, but the presence of the living God. It is that presence, shining out of our words and actions, that will draw people to him. When you can heal a blind man, set a madman free, or confront a prostitute with the forgiveness of God, you won’t need to look like the world to get its attention. You will have it.
In our day heaven and earth are on tiptoe waiting for the emerging of a Spirit-led, Spirit-intoxicated, Spirit-empowered people. All of creation watches expectantly for the springing up of a disciplined, freely gathered, martyr people who know in this life the life and power of the kingdom of God. It has happened before, it can happen again.
You can’t have a hope like Richard Foster’s if you also don’t share his assessment:
Individuals can be found here and there whose hearts burn with divine fire. But they are like flaming torches scattered in the night. As yet there has been no gathering of a people of the Spirit… Our century has yet to see the breaking forth of the apostolic church of the Spirit.
How can he say this despite all our superchurches and renewal movements? Quite simply because it’s true. No doubt God has done marvelous things in this century to call people into the fullness of his life and to free them to take his presence to the world. Every time, however, the freshness of renewal easily succumbs to man’s efforts to control it, define it, and exploit it through programs and institutions. Like Richard Foster, however, I too am confident that it can still happen, and I’m even more convinced by the rising hunger I find in people who are tired of all the sideshows and want to see Jesus reveal himself to people in the reality of everyday life.
The world has had enough of apathetic Christians who are only interested in their own well-being, of political Christians whose only task is to ram morality down the world’s throat, of privileged Christians who strut about with an air of superiority as if they have somehow earned God’s blessing. God desires to equip a generation of believers who can be what I call prophetic people.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty – By that I don’t mean they are fortune-tellers, or angry people screaming about God’s wrath, but those who move outside the safety of church structures and terminology and into one-on-one encounters that bring the reality of Jesus into our starving world. Howard Snyder in Liberating the Church called them kingdom people and contrasts their perspective with how most of us have been trained to think:
Church people think about how to get people into the church; kingdom people think about how to get the church into the world. Church people worry that the world might change the church; kingdom people work to see the church change the world.
The apostle Paul was a world-changing believer, and he encouraged us to follow his example. In 1 Corinthians 2 he writes very personally about his methods and motives in ministry, and in so doing he gives us five characteristics of the kind of prophetic people that God is seeking today.
“I came to you.”
Prophetic people recognize that the work of God always begins in someone’s life, where they are. The church cannot afford to carve its niche in the mountain and call the world to come up to it. The incarnation itself demonstrates how God wants us to deal with people. He crawls down into the pit of their own pain and misery, shows them how much he loves them, and offers them his hand to lead them out of the pit into life in Christ.
Can we do less? Incarnational evangelism is becoming a popular term for this important concept. Jesus lives in people, and through them he wants to reveal himself to the world. This happens best not in evangelistic rallies but in the natural encounters of everyday living. People don’t have to come to church to be touched, since the church goes to them. We can then rightfully be more concerned with how believers are being vessels during the week, than with how many visitors fill the pews.
Whether at work, school, shopping, or play, we are available to be God’s agent to anyone near us. This kind of outreach demands loving each person as an individual and extending to him the heart of God by our attitudes and actions. It also means that we need to be ready to act in the spontaneity of uncontrolled settings. That’s what impresses me about the early church: 90 percent of its ministry happened on the street and lives were transformed. Today 90 percent happens in our own buildings and is powerless. No wonder we’re not touching the world effectively!
Paul was at home whether he was sharing the life of Jesus with a group of women sitting by a river, with hostile Jews in a synagogue, with philosophers at the Areopagus, or with a Roman court. In fact, one of the things that impressed the unbelievers about the early believers was how well they functioned in settings that they were not prepared for. The Sanhedrin was awed by Peter and John’s defense because these disciples were not learned men.
“I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty – Prophetic people are preoccupied with Jesus. Regretfully, Christians often get sidelined by various aspects of the Christian experience. They jump on bandwagons such as spiritual gifts, apologetics, pet theologies, or specific methods of prayer or ministry. Listen to people talk about their churches and you’ll usually hear them talk of a particular teacher they enjoy or a particular method of ministry.
Why isn’t Jesus the only attraction? Anything in the church should find value only in how it helps people love Jesus and walk in obedience to him. He has granted us access to the Father and sent us the Holy Spirit to make that access real for each of us every day. Though people perceive their needs to be physical or emotional, only this intimacy will satisfy their hunger.
This relationship was forged at the cross, where mercy reigned over judgment. By focusing our message on that mercy, we can reach the bruised and hurting with the life of Jesus, and can help them find not only forgiveness of sin, but also cleansing to live free of its bondage.
“I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.” Prophetic people are of necessity courageous people. They are always going past their own sense of personal ease or competence to obey the Spirit. He wants us to touch the world with his power. This doesn’t mean that prophetic people are never afraid; they’re always afraid, but they find the courage to obey in spite of their fear.
Relevance is risky business. The opportunities to be taken advantage of, or to get in over your head in your attempts to love people, are always present. Most of the time when I’m sensing God’s direction to talk or pray with a certain person, I tremble inside. What if they think I’m crazy? What if I mess it up? The flow of God’s Spirit lies beyond our own personal comfort. What Jesus did for us wasn’t comfortable, and if we don’t risk discomfort ourselves we’ll never discover the wealth of God’s power or the fruitfulness of incarnational ministry.
“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.”
We’ve already talked about this Scripture and our need to depend on God’s power moving through us rather than on our natural abilities. It would have been easy for Paul to go to Corinth staking his success on his vast knowledge, experience, or speaking ability. God wanted him, however, to demonstrate to them the power of his presence, and that’s why he needed courage. Power was something he couldn’t control and couldn’t guarantee. He could only trust.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty – The same choice faces me in my encounters with the world. I can either rely on the formulas and speeches that are common in our day, or else follow the Spirit into uncharted waters. We prefer formulas, because they let us take control of the situation. But they often feel artificial to the hearers. They know we have switched from caring about them in a real dialogue, to getting through our spiel.
Safer is rarely more powerful. Don’t be afraid to take the risk of relying on what he wants to do rather than what makes you most comfortable. When you sense his leading, pray for sick people, comfort the broken-hearted or offer a meal to someone who can never invite you back. These all demonstrate the power of God to change lives.
“[We have received] the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.”
Prophetic people are led by the Holy Spirit—not plans, formulas, or learned techniques. Jerry Cook, whose book Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness seeks to equip people for this kind of ministry, said it well:
I want to be prophetic. This means that I should be speaking what God is speaking. The gift of prophecy is the gift of insight. I should be bringing God’s insight into situations.
This is the heart of being a prophetic person: We bring God’s mind into the very situations in which we are involved. And the only way to do this is to be led by the voice of the Spirit.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty – Remember Jesus’ ministry to the Samaritan woman at the well? By the Spirit he knew that she had been married five times and was now living with yet another man. That knowledge convinced her of God’s reality, and she surrendered to him. What a powerful encounter, and one which the Spirit can duplicate through us if we’ll listen!
A friend of mine was shopping in a local mall when she became irritated by the continual crying of two nearby infants. Glancing over, she muttered to herself about how incompetent the mother must be in disciplining her children. As she disgustedly turned back to her shopping, however, she suddenly felt impressed to see if the mother needed any help. The mother accepted gratefully explaining that her children had special needs and she was at her wits’ end. She began to weep uncontrollably. Her husband had just left her and she had no friends in the area. That led to sharing, prayer, and an exchange of phone numbers for future contact.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty – Rushing to the hospital one day to pray for a premature baby who was in critical condition with respiratory problems, I was reminded of a similar trip I had made a year-and-a-half earlier. That time a baby was about to be born dead. As I prayed for that baby, deep inside a voice told me to stop, that this baby wouldn’t be healed. But I still prayed for healing, wanting to be a source of hope and faith to the family. The baby died anyway, and I didn’t want to make the mistake again and be a source of insubstantial
This time I asked the Spirit to show me what he was doing. He led me to pray for healing. I met others at the hospital and we did exactly that. Within a matter of hours the situation changed dramatically, and eventually the baby recovered fully.
I don’t know how God decides what he’ll do in any situation; it is enough for me to trust him and follow his leading as best I see it. Paul concludes this passage by saying that God wants us to have the mind of Christ—to know his plans and follow them. Could we love this world more effectively in any other way?
People of Power
This kind of ministry is not for people who are pressed by guilt or the need to validate their salvation by works. We waste countless dollars, energy, and time trying to motivate people to evangelism. What a contrast that is from Peter’s words, when all the effort of his day was being used to stop the early Christians from sharing their faith: “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
Evangelism in the early church was not submission to a difficult obedience. It was as natural for the early believers to talk about God as it is for us to talk about a football game when our team defeats an archrival in the last second. We talk about it with close friends, and even work it into conversations with clerks in stores and strangers in lines. We relive the excitement every time we retell it.
Unfortunately, for too many Christians the life of Jesus is not as correspondingly exciting. So we think we have to force people to talk about Jesus, even though such sharing is canned and forced. That’s not what Peter and John were doing at the temple; they couldn’t stop themselves. A lame man had been healed and people were asking questions—no contrived dialogue here! Their faith was really exciting enough to compete with new houses and Olympic games, and people wanted to listen.
The reason many people are not interested in the gospel is that they heard about it from someone who either wasn’t living it or was finding no joy in doing so. No amount of contrived joy or institutional program will remedy the problem; intimacy must precede any valid work of evangelism. If it’s not real for us, how can we convey its reality to someone else?
This is true for each believer as well as for the church as a whole. Every church should be challenged by David Watson’s words: Until the kingdom of God can be demonstrated in our relationships of love with one another, we will have nothing credible to say to an unbelieving world.
On the day he ascended, Jesus told his disciples to go back to Jerusalem and wait until they were filled with power. That’s good advice for us. If Jesus isn’t alive in you, that must be your only priority. Learn to be filled with his presence; then, like the disciples, you will find yourself being a witness. It isn’t something you have to force.
When he’s not that real for us, it’s a warning sign to deepen or rebuild our relationship with him. There are many ways to do this, such as fasting, having extended times of prayer, or seeking the counsel of another believer. The reasons these are so unused today is that we aren’t really looking for God’s presence to be demonstrated through us. If God’s presence isn’t the goal of those things, then we’ll find them to be ineffective in accomplishing whatever else we want to do.
But if we want God to be alive in us, to meet our needs as well as those of others, then fasting becomes a useful tool to suppress the aggressiveness of the flesh and bask in God’s presence. Worship and prayer become effective links to God’s heart. Our need for the support, encouragement, and friendship of other believers will be undeniable.
Wait on him until his presence becomes a reality, until his power courses through your veins. Then you’re ready to be a vessel wherever you are and with all the resources which the Spirit has to share through you.
The Harvest Is Ready
Even in the self-sufficiency of Western culture, Jesus’ words are still true: “The harvest is plentiful.” If we can look past the facades that our world uses to hide its pain, maybe we will see what Mother Teresa saw:
The spiritual poverty of the Western world is much greater than the physical poverty of our people. You in the West have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness.
It is also true that the “workers are few.” Extending the reality of God’s kingdom is the only reason we still exist on this planet, and the spreading of that message to more people is the only reason God waits to send his Son back again for us.
If God’s only objective is for us to have closer fellowship with him, he might as well kill us at conversion. No matter how closely we walk with him in this life, it is but a shadow of what we will know of him throughout eternity. We are here so that others might see him in us. None of us can escape that call, but if you’re growing in intimacy you won’t want to.
The church of Jesus Christ is an underground movement in occupied land. Our joy will be found only in fulfilling the mission that God has given us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a brilliant young theologian in Germany. During World War II his friends smuggled him out of Germany to save his life, only to see him give up his newfound freedom and willingly return. “I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials for this time with my people.”
He died in a German prison camp only days before it was liberated by the Allies. His words should carry great weight when he wrote:
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty – The church must get out of the cloister and into the world… [where] man is challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. He must therefore plunge himself into the life of a godless world without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or trying to transfigure it. He must live a worldly life and so participate in the suffering of God.
Bringing God’s goodness to a world that prefers its own selfishness isn’t easy. But full of God’s power, we can do so with a depth of wisdom and compassion that flows even to those who work hardest against us.
Intimacy with God allows us to see the world through his eyes. There are broken lives he wants to mend, outcasts to be loved, captives to be liberated, and sick people to be made whole. That’s what he will be doing today.
Wouldn’t you like to join him?
Produced with permission from Wayne Jacobsen.