[The following is an adaptation of a sermon I preached to The Vineyard on March 6, 2011. We attempted to record it in order to post the audio file, but because Satan lives in technological equipment, we only got the first 2/3 of the message. The message was pretty long, even by my standards, so you guys get to read it in its more concise, less-rambling form. No really, this is the shorter form. Seriously. I hope you don’t enjoy it.]
I recently received a pretty interesting birthday present from my friend, Dave. For my birthday, Dave got me the month away from the pulpit. He surprised me by asking several of his friends to fill in for me over the entirety of February. So I’ve been stewing and chewing on some stuff over the past month without any worries about what the next great sermon topic was going to be. As usually happens, my thoughts were very heavily focused on our church: our past year as a new church plant, our present state, and where we’re supposed to go from here.
Over the course of my month of soul searching, the Lord kept bringing me back to a phrase that really nagged at my heart for our church. I was very happy as I remembered the incredible year that God has given us as a church. We’ve seen him move in such amazing ways, and I can’t describe how proud I am of our budding church in the ways that we have grown. But as I looked to the future, I questioned where we were going from here. While I can point to clear, unquestionable spiritual growth among the community of people called The Vineyard, I have difficulty seeing much intentional, numeric growth in the Kingdom. As I survey the present state of our church, I see a degree of comfort creeping in that really makes me worry for us. I see genuine, loving community among the members of our group. I see love and a desire to grow together in the Lord among the members of our group. I see a deep-seated desire to worship wholeheartedly and genuinely among the members of our group. But I don’t see a desire to intentionally add to the members of our group. I feel like we’ve become quite comfortable in getting together on Sundays for worship and during the week for small groups without any desire to expand beyond that. I see a great level of comfort within a group of friends that are closer than family. But I don’t see a desire to disrupt the status quo by the addition of new people. I feel like, if we never did anything to shake things up and change things around to position ourselves to intentionally reach out, we’d be sadly okay with that. We could continue to coast along with no general direction at all, as long as we’re coasting together. As long as we have our weekly gatherings, as long as we could hang out through the week, and as long as our kids can grow up together, we could be happy. But I say to you, if there is never any change in us, then I don’t really want to be a part of it. This is why the Lord kept bringing me back to a single, nagging phrase over the course of my sabbatical. In looking to the future direction of our church, God kept reminding me that…
If something doesn’t change, then nothing is ever going to change.
Seems logical. It seems almost idiotic for me to state such an obvious fact. Right now, you’re probably thanking me for taking you on that lovely trip down Logic Lane. But the truth is there: if nothing changes in us, then what makes us think that we will all of a sudden start to reach people or change our city? I feel like, a year ago as a church plant, we launched out into the middle of the ocean with great fervor, and incredible enthusiasm to be different and to change our city and to reach people that no one else was reaching. We launched out into the great wide ocean in our little row boat hoping to do something big for the Lord. But somewhere along the way, we became comfortable in our present spiritual state and decided to throw away the oars and just soak up the sun. I feel like, as a church, we are adrift at sea. We’re at the mercy of the ocean. As long as we have our preferences, our friends, and our comfort, we’re okay just sitting back and letting the ocean take us wherever it pleases. What I see is a lack of intentionality on our part, and I tell you this: I am not okay with that.
When it comes to growth, I measure growth in two ways. Growth is measured by spiritual growth (change in individuals who already know the Lord). I’ve seen this kind of growth in abundance in our church. But growth is also measured by numeric growth in the Kingdom (people who don’t know the Lord starting a relationship with him). I haven’t seen this in abundance in our church, even though we claim that to be one of our core reasons for existing. I haven’t seen us be intentional about growing the Kingdom of God. I see intentionality in growing our relationships with each other. I see intentionality about growing our individual relationships with the Lord. But I see little intentionality about growing our relationships with others for the purpose of grafting them into the Kingdom of God. I see genuine love amongst our group, but I see little effort to grow that love outward. And I tell you this: if something doesn’t change, we never will see outward growth. The Lord has continually brought me back to this idea that, if we don’t change something, then we are going to continue to just be adrift: a boat going nowhere in the wide spiritual sea. And I say again, I’m not okay with that.
