Does the Church Have a False View of Self?

23 10 2014

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.  1 Timothy 1:15-16

eye in the mirrorDoes it matter whether or not Paul was in fact the “foremost sinner” before coming to Christ? Or, is the more important point that he perceived himself as such? Yeh, I think so too. It is the self-perception on this issue which matters most.

I think  two of the biggest problems for most Christ-followers today is (1) having a false sense of who God is, and (2) having a false sense of who we are without him. The gospel is difficult in the American culture because there are so many in this culture who, frankly, do not feel the need for a savior.  What’s worse, the church has become less effective as those of us in the church have tended to forget for ourselves just how desperately we need a savior. Still.

Churches, you see, can have a false sense of self just as well as individuals…we can actually stop remembering who we are without God. We can get so wrapped up in “doing church” that we lose sight of what matters most. Specifically, here are five ways I have seen us have a false sense of self…here are some lies we sometimes believe about our church:

1. We’re better because our music/preaching/buildings/programming/resources are better. Truth is, we are probably not better at all. But IF we are better, it is only because of the work of the Spirit among us. All the stuff we do…is just stuff. With Jesus, the church has all it needs. Without Jesus, we can do nothing.

2. Our numbers prove that we’re successful and making a difference. Our numbers prove we are reaching people, and that’s a good thing. But our numbers do not tell us anything at all about spiritual transformation or changed lives. Without those, we are accomplishing very little.

3. We are a missional church and should be focused outside the church, not on relationships within the church. According to Jesus in John 17, missions outside the church DEPEND UPON relationships within the church.

4. We’re efficient, doing more and more ministry with fewer and fewer people. What do you think is more valuable to the kingdom…having a broader ministry reach or involving more of our people in real ministry? Think about it.

5. The current absence of any unhealthy conflict in our church proves that we have unity. Wrong. It proves we are currently between issues. And that’s it. Unity has to do with the quality and transparency of our relationships with each other, with conflict or without it.

When Paul refers to himself as the foremost among sinners, he is simply recognizing who he really is without Christ. In desperate need of a savior. It is a healthy self-awareness. Let’s help our church have that same level of reality when we look in the mirror. It will do us good.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Truth, Bias, and the American Way

21 10 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.  2 Peter 1:20-21

oathAs a trial attorney, I suppose I have said it to at least a hundred or so jury panels during the voir dire examination of them, when the parties are trying to decide whom to strike from the jury panel.  That’s the way our system works.  The parties each get to strike a certain small number of prospective jurors, and the first 12 left comprise the jury.  It is an examination for one purpose…to determine any relevant bias which may make a juror the wrong juror for a particular case.  So, I have said this to all of them: “We all have biases.  They don’t make us a bad person.  They don’t make us liars.  They don’t make us deceptive.  In our area of bias, they just make us an unreliable finder of truth in that area.”

Those words rang so very true, I think, as little as 50 years ago in our culture.  Truth cannot be found in bias.  But, in more recent years, I fear that our bias-rich American culture is making it more and more difficult for us to explore truth without bias.  I have stopped watching national news, pretty much completely.  Why?  Because every single national news syndicate in our country is hopelessly biased, whether by choice or by accident.  I’m certain it does not matter which.  What bothers me most about that sad fact is that real journalism was our last secular hope for knowing truth.  Then again, maybe that was false hope from the very beginning.  Maybe there is no real hope for truth in a secular world.  Maybe the human condition forbids it.

So, if the secular world holds no hope for discovering truth, what about the spiritual world?  What about spiritual discernment of scriptural truths?  It seems that the church has had its share of struggles there as well.  We are an intelligent and creative people.  We are apparently capable of making scripture say almost anything we want it to say.  And that is a problem.

And so, Peter’s words above shed some light on an awful lot of the debates raging in the church today over interpretations of scripture.  Truth, as it turns out, is not born in the hearts of men…it is not a matter of our will.  We cannot begin any genuine search for truth with a clear bias for what we want it to be.  That, it seems, is one obstacle that makes any genuine search for truth, well, not so genuine.  When an honest read of my heart has me starting my search for truth with what I want it to be, my search is flawed from the beginning…and my results will be flawed as well.

