Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Jesus and the Sinner

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I am now reading the biography of John Newton, the guy who wrote Amazing Grace. It's one of the greatest stories of redemption in church history, and it has been told many times...but it never gets old. Newton was a rough character: so rough even his colleagues in the slave-trading business thought he needed to shape up. He was not only immoral and profane, he was also a confirmed atheist. One night during a storm on the high seas, Newton prayed to the God his devout mother had followed. That was his conversion. Over time, Newton became a much more gentle and principled sailor. Then he grew into a devout layman, then an ordained pastor, a prolific hymnwriter and author, and eventually, a powerful leader in the movement to abolish slavery. Newton reminds us that God's grace and power are big enough to transform anyone who wants to be changed.

But here's the discouraging question: Why don't we see more John Newtons in our churches today? Where are the dramatic conversions? God's word is still true, the good news is still good, the Spirit is still just as powerful, and we all know people are still just as sinful. The only thing that has changed is the church. We've stopped responding to the John Newtons of this world like Jesus did, and started responding to them like religious people. This Sunday, we'll take a look at John 8:1-11, and see the difference.


Chris said...

Well Congrats on the closing on the sale of your home and all thats going on with that endeavor. I know that is a huge weight lifted off your shoulders.

I like the topic of this weeks blog. However I have absolutly no idea how to answer the question.

Why arent there more "dramatic conversions?" I for one was raised since was one day old in the church and it was as natural as waking up in the morning that one day I would accept Jesus as my Savior. I was never a person who needed to stop doing horrible things in order to be saved, I was just an ordinary sinner saved by grace in an ordinary church service.

Sometimes I think people who have that type of experience feel that there may be something not authentic about their own experience when they see a dramatic conversion experience. I really dont know.

It may be like snowflakes, altogether in a service all Christians look alike, but look closely and they are all different, they each have their own unique story, their own conversion experience and whatever that is, its theirs. Whether dramatic or quiet.

But again....Just my opinion....

Jeff Berger said...

Thank you, Chris. Your comment is much needed. I have a testimony similar to yours, and it takes just as much grace to save someone like you and me as it does to save the most wretched person alive. Our salvation is just as much a miracle as is the salvation of a lifelong child of the devil.

My question is based on the fact that the book of Acts shows us many people coming into the church from a pagan lifestyle. Today, churches mainly grow through transfers and through biology (ie, people like you and me who were raised by churchgoers). But in Acts, it grew by dramatic conversion, people leaving behind the things they had previously believed and practiced in order to follow Jesus. That is how a culture is transformed. We just don't see that very often today. Sunday, I hope we'll discover some things we need to do to become the kind of church where those sorts of conversions take place on a regular basis.

Steve said...

I, too, was profoundly touched by "John Newton, from Disgrace to Amazing Grace." In fact, after finishing it, I picked it up again a few days later and read it a second time. While his initial conversion experience was, indeed, dramatic, as any would be that occurs in a sinking ship, it did not happen inside a church or even as a result of a church's evangelistic program. (I use the term "initial conversion" deliberately, because it marked only the beginning of a long journey of transformation, not a sudden, dramatic change in lifestyle in Newton. As a matter of fact, he continued to captain slave ships for some time.) It was clearly the work of the Holy Spirit which drew upon the brief foundation established by a godly mother who died when he was six. God did use strategic people at various junctures in Newton's life to nurture his growth.

I guess that is what touched me so profoundly about this book and Newton's journey...the persistence of a faithful God in patiently pursuing a sinner through unbelievable means. The persistence continued in the work of the Holy Spirit in lovingly conforming Newton's life more and more to that of Jesus over the years, yes a lifetime.

My journey has not been as dramatic, but the same Grace and persistent pursuit by God in my life have been remarkably similar.

Since it is His work from start to finish, one awareness from this book (and reminders in your sermons, Jeff) is the desperate need for constant, specific prayer...for those around us who don't know Jesus, and for our lives to be open to being encouragers to them at whatever point they are in their journey.

Anonymous said...


I am not a good writer so I am going to answer from my heart.

I accepted Christ in 1982. Why would a young Jewish girl even go to a church, let alone a Baptist Church? I came to Westbury because one of my neighbors invited me to Westbury. My first answer to him was I am Jewish and I don’t go to church. This person became a friend to me, and the Lord worked from that point on.

Today we don’t do that. We lock ourselves in our homes and we barely know our neighbors. Sunday School is more of a clique instead of a welcoming friendly place. Instead of reaching out, we reach in. We don’t go outside our comfort zone. If 25 years ago were like today, I would still be Jewish. I would not have met my Lord. I would not have the peace God has given me. It goes on….and finally would not have met my husband.

It seems many are unwilling to use our talents within the Church. Sometime in the early summer of 2006, Westbury did a survey of our talents. At the same time Nolan Duck preached a series on “What is your passion?” My passion is truly for the lost.

One way Westbury and I can reach out is the Welcome bags. It is a very passive and non-threatening way to meet our neighbors and invite them to Westbury.


Jeff Berger said...

Amen, Ruth. We are so glad someone invited you to Westbury that day...and that you met Jesus here. I agree that the welcome bags are perfect, non-pushy way to show people who we are and that Christ's love is free.

Anonymous said...

Hi gang,

Everyone talks about making people "comfortable,"
but I'm not so sure that should apply in every instance. I don't remember feeling particularly comfortable walking into a church full of people who'd admitted they were sinners when I hadn't.

This is nothing new, but our mission is still "one begger telling another begger where to get bread."

Jeff, I'm glad that you are not into avoidance of that word "sin" to make people feel comfortable.
The word in the Bible that SHOULD be translated "propitiation", refers to Jesus who was sinless taking on the WRATH of God toward sin, not simply a substitution.

Wrath simply means that God hates sin, and no wonder. Just think, after Adam and Eve's fall, their very first male offspring committed murder against their second male offspring. That's how far and how fast the sin of jeolousy can take us, to name just one example.

Let's face it, we aren't going to change the world, but we can be His message bearer to the world, and pray for His will to be done.


Jeff Berger said...

Thanks so much for your comment. I agree that sometimes churches try so hard to be "seeker-friendly" that we leave out the good news. We give people something that goes down easily, but isn't really the Gospel substance they need. However, I think we need to make sure that people who come to WBC feel like honored guests in our home, not like a third wheel on a bicycle. We need to make sure there aren't any artificial barriers to faith (ie, "Jesus loves you, but in order to follow Him you have to look like us, dress like us, vote like us, enjoy our kind of music, etc"). If we can get beyond all that stuff and just show them who Jesus really is...well, the gates of Hell will tremble.

Anonymous said...

I didn't even feel like I was ON the bicycle, and that was the best thing that could've happened, because the realization of my status was what brought me to Christ.

Since you mentioned music, I have to confess that I never really enjoyed Baptist ditties all that much of any decade, even when it was fairly docile. What attracted me was that I knew what I was reading in the Bible matched what I was hearing at this church, so I just tolerated that part. Now, it's a huge distraction. What I did notice about the music was that, unlike today's WCreek philosophy,held by many,there was unselfishness in the services -- no ageism, mean comments about " white hairs" (by the way, I don't have either gray or white hair) or
crude comments about people with handicaps (hearing aids to be specific...don't wear one of those either, but I'd like to make some of today's "worship" leaders have to wear one during one of their "worshiptainment sessions.")

Basically, I'm tired of all this Balkanization of our churches. I've seen the elderly's meeting space pushed from place to place, making it harder and harder for them to safely get to their departments. In spite of a recommendation from a Baptist authority on ministry to seniors, a prof at Baylor university, the elderly are still made to sit in hard folding chairs while overstuffed chairs are brought in for the youth...go figure!

I wish we could all just go back to being who God made us to be without all this self- consciousness. It's the opposite of God consciousness AND others consciousness.

Actually, the very things that these WCreek models have been using to attract younger people are now turning them off, and they are gravitating toward so-called "ancient" Christian forms of worship. I have to believe that they are looking for the power of God to change lives over against MTV look-a-likes that many of our churces are using to "bring them in."

I'm sure many of you are already aware of B. Hybel's apology for the lack of maturity he thinks he's now been made aware of in his own congregation. As I recall, his literature isn't all that bad, so what is it that's not working??

Jeff Berger said...

I firmly agree with you when you say there is no room for age-ism in a church, period. Any pastor or worship leader who insults older people is cutting of the nose of the church to spite its own face...and he'll have to answer to God someday for his callous disrespect of his elders.

Having said that, however, I must also disagree with a couple of things. It's not "self-consciousness" to adjust a church's musical styles in order to invite a new group into your's being missional. A missionary doesn't go into a new a new culture and say, "Here's how we do it in America. You're welcome to come to our church and hear about Jesus, but you have to accept our preferences in clothing, music, and terminology. If you don't like it, hit the road." Instead, a missionary studies the culture he is trying to reach, then formulates a strategy which is biblically faithful and understandable to the people he wants to reach.

Like it or not, we are no longer living in the culture of the 1950s. Yet most churches--including Baptists--still do church that way. We must be missionaries... worship isn't about playing the favorite songs of the faithful. It's about leading people to God, so they can give Him glory. We can't let stubborness about musical styles keep us from trying to present a worship offering that a variety of people can appreciate.

Regarding Bill Hybels, you are right that he has admitted recently that some of his philosophy of ministry in the past has been in error. In my opinion, it takes a great deal of humility to admit something like that...and humility isn't a quality we often see from megachurch pastors. Bill Hybels is just a man, and he's going to make mistakes. It's foolish for any church to try to duplicate Willowcreek or Saddleback or any other church in their setting. However, on balance I would say Bill Hybels has done far more good for the Church than bad. But that's just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jeff.

I can barely remember the 50's -- not all that old, actually. The "choruses" from that area were pretty awful if you look at their me-ism.

Having actually "visited" with a WCreek staffer, what I came away with was a very selfish plan to cater exclusively to one cohort. Notice I didn't say age group. In most of these "revitalized" churches, it's "my way or the highway" -- no "something for everyone" mentality. This is the BIG change I see, and it's apparent what's happened whenever I visit one of those churches.