With God bringing me continually back to this concept, I kept asking myself and God the question, “What, then, do we need to change?” I don’t question the desire of any person who is a part of The Vineyard. I believe our hearts’ desire is to genuinely seek the Lord and to genuinely see his Kingdom impacted by us. I don’t believe it’s our desires that need to change. I think what we need is a fundamental shift in our priorities as a church.
Now I know that when I challenge you to question your priorities, you instantly think of a hundred sermons that challenge us to put God first, allow him on the throne of our lives, yada yada yada, you’ve heard this speech before. But when I talk about priorities, I am not talking about individual life priorities. I’m talking about fundamental, methodological church-wide priorities that determine the direction of our congregation’s efforts in the Lord. I want us to look at the Word and examine where our priorities should fall as a church, as a body of believers united under some main purpose. Where should our priorities lead us as a church? With that question in mind, I turn our hearts now to the Scriptures in…
31 But seek His kingdom, and these things will be provided for you. 32 Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Make money-bags for yourselves that won’t grow old, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
I have been pretty familiar with the truth of this passage for a long time, but I am much more familiar with that truth from the version of this sermon that is found in Matthew 6 during the Sermon on the Mount. Whether this is just Luke’s telling of the same sermon or a different time entirely when Jesus taught the same principle to a different group of people (not that a preacher would ever use the same sermon twice), the fact is that Jesus is sharing a truth that he spoke about often: the Kingdom of God should be our top priority in life. Because I was so familiar with the version of this truth from Matthew, I was most taken aback by the two statements in Luke that aren’t found in the Matthew account. First, Jesus follows up the earth shaking command to seek the Kingdom above all else with a statement about the Kingdom: God delights to give it to us. Luke shares with us something that Matthew leaves out: God’s desire is not only for us to seek his Kingdom first, but also to give us that Kingdom. This is one of those ideas that we know, believe, and understand, but often miss the magnitude and weight of such a statement. God wants us to experience his Kingdom. He finds pleasure and delight in giving us his Kingdom. That’s pretty stinking cool.
But once I have drifted back from my existential bliss at the thought of such a truth, my logical mind asks me what that’s supposed to look like. Enter statement number 2 that Luke includes where Matthew focuses elsewhere: Sell your possessions and give to the poor. After this statement, he launches back into familiar territory with the idea of storing up treasures in heaven (though Matthew reverses the order of these statements), but I can’t help but believe there is a reason Luke includes this statement where he does. I think he is trying to illustrate what Jesus meant when he told his followers to seek the Kingdom above all else. He is trying to show us what seeking the Kingdom first would actually look like. And surprisingly, he doesn’t offer the suggestions we might expect.
He doesn’t tell us to read our Bibles more. He does not say to strengthen our prayer lives. He doesn’t tell us to worship more fervently or even to show up to church more often. What he says is, Sell everything and give it away. I am not in any way downplaying the importance of the stuff I just mentioned. I think Bible study should be incredibly important in your life. I think prayer is a necessity when it comes to living a genuine Christian existence. I think both corporate and individual worship are essential in gaining the strength necessary to live for the Lord and serve as the only appropriate response to who God is. However, these things weren’t listed by Jesus when illustrating seeking the Kingdom first.
This is where that whole issue of priorities comes in. I think, somewhere along the line, we have convinced ourselves that seeking the Kingdom of God is all about a person’s individual relationship with God being strengthened and improved in some way or another. We have convinced ourselves that to seek the Kingdom means better Bible study, more ardent worship, deeper prayers, and improvement in any number of other spiritual disciplines practiced by the individual to grow closer to God. But, despite the fact the Jesus had all these great spiritual disciplines in his belt of illustrations, ready to be dispersed at a moment’s notice, he chose something entirely different to show us what seeking the Kingdom should look like.