So, may I just suggest this tip in your ongoing search for spiritual truth?  Stop and make an honest assessment of that search, and of your own heart and desires.  On any given question about scriptural truth, ask yourself this: “What do I WANT the truth to be?”  And if you have a truthful answer to that question, then factor that bias in to your process.  Cop to it from the outset.  If you miss that adjustment, you will miss the truth, and your time of searching (and the time and efforts of those searching with you) will have been wasted.

The term “voir dire” is actually a French term.  Roughly translated, it means “to speak the truth”.  Speaking the truth, in our culture, means owning our bias and making the necessary adjustments.  Otherwise, we just become another talking head in a world full of op-ed talking heads.  And there is no life-changing testimony in that.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Our Foolish Fragile Fences

18 09 2014

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. Ephesians 2:13-14

dividing fence

We all build fences. It is an essential part of the human condition. We categorize and re-categorize ourselves and others over and over again in order to protect our fragile egos and in order to minimize any complex thinking required to really see others. We are quick to identify differences which separate us and we “otherize” anyone we do not agree with or do not fully understand. We build fences. And we do this within the church.

Apparently, the single most effective tool for breaking down fences between people or groups of people is to identify a bigger, more important dividing line. Having found that more significant division, most of the smaller ones suddenly seem less important and may dissolve altogether. You have experienced this.

Take, for example, the deep, deep political divide the United States was experiencing after the 2000 Presidential election…the race between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Does the term “hanging chad” ring a bell? Remember how very deeply this country was split right down the middle? We had almost a full year of political fights over those election results. But then, on September 11 of the following year, the greatest catastrophe this country has ever known was inflicted upon us. Suddenly, those deep, deep dividing lines seemed unimportant, because now there was a much bigger, more important dividing line…one that ran between this country and its terrorist foes. This country has never been more “unified” than in the days and weeks immediately following that event. Democrats and Republicans became bedfellows, united for a cause.

You see, there are certain “perspective builders” and “game changers” that make us forget about fences that previously seemed important to us. You will notice that all the demographic differences between patients in a chemotherapy ward dissolve very quickly in light of the “perspective building” fight they are all fighting. You will notice that all the political differences between members of an addiction support group represent insignificant divisions in light of the one huge dividing line separating all of them from sobriety and recovery. In short, all those fences we create are subject to being moved or being dissolved altogether under the right circumstances.

As it turns out, the gospel is the right circumstance…it is the quintessential ultimate dividing line which causes all others to dissolve in its shadow. Whatever fences we may have erected in order to differentiate ourselves from others (“those people” who voted differently from me in the last election, “they” who live a different lifestyle from me, “them” who rebuke my faith, etc.), those fences all go away at the foot of the cross. As it turns out, there is only one dividing line that matters…only one that is eternal…it is the line that divides a holy, sovereign God from all the rest of us. ALL the rest of us. You and I and everyone else in this world all find ourselves on the same side of the only fence which matters. We were all dead in our trespasses. None of us…NONE OF US…are in any way entitled to a place on the other side of that fence.

And that is the miracle of the church. None of our fences matter, all of them are foolish and fragile and meaningless in the light of the gospel. Jews and Gentiles…Republicans and Democrats…prostitutes and debutantes…slaves and kings…we all need a savior. Desperately. That is the undeniable unity of the gospel.

So, I find myself wondering what fences I have erected that need to come down today, in light of the gospel I say I believe?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




“Look How They Love Each Other!”

1 07 2014

And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. 1 John 4:21

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. Colossians 3:15

sibling hugThis Summer, my younger daughter is living with my older daughter (and her husband and their dog) while she does an internship for her major. This last weekend, I had the privilege of visiting them for the first time since that arrangement started. So far, nobody has killed anyone. I am happy about that.

The truth is, my girls get along really well with each other. They give each other a hard time, but they are also clearly best friends. And when they fight, they fight fair. That’s important. That brings an amazing amount of peace to a parent. I am pretty sure I would never have understood that peace until I became a parent.

There is an aspect of God’s perspective on our love for each other that is “parental” in nature.  Paul references it in Colossians 3 when he admonishes that church to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts”.  I do not read Aramaic, nor Greek. But I am told that Paul actually wrote peace of Christ in Latin (Pax Christi), so as to make it a play on words for that culture. You see, the nickname for the Roman occupation under which those churches operated was the Pax Romana (“Peace of Rome”). It referred to a kind of imposed peace which Rome enforced in all of its territories. It was an understood connotation of Pax Romana: you and your neighbor are both now  part of the Roman Empire…if you have a problem with your neighbor, you have a problem with Rome. Paul says we should let the Pax Christi rule in our hearts. It was a strikingly “parental” notion of making sure the “children” loved each other well. Of course, those of us who don’t speak Greek or Latin miss this play on words of Paul’s.

John used a similar notion in his writings, but much more directly. No fancy metaphors for John. Just a simple, direct warning which cuts right to the chase: whoever loves God must also love his brother. Same concept…”you are now a part of God’s kingdom…if you have a problem with a brother, you have a problem with God.” Loving each other is not a suggestion. It is a requirement. It is not something we do as we feel some warm, fuzzy spirit move us…it is a discipline which we practice as a matter of routine, one at which we get better and better over time. And we do it by faith, which pleases our Heavenly Father.

That discipline of loving each other is also what Jesus said would set us apart from the rest of the world. We would in fact be known by that extraordinary discipline of loving each other. The world will look at us and marvel, and some will even call us ridiculous and unreasonable because of how we love. They will call us naive and childish (and much, much worse). All because of how we love each other. All because our Father in Heaven insists that his children love each other well.

So, what about it? What does the world say when they point to you and your relationships with your Christian brothers and sisters?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Hope for the Barren Church

19 06 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 1 Samuel 1:6-7

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-cracked-land-image22328576In ancient times, being barren was a major affliction.  I suppose it probably still is in many parts of the world.  But for Hannah (and for all the other women in the Bible whose stories begin with being barren), it meant no security at all for their future.  Once their husband was gone, with no children of their own and with no ability to own property or earn a living, they would be destitute.  Desperation, then, does not even come close to describing the state of being for them.

Churches often go through seasons of desperation as well.  Maybe you know well what I mean. After years of budget shortfalls and then an economic crisis, there is suddenly a severe conflict and families leaving the church, and then the sudden death of a key leader and then a moral failure on another’s part and so on and so forth…the desperation can all pile up pretty quickly.  Then there are the anguishing cries to the Lord, “How long will you allow this to continue?!”  Month after month of praying can turn into year after year.  The landscape of the church turns into a parched, dry, barren land. Heretofore strong, faithful members begin to question whether the Lord has simply lifted his hand from the church…His glory has departed…He has written “Ichabod” across the door.

In such “barren” circumstances, hope for the future is all but waned completely.  It becomes impossible to even imagine a future.  Only the most faithful few even remain.  It can feel awfully destitute…much like Hannah no doubt felt in 1 Samuel 1.

It bears remembering during such a season that the same God who answered Hannah’s desperate cries (as well as the desperate cries of the other barren women of the Bible) hears the cries on behalf of your church.  That same God whose timing for Hannah’s pregnancy was perfect also has the perfect timing for accomplishing His purposes through your church’s barren season.  Why did the Lord close Hannah’s womb? So that He would be glorified when Samuel was born.  Why has He permitted your church’s curent struggles? So that He will be glorified when the blessings come.

Keep the faith, my friend.  He has not forsaken His church.  Humbly cry out to Him, seek His face, and He will hear and will answer.  In His perfect time.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Defiling the Church

22 05 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine…In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. Daniel 1:8, 20

Daniel was not a dietician.  He was no more prepared to offer a scientific explanation for his food choices than he was prepared to explain the theory of relativity.  All he knew was God’s Word and he was “resolved not to defile himself”, i.e., he was determined not to dirty his hands with the ways of the world.  He knew God’s law.  He trusted it.  And that was enough for him.

dirty handsIn my ministry of consulting with conflicted congregations, I have reached a conclusion about the church: it can be complicated.  This is true because people are complicated and because relationships are messy and the church, after all, is comprised fully of people and relationships.  It is not always easy to find our way forward through those complications.  It may be doctrinal issues or personality issues or governance issues or moral issues.  It may be generational issues or worship style issues or social issues.  Whatever the issues, the way forward can seem almost impossible to find, even for the most brilliant strategist.  I am reminded of that difficulty time and time again.

When we find ourselves in new, unchartered territory (like Daniel), it is always tempting to fall back on conventional wisdom of the world in which we live and work.   We want answers, and sometimes scripture does not offer us quite the full explanation we are hoping for, so we “defile ourselves” (and God’s church) by relying on strategies and processes from the world.

For example, we rely upon Robert’s Rules of Order and procedural trickery when we should be calling our people to prayer and to oneness in Christ.  In other instances, we fall back on secular human resources processes of talking about a problem employee, when scriptural models tell us we should be talking to that employee.  Even in matters of theology, our tendency is to navigate through suspected false teaching by bringing in the resident “expert” and leaving him/her to sort it out, rather than trusting Paul’s counsel in Ephesians 4 that the best defense against false teaching is NOT our theological prowess, but our unity and our corporate spiritual maturity.

As with Daniel, there are times (more than we can imagine) in the church where we may not necessarily be able to explain why Biblical processes and God’s wisdom works.  There are times when the Bible flies in the face of conventional worldly wisdom.  Those are the times which truly test our resolve, our faith in God’s Word.  We can enter the difficult waters with clean hands or we can dirty our hands with the ways of the world.  The choice is always ours.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Devastation, Destruction and the Love of God

15 05 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever. 
Psalm 118:1

We are approaching the one-year anniversary of one of the most destructive weather weeks in our country’s history.  One year ago, tornadoes ripped through the heartland of America and one particularly devastating one gutted the town of Moore, Oklahoma, leaving us with a great deal more questions than answers about God and His ways.  After that kind of occurrence, nothing seems safe…our cities, our homes, our children.  Devastating.

tornado damageIt was against that backdrop that I found myself meditating on my church’s Re:Verse passage from that week: Psalm 118.  “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”  Awfully hard to embrace in that context, right?

When I work with congregations in the midst of conflict, there is this same difficulty…finding God and trusting His promises in the midst of devastation.  Hopeless does not really begin to describe the feeling.  Trusting God when the path is smooth is one thing, but believing He is who He says He is and that He will do what He says He will do when our world has crumbled around us…well, that’s a different thing, isn’t it?

When your entire neighborhood is literally ripped from its foundation, leaving little evidence of ever having been there, it is hard to hear about God’s love.  When lifelong friendships are torn apart as a result of a church conflict, we struggle with notions of God’s promises to those who love Him, who are called according to His purposes.  When our children are sent safely off to school and then are horribly and suddenly taken from us, the love of God can feel like a completely foreign concept.

I think it is important to note that God’s Word does not promise to keep us from these things.  Rather, God promises to be WITH US in the midst of them.  In all of these instances, what happens next is the fulfillment of that promise.  The people of Moore, Oklahoma felt the love of God through disaster relief workers and churches and emergency personnel and people who cared for them.  In the days following their tragedy, they came face to face with God’s love which endures forever.  Similarly, in the aftermath of every church conflict, there is the birth of a new day in the life of the church…a day when God manifests Himself in fresh new ways.  Neither tornadoes nor church conflict catch God by surprise.  He sees them coming, knows the outcomes of them, and makes His presence felt in the healing and rehabilitation which follows.

It is that healing and rehabilitation for which we give thanks.  It is through the outpouring of relief efforts and through the reconciliation of friendships where we experience the love of God which endures forever.  The devastation is still there, our lives will never be the same.  The church is split, and it will never be the same.  But God is nonetheless good and is faithful to be there with us, just as He promised.

In all things and in all seasons, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good…and His love endures forever.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com