What Do You Want?

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What Do You Want?

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Two Kinds of Churches Part 6: What Do You Want?

I recall the year I woke up and began to establish a transformational culture within my congregation. I had been pursuing personal transformation for twelve years already. The truths I was learning were showing up in my sermons. But I was not intentionally discipling others about transformation as I now knew it. I had not developed a pathway to make accessible these life giving truths to people trapped by the reformational model as I had been. Yes, I was still leading my church reformationally. All of that changed when someone challenged me to start teaching a small group of men how to pursue intimacy with God. That led to a second go-round with these men, because they confessed that what they were learning was so different from past beliefs that they needed to hear it again. This revealed a reality I never forget—before people can learn the truth about intimacy with God, they have to unlearn lies they learned as truth.

As intentional as this became, it took some years before a transformational culture emerged, mainly because I was learning how to do it as I went along. The church’s leaders, disciplers, and counselors had to come to embrace these truths. We worked hard to make sure that we had a consistent message, not straying into shaming and false guilt. We had to learn to be transparent and confess our own sins. We had to actually restore people trapped by the sin of their choice gently and with humility, to see them receive freedom from the addictions that came from the deadly sin in me choices they had made. More importantly, we learned to hold up the pursuit of God as the ultimate goal of our life together. Like the Corinth church, it was messy. Not everyone wanted to go down that path. But for the vast majority of the congregation, it was amazingly hopeful and freeing.

This kind of transformational culture is possible for your church. But I cannot create it for you. This culture is the product of God’s work, first in you and your church’s leaders, then in the lives of the people who make up the congregation. To have it will cost you. You will have to deal with your own unfinished business. This will be painful at times and Satan will still try to take you out through his lies. But you will progressively emerge as the person you were created to be. You will never regret the process God has to take you through to get there. And, to paraphrase Jesus’ words to Peter in Luke 22:32, when you have turned back, you will be able to strengthen the rest of Jesus’ family.

Why establish a transformational culture? Here are a couple of reasons that I think are close to the heart of everyone who shepherds in Jesus’ church.

  • First, it’s about being the church Jesus said he was building. I am not talking about a new model of the church. I am sure that if you have lived long enough, you have seen plenty of new versions of how to do church come and go, just as I know that you probably have heard why your version sucks. This is not about how to attract more people through the door to have a larger congregation. This is about life. People need the life Jesus offers them. They need it made as plain to them as Jesus made it plain to his first disciples.

The life Jesus still offers is called zoe—life that Jesus gives means a new quality of life, life as it was created to be lived in Eden, full of joy, peace, love, God. This can never be had through a church model. It is God’s gift that grows more apparent as one is continually being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).

  • A second significant reason is so people can be free from the mistaken belief that keeping the rules will make them whole. Rule keeping is epidemic in churches. Not wanting to offend God and recognizing that they don’t know what is exactly right or exactly wrong, people often adopt rules that they hope will help them resist sin. I grew up with a well-defined set of rules for living that people of my tribe can still recite at the drop of a hat. Where did these rules come from? Mostly from our negative reaction to the culture we were growing up in. But the rules did more to make us more anxious or foster rebellion in us than to help us become holy.

Wouldn’t you love to live with people who are becoming whole because of what God is doing in them instead of being held hostage by iffy rules that make no inroads to real change? To spend time with people who are learning to forgive as Jesus forgave them? To experience transparency in relationships, even if that means engaging in helping people with their inside mess while they are on their way to being changed? To see your church family producing people who are not afraid of God? To be with people who want to see their neighbors, co-workers—their city—transformed as they have been transformed?

To be part of a church that produces cutting-edge disciples, you have to be willing to do whatever it takes. To be willing to be on your own transformational journey, and then to take the time to invest the truths you are learning from the Spirit into those you shepherd. If this is what you want, don’t hold back for a minute. Go for it. And I am here to help if you need me.

-Steve Smith


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Is Obedience Our Focus?

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Two Kinds of Churches Part 5: Is Obedience Our Focus?

Teaching that people have unfinished business holding them hostage from a holy, obedient life often raises the question about the place of obedience in the transformational church. We are asked, “Aren’t believers just supposed to obey? Doesn’t Jesus tell us that if we love him we will obey his commands (John 14:15)?” Unwittingly the questioner is revealing his or her belief that it is obedience which leads to transformation. People like them continually push others around them to focus on obedience as the goal of their faith journey. To suggest to them that there is a different path to holiness is to remove the one tool in their obedience model toolbox that they believe will keep people from destroying themselves. They honestly fear that failing to demand obedient living will lead people to crash and burn at best, and at worst, to wander away from the faith.

I know that fear. I have watched people I care about choose sin over surrender, even when they knew it would lead to their destruction. But it would be unfair to say that few of them really worked hard at being obedient. Some were infinitely better than I was at obedience. Some stayed in the obedience arena more doggedly than I compared to many of my pitiful attempts at gaining holiness through obeying. But the point is, in the end, they failed in the obedience game. Failure is the end game of anyone who ever believed that they could become holy if they just worked hard enough at obedience. Believers who try to bring about deep change in their lives by just being obedient will discover the horrible truth that obedience neither ends their ability to slip nor quiets the lying accusations of the enemy. And when your whole faith system as a church is built on the faulty foundation of personal obedience, at the crunch it can be pretty devastating.