He told us to sell everything and give it away to someone in need. This kind of brings a new light to what he was teaching prior to this passage: material needs are not as important as eternal needs. When he told his followers not to worry about food or clothing or shelter, but rather to spend their time, effort, and resources seeking his Kingdom first, I doubt they had something quite so radical in mind. It’s one thing to seek God’s Kingdom, as long as we are aptly provided for. It’s another thing to seek his Kingdom whether our needs are met or not. And here, Jesus drove home the biting truth that isn’t easy to swallow: we’re supposed to be more concerned with other people’s eternal spiritual needs than we are with our temporary material needs.
It blows my mind to think that the best illustration Jesus would give of seeking the Kingdom had very little directly to do with my spiritual disciplines in my relationship with the Lord. It had far more to do with me impacting the eternity of others through my relationship with them. Could this be what Jesus meant when he told us to store up treasures in heaven?
As I contemplate what kinds of things I will be able to take with me into eternity, I really can only think of two answers. First, I can take with me my relationship with the Lord. I can show up to heaven and stand before the Lord as a person who looks a lot more like Christ at the beginning of my eternity than I could have had I not sought him as fervently as I chose to throughout my time on earth. I can show up with a relationship that illustrates how deeply I was devoted to being like Christ in my character during my few short years on this earth. I believe this is very important, as we are told to carry inside us the attitude of Christ. But for some reason, I don’t think Christ-like character is enough to fulfill this command.
Before you get the gallows ready to hang me as a heretic, allow me to explain. The reason I find this possible answer to what Jesus meant insufficient is because I believe that Christ-like character should ultimately result in Christ-like actions. This is the idea from 1 John 2:6, that whoever claims to live in him should walk as Jesus did. And when Jesus was here on this earth in the flesh, despite all his personal piety, I wouldn’t describe his primarily focus in life to be personal holiness. When Jesus was here, he focused his entire life’s attention on reaching people for the Kingdom.
This is why I tend to lean on the second possible answer to what Jesus was talking about when he encouraged us to store up treasures in heaven. I THINK HE WAS TALKING ABOUT PEOPLE! That’s the only other option of what we can actually take with us to heaven. We can’t take our cool technology. We can’t take our nice homes or fast cars. We can’t take anything except us and the others who we have eternally impacted with Christ’s love.
If that’s the case, then shouldn’t our priorities as individuals and as a church fall much more heavily on seeking to add people to the Kingdom than on simply improving our own personal piety? Again, I’m in no way trying to undermine the importance of personally seeking the Lord. I just can’t help but feel that we often seek the Lord at the expense of ignoring others. But Jesus commands us to do exactly the opposite. He says sell everything (stuff that helps us) and give it to those in need (in order to help others). Sacrifice our needs in order to meet the needs of others. Focus so intentionally on the needs of others that we have to trust God to meet even our most basic of personal needs. That’s how he describes seeking the Kingdom.
At this point, we usually like to point out Jesus’ frequent use of hyperbole in his illustrations. We say that surely Jesus wouldn’t ask us to give up everything we have. He’s just exaggerating to prove a point. Right? Whether you take his statement literally or figuratively, the point is clear: we are to seek the eternal benefit of others more than we seek the temporary benefit of ourselves. We are supposed to be willing to sacrifice our comfort, our safety, even our stuff, in order to help someone else enter into the Kingdom. We are to give up EVERYTHING that we can in order to impact the eternity of others. This is to be our highest priority in this life.
People are the only thing outside of us that we can take with us into heaven. We can’t take our stuff. And trust me, I love my stuff. I have always been the kind of person that, if I wanted something, I got it for me. I love providing me with everything I want. The problem is, when I store up so much temporary stuff for me, it’s really hard for me to see anything else around me. I can’t see the eternal needs of others through the temporary desires of my own selfish life. Even when it came to my own spiritual growth, I was so intensely worried about myself that I didn’t really focus on the spiritual needs others.