As a youth, I can remember how I loved the "all generations" appeal of the services -- it truly felt like a family. It wasn't about the music, but the cross generational sharing that was so meaningful.

Let's face it, much of what churches are doing today is an attempt to please their own youth, and young adults, not just about outreach, and of course, they are used to getting everything they want, sooo... Of course, a church doesn't want to loose their own offspring, so it's important that they have an equal input so that each generation shares equally.

I actually think that is what Westbury does -- share, and that's what I like about it.

This is a good discussion. Will try to continue the thread later.

Anonymous said...

Sooo...if the literature is actually pretty good, what is it that's NOT working at WCreek?

Does BHybels plan to expound upon his findings in book form at some time in the future? I should think more than just a journal article or interview here and there would be in order as he has more time to analyze what WCreek has now picked up on.

Just thought there might be advanced notice of a forthcoming book among ministerial circles.

Any more information out there?

Jeff Berger said...

Back in the fall, Willow Creek sent out word that they were rethinking their approach to discipleship. Essentially, they always thought that they could measure the spiritual maturity of their members by their involvement in the ministry. In other words, if someone was a regular worship attender and was actively involved in a small group, they assumed that person was growing in Christ. But over the past few years, they did some surveys and found that it wasn't so. There were plenty of people who were plenty involved, but whose own spiritual "depth" was awfully shallow. Their conclusion was that they needed to find a way to teach and encourage their people to feed themselves spiritually. That's a good warning for all of us, even those (like me) who do things much more traditonally than do the Willow Creek folks.

It's funny (reflecting on this entire discussion about Willow Creek) how two people can look at the same thing in such different ways. You earlier said that their approach seemed like "a selfish attempt to cater to one cohort." Whereas I see them as pioneers in teaching churches to actually focus on the unchurched. The traditional approach was always, "Just give me that old time religion that makes me feel comfortable and nostaglic...if any sinners want to come, they long as they don't sit in my pew (and they're dressed properly...and they don't in any other way offend me)." To me, that is selfish. That's one reason most churches aren't growing...we're more interested in catering to our own needs than reaching out to the lost. The Willow Creek model has lots of limitations, but at least they've taught us to be strategic in reaching our communities.

Anonymous said...

You are reading "your own stuff" into what I've been trying to discuss with you. You can wear a ring in your nose, and moon the congregation if it makes you feel better.

What I'd like for you to know is that not everyone thinks Christianity sprang out of a cracker box in 1950. Try to take a historic perspective.

Try to examine what the entire culture is saying about evangelicals, and not just what you read in CT. We need to influence the culture, and not just immitate it.

Not everyone is addicted to American mediocracy, and that includes most of the unchurched Harry's and Mary's that I have opportunity to witness to.

As I recall, the song states, that that "Old Time Religion makes me love EVERYBODY!" Try to remember that.

Why do I feel like I'm talking to a 13 yr old?


Jeff Berger said...

Well, I'm sorry...I don't mean to be dense. I re-read over our discussion, and it seems to me your main concerns are 1. Dumbing down the Gospel in order to "bring more people in." 2. Focusing exclusively on reaching young people, while ignoring our older members. Do I have that right?

If so, I agree with both concerns. If anyone perceives any watering down of the Gospel in our ministry here, I sure hope they will point it out...that would be a death sentence for our church. Regarding the second item I listed, please rest assured that I hope to reach people of all age groups (racial and socioeconomic groups for that matter, but that's another topic) as best we can, and certainly intend to show the utmost honor and care for our older adults. I think Westbury was already doing this when I got here...Randy does a great job with the Senior Adult ministry and our music is eclectic (in a good way), but certainly not a youth-oriented approach. I don't intend to stop doing those good things.

And for the record, I don't plan to get a nose ring or moon the congregation...I'm sure everyone's glad to know that!

Anonymous said...

It's more like no gospel at all. I've been listening to sermons after a long time away, and hadn't realized how difficult it is now to hear a clear gospel presentation from a pulpit, and this is in BAPTIST churches! No wonder a third generation unsaved person isn't drawn to our churches.

The mistreatment of the elderly is the most graphic example that I've observed, and I've had YOUNG adult visitors to some of the so-called "seeker friendly" formats mention how shocked they were to see it. Needless to say, they weren't going back.

Unless the strong begin to take a stand for those who are weak and cannot stand up for themselves in the Church, "womb to tomb," how on earth do we expect to offer any hope to a lost and fragmented world? We need to look for the "slave ships" right under our own noses in the here and now if we are going to be inspired by Newton's great hymn instead of having the nostalgia without application for today.

Bottom line is it all starts with attitude. I know who Jesus would stand up for, and that's good enough for me.

I don't want a church that looks and acts like the world. When that happens, we become simply another choice among many options.

In spite of my opinions with regards to using the world's techniques for bringing people in, I've got to admit that if you were to change your mind about the "mooning" that would surely be high attendance Sunday!

Seriously, what I've observed is that outsiders see our attempts to act like pop culture as fake, and they don't like fake.

Thanks for letting me preach a while! Ha!