As the greatest ever TED talk unfolds in the upper room, Jesus tells his disciples that for them to be able to carry out the kind of obedience that indicated their love for him, he will send them the Spirit (John 14:16-18). In other words, he is saying that the Spirit is the power source for obedience—not them. To emphasize this point, Jesus uses a common agricultural illustration. He explains that if they, the branches, want fruit produced in their lives, they will need to stay connected with him, the vine, who is the source of their life (John 15:1-8). The word Jesus uses for this connection, ‘remain,’ captures the idea that the life-giving power for their faith journey will come naturally as they rest in this unbreakable relationship. This is the clearest picture of the difference between Jesus’ call to obedience and the biblical Pharisees’ call to obedience. The Pharisees also wanted people to live obedient lives, so they set up all kinds of fences to keep the herd from straying into sin. Don’t do this. Stop that. Stay away from those people, places or things. Holiness in their world depended on human effort. For Jesus holiness depends on the transformative power of the Spirit.

Transformation leads to obedience, not the other way around. Transformational churches know that the focus of the faith journey is about pursuing intimacy with God; that we can know Him better because he has given His people the spirit of wisdom and revelation (Ephesians 1:17). People in this kind of church have discovered that if they pursue intimacy with God, they will discover He is the one that shows them what the life is about and also gives them to power to live out that life. Obedience is always the by-product of intimacy with God, not the pathway to it.

But the issue of transformation goes much deeper than obedience. It goes down to healing—to freedom from performance—to restoration from the effects of the Fall—to becoming the person we were created to be. Transformation addresses the unfinished business of our lives. If God is not intent on transforming us, then we are on a miserable journey of the survival of the fittest. But He is intent on this and has already determined that everything we see in Jesus will be produced in us. Jesus stands as the image of every brother and sister he will have when the dust clears. Right now God is at work in you and me…not just someday. And God is at work in every one that names Jesus as their Savior.

-Steve Smith

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Is your foundation cracked?

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Two Kinds of Churches Part 4: Is Your Foundation Cracked?

So what does it take to develop a transformational culture in your congregation?

Shirley and I lived for several years in Denver so I could go to seminary there. Needing a place to live, we enlisted a realtor to show us affordable houses. One of the homes was in a nicer neighborhood. It had a great view of the mountains. The front looked neat and clean. But when we got into the back bedroom, we discovered why it was in our price range. There we found a crack from floor to ceiling wide enough to see the outdoors.

Having grown up around the construction trade, I knew this crack signaled that the house had a bad foundation—that the house would fall down someday if it was not condemned by the city first. It was an easy ‘no’ decision.

All buildings built to last must have good foundations. And the taller they are, the deeper the foundation has to be to absorb the pressure from above. The foundation of The Empire State Building, which reigned as the tallest building for 40 years goes down below ground fifty-five feet. The current world’s tallest skyscraper, Burj Khalifa, has a foundation that bottoms out at 164 feet. These foundations do not just keep the skyscrapers up. They keep them from sinking, crumbling or tilting (think ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’).

When it comes to Jesus’ church, we need to think this same way. No one can build up a church unless he or she builds on a deep foundation. Paul is pretty explicit about this in his letter to the divisive leaders at Corinth. “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15 NIV)

Building on the foundation of Jesus Christ matters. But what does Paul mean by this statement? One implication is that some of his readers are building their congregations on some other foundation. They think that the teaching of a Paul or an Apollos or a Peter is what being in the faith is all about. It is kind of like, “Yes, Jesus’ teaching is important, but those who came after him had so much more depth.”

Paul is disabusing them of this kind of thinking. It is not just the teaching of Jesus he laid as foundation. It is what Jesus did through his death and resurrection that has changed their lives forever. All the teachers implicated in their congregational division are focused on the wisdom of the teacher instead of the finished work of Christ. If Paul, Apollos or Peter were to build on that foundation, nothing eternal would come out of it. This stands as a warning for the Corinthian leaders to pay attention to their own craftsmanship.

But Paul is saying more. He recognizes that all leaders want to build ‘wisdom’ into people so they will grow up as disciples. Paul uses that very word in 3:18-19. We do this because we believe information is the most important ingredient for growing Jesus’ church. Paul rejects this. He starts the chapter by referring to living by the Spirit and reminds them again in verse 16 they are a temple where God’s Spirit lives. In other words, building up people to know what they are—God’s temple—and who is empowering them to become this temple is the foundation of a healthy church. Making this clear is of the utmost importance. On the other hand, seeking to build them up with wise teaching apart from understanding the true foundation can be divisive and defeating. We can use the best writings of Calvin or Luther or Chafer or C.S. Lewis or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Carl Ellis or whoever we admire most and find ourselves defacing God’s temple. We can totally forget to teach about the foundation, building our disciples on the sand instead and wonder why people never gain a stable growing faith in Jesus.

What I have learned is that building on the deep foundation of Christ Jesus leads to developing transformational culture in my congregation. Transformation is the heart of the gospel. What God accomplished through the incarnation was finished, not just started. He was not asking people to be as good as they can. Or to get with it and work harder. Or to smarten up. By the Spirit, He Himself is conforming us into the image of Jesus. This is not something that will someday occur when we get into His presence. This is the deep foundation that is laid and that we get to build on. It is happening now in the lives of you and me and every person who has put their faith in Jesus.

-Steve Smith

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Why Do Obedient Christians Still Fail?

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Two Kinds of Churches Part 3: Why Do Obedient Christians Still Fail?

Is your church focused on teaching people how to deal with their symptoms OR, to deal with their unfinished business? If you asked me when I was part of the reformational church what I was learning about my inner mess, I would have said that they were nailing me. They were putting their finger on every symptom, every sinful flaw, every wayward tendency in me. They offered me a place of repentance and were willing to help me through accountability and by prayer.

But they never got down to asking where these symptoms were coