Sunday, March 25, 2007

Getting Off the God-Cycle

"Nothing conflicts with the love of Christ like service to Christ."

Henri Nouwen
Maturity in Christ comes in a cycle. If practiced in humility, it is truly self-perpetuating. And it solves many human problems: it does good, it feeds the soul, it encourages a proper self-esteem, it brings glory to God--I'm sure there is more. At the risk of simplifying it into a formula, here's the cycle I'm aiming to be on:

1. Through the grace of God, I have an intense spiritual event that leads to an intense devotion to God.

2. That devotion leads me to the passionate pursuit of some ministry aim, some good work that was "prepared in advance" for me to do (see Ephesians 2.10).

3. In God's grace, there is substantial success in that good work.

4. This creates in me a sense of accomplishment and responsibility, which becomes it's own intense spiritual event and I return to step 1.

This is the cycle as it is supposed to work. Unfortunately, as Henri Nouwen knew, we tend to get a little side-tracked, especially as step 3 moves into step 4. Where do we go wrong?

We realize that we have become successful in other people's eyes, become fearful of losing whatever gain we have received from our successes, and move to perpetuate the success instead of the relationship with God.

In that case, instead of step 4 leading back to another intense experience with God, we are diverted into the place where our view of success--or the view of those we deem important--becomes the goal. We forget about the vision of God, and seek to fulfill our own visions. Suddenly we find ourselves with a sacred cow on our hands. And service to our mission becomes equal in our own minds with service to God. We no longer love God, because we are not seeking him in the intensity of life events, but are assuming and eventually demanding that OUR mission be equal to HIS mission.

There are tons of examples of this, but let me pick one or two and follow my logic through. In the mid-19th century, the idea of an altar call or an "invitation" really came into vogue among the revivalists like Charles Finney. Every service ended with the call to respond. Even into the 20th century Billy Graham continued to make this the culmination of his crusades, the invitation to accept the gospel, as Bev Shea and the choir sang 45 stanzas of "Just As I Am." Churches in the "low church" tradition in particular (like my Baptist upbringing) adopted this as an every-week part of the worship service.

But people in the late 20th century began noticing that the invitation was not having its intended response. It had become ineffective in a different kind of world than the one it was invented for. So many began to drop it. Traditionalists (at least those that thought 100 years of practicing something was tradition) decried the "loss of evangelism" in churches. It didn't matter what God's vision was, what God was trying to do in the lives of people. Only the mission of having an invitation mattered.

Maybe a better example is to look at the man God uses to plant a church. The Spirit of God is evident in him. He preaches boldly but with love. Early on he lives in a magnificent faith, knowing God will provide for his needs in Christ Jesus. God blesses, and the church grows. The man humbly seeks God's face, God again blesses, and the church again grows. But then it happens. Others begin to praise the man for his faith. They develop principles for growing churches based on his methods. Other churches spring up practicing the church growth principles of the man, and he becomes a success. He writes a book. Or two. Get's listed in Time magazines 25 most influential evangelicals. But now his life is built on his success. Risking that is no longer an option, he must perpetuate his ministry. Something is lost.

Henri Nouwen had it right. Nothing hinders our love and worship for God like our service to God.

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