Now I’m beginning to realize how my priorities need to change. Jesus said sell everything, and I’ll tell you why. Because he understood and wanted us to understand just how momentary this life is. We don’t have any clue what the concept of eternity means. The only reference point we have for eternity is in multiples of our own lifetimes. I understand eternity in multiples of 29 years. No matter how much I try to grasp eternity, the best I can do it compare it to the life I’ve already lived. Eternity seems like a long time, but so does 29 years. Because of my insufficient view of eternity, a problem arises. I’ve convinced myself that this life is all that really matters. I’ve convinced myself that this is really all that life has to offer. I’ve convinced myself that this life is all there really is.
But this life we live isn’t true life. Whether we live another 10 years or 100 years, this is only a shadow of what true life is. Life happens when we leave this place and enter into the presence of God into eternity. But we’ve convinced ourselves that this life is as good as it gets. Because of this, we store up for ourselves treasures on earth. We’ve convinced ourselves that we need stuff. We want our families to have the stuff they need, so we do whatever we have to do to make that happen. We want to have something to fall back on whenever we get old, so we do what has to be done to make that happen. But in all our working to provide for ourselves and our families, we have lost the ability to see the eternal needs of those around us.
But what Jesus wanted us to see was that this life is so short, that we need to spend our time incredibly wisely. Jesus wanted us to take our old ‘last semester of high school’ mentality to the extreme. When you entered into that last semester of your senior year of high school, you realized that sooner than later, everything was about to change. Life as you knew it was coming to an end, and everything was going to be different soon. So you went all out. You went after the girl. You partied like it was 1999 (for some of you, it was; for others, you have no idea what this weird cultural reference means). You did everything you could to fulfill your top priorities in the little amount of time you had left. Because summer was coming soon, you knew life would never be the same. When it’s over, it’s over. But at least you’ll be able to look back on it and know that you lived it, that you did what you had to do. The little bit of time that you had left you spent in the right way.
Take that illustration into the spiritual realm and you have a close idea of what Jesus was telling us. He wanted us to WAKE UP and do something meaningful with our lives, because our lives are but a vapor that will soon be gone. Unfortunately, the mentality that we took in high school disappears afterward. We get out of high school and realize that we have all the time in the world to live our lives. Life will never end. It’s never going to change. So we ignore the stuff that will impact eternity and focus almost entirely on what is temporary.
We have a tendency to ignore the fact that there is a real, eternal hell, that is the present destination of billions of people around the world, and hundreds of thousands of people in our own back yard. There is a lot of buzz around the American Christian world right now about a guy named Rob Bell. He recently released a video promoting his upcoming book, Love Wins. In this video, he asks some very leading questions about the reality of hell and whether or not a loving God could truly punish someone into eternity. Couple this with the clearly claimed synopsis of the book released by the publisher, and a lot of American Christendom has erupted calling Bell a heretic and a Universalist because of his claims.
Avoiding the argument behind that issue entirely, I want to point out an even more appalling fact than someone making seemingly-Universalist claims. We live out Universalism every day of our lives by ignoring the eternal destiny of those around us. We would never claim to be Universalists. But our lives scream it. We have become functioning Universalists in every aspect of the term. We act like people aren’t really going to hell when they die. That’s really the only logical option we can claim. Otherwise, we are readily admitting to hating other people so much as to sabotage their eternity by not telling them the way to be saved. As my friend Dave often says, “How much must you hate someone to not tell them a bus is coming right for them?” If we don’t genuinely hate every lost person on the planet, the only other options are that we don’t really believe they will go to hell, or worse, we’re just too lazy to even think about it because people just aren’t worth our time, our effort, or our discomfort. Either way, we certainly have no reason to be proud of ourselves.
And I say to you, that if we are going to exist as a church full of a bunch of functioning Universalists, count me out. I want no part of it. What I want to do is to realize that this moment we have is fleeting. And I want to be able to say to Christ, I’m okay selling everything. I’m okay with giving it all up. Sign me up, because I know that right now, what is most important is reaching people. That’s it. And if that means getting rid of every temporary thing I own so that people can live eternally in the presence of God, so be it. Because I’m beginning to realize that my time on this earth is so fleeting, that’s okay. When Jesus said to seek first his Kingdom, the priority that he wanted us to have in mind was reaching people.
And I say to you, when I talk about our church needing a fundamental shift in our priorities, what I believe we need is to become a church that is more concerned with the people we are trying to reach than the people we are trying to keep.
Let me say that again: we need to be more concerned with the people we are tying to reach than the people we are trying to keep. I unashamedly stole that saying from Steven Furtick at Elevation Church. You can read about it on a great blog post he wrote here. This post was instrumental in pointing me down this journey I’ve been on.
Notice the underlined word in the previous statement. More. We are to be more concerned with evangelism than anything else. Instantly, red flags went up in your head. That’s because we have a tendency to focus on discipleship, this idea (as most people understand it) that is all about people growing closer to God in their relationships with him. Again, I assure you that I see discipleship as a great and noble aim in our lives. But what we tend to do with discipleship is make it all about us growing closer to God to the point that we get comfortable in forgetting that there is an aspect of discipleship called EVANGELISM!
We claim that if we focus on discipleship, then evangelism will come. I’ve heard that many times. I’ve said that many times. I’ve seen that very rarely. Every now and then, someone will actually get it. Someone will grow through their time in the Word in such a way that they are spurred outward. But for the vast majority of discipleship-oriented church-goers, discipleship doesn’t breed evangelism any more than issuing tickets convinces people to drive the speed limit. Most of the time, when we focus on discipleship, we develop an atmosphere of comfort where our greatest act of obedience is to get rid of some small aspect of our lives that isn’t exactly Christ-like.
I would argue the same thing Furtick argued in his blog: disciples who are focused on evangelism will breed other disciples. When we focus on evangelism, discipleship will come. I am truly beginning to see how discipleship follows the sacrifice that is necessary for evangelism.
We only have a small amount of time on this earth. We are not infinite. We only have a small number of options by which to spend our time. We at The Vineyard could focus quite easily on becoming the next trendy church, attracting other people from other churches or possibly reaching people that other churches are likely to focus their attentions on. Or we could focus on our own spiritual growth so that we ultimately get our own way: our style of worship, our style of teaching, our type of congregation. We could do these things.
Or we could do something entirely different. We could be more concerned with reaching people to impact eternity than we are with any of our own preferences. I was not entirely comfortable underlining that word, more, because I wanted us to be the church with a steady, healthy balance between discipleship and evangelism. Therefore we could be proud that we were focusing on the entire counsel of Scripture. But I’m beginning to see that our time on this earth is so short and our time in eternity so long, that we’ve got our priorities completely upside down. We will have an eternity to grow in our Lord. We will have an eternity to worship. We will not have much longer to share the Gospel with people who desperately need to hear it. To seek balance is to do a great injustice to the world around us.
So I argue that if we focus primarily on evangelism, the rest will fall into place. Is that not what Jesus claims in this passage? Seek first the Kingdom, and all the other stuff will be given to you. Your material needs will come. Your Lord will take care of the other stuff. Sell your possessions, give to the poor. Focus more on who is out there than who is sitting in your seat or living in your mirror. If we’re not here for evangelism, then why would God leave us on this fallen, depraved rock of an existence? Why not just sweep us directly into his presence and into eternity where we could grow faster, higher, deeper, and wider than we could ever dream of here on this earth? We must be here to be outward focused witnesses of our Lord.
That’s the fundamental shift I want to see. I want to see a church that is intentionally mobilized to reach our city and impact the Kingdom.
There are tons of churches out there that can be cool and trendy and hip. But when I look at the masses, I see people that are hurting and dorky and needy and socially awkward who desperately need a friend, and I don’t see many churches intentionally reaching out to those people. We throw a bone to the idea, but when it comes down to it, we want to reach other people who are just like us. We want to be a cool church that cool people can come to and feel cool at. But there are so many people out there that desperately need Christ who are anything but cool. And no one seems to be making much of an effort to show them that, despite their weirdness and social awkwardness, they are loved and wanted. I wouldn’t mind being the dorky church. I want to be the kind of church that attracts people that nobody else seems to care about.
This could be a fundamental milestone for us where everything changes. In fact, I believe this is going to be a milestone for us, one way or another. I say this because what I have in mind for the future of our church is either going to make us or break us. This is going to be our do our die moment. What I have for us is a concrete challenge that we are going to embark on over the course of the coming year that is either going to step us into the position God has for us in the city of Mobile or it’s going to convince us to shut our doors and go graze at one of the established churches elsewhere in our city.
I’m giving us a very concrete challenge, and I’m giving it to us in the form of math. We’re taking our first step toward becoming the dorky church. There is nothing difficult about this equation. It is nothing but basic math. But I think it can serve to challenge us to become intentional in impacting the Kingdom over the course of this year. So here it is, some basic math:
Kingdom + 1 > Kingdom
I know, it’s earth-shatteringly simple. But the truth is deep. If any one of us would impact the Kingdom of God by one other person over the course of this year, the Kingdom would be bigger and stronger because of it. It’s simple. It’s basic. It’s logical. So what’s to stop us? Our self-centered priorities? Our comfort? Our laziness? What would happen if we took this seriously?
Over the course of the coming weeks and throughout the coming year, you are going to hear this equation until you can’t stand it any more. And through it, I want to challenge every person who is a regular part of The Vineyard to take seriously their call to seek first the Kingdom of God by impacting the Kingdom by at least one soul this year. Every person, adding at least one other person to the Kingdom. That’s the challenge.
You know I’m not going to leave you hanging with no practical ideas about how to fulfill this challenge. So over the course of the next three weeks, you’re going to hear me talk about a very simple process of inviting people into the Kingdom. Here’s the basic preview of what we’re going to be talking about.
Step 1: Invite people to see Christ in you.
This means inviting someone into your life. This is the first, and probably the most important step of them all. Far too often, we think we can just invite people to church and that serves as evangelism. But this usually comes across as hollow and inauthentic. In order for someone to want Christ, they need to see what real life in Christ looks like. They need to see Christ in you. This is foundational in seeing someone want to truly follow Christ.
Step 2: Invite people to see Christ in community.
This is inviting someone to see your church. But I don’t want you to invite someone to your church gathering or small group for the purpose of hearing the Gospel from a preacher or teacher. I want you to invite them to see your church in order to see the Gospel at work in your community. People need to see what Christ looks like within the context of community. They need to see genuine love and sacrificial care. They need to see loss and heartache dealt with on the shoulders of the many as opposed to the sole back of the individual. They need to see grace experienced, not just grace talked about. This is crucial to leading someone to desire the life that you have in Christ.
Step 3: Invite people to see Christ in them.
This is the step that everyone dreads. This is what paralyzes people with fear and inaction. What if they reject me? What if they ask something that I don’t know the answer to? What if I don’t know what to say? We all have these fears (even me, who has been in ministry awhile, studied evangelism, and led lots of people through the process of evangelism). We all get scared. Are we willing to sacrifice our comforts and the possible awkwardness of the people we’re talking to for the sake of their eternity. During this week, we’ll talk about what do to invite someone to see Christ in them: namely, start following Christ. Very simply, we’ll talk about how salvation is following Christ and how you can encourage someone along that path.
So there you have it. There is our direction for the year. There is our challenge. Will you join me? I truly believe this is either going to make or break our church. This will either show us that we are here for a reason or that we have no unique purpose and probably should stop killing ourselves just to exist. I hope it’s the former, because the latter would really stink. I refuse to flounder as a church. I refuse to become complacent or comfortable. I refuse to be happy focusing on ourselves when countless others plunge directly into a dark eternity. I’m ready to start being intentional about reaching people. So let’s do this. What do you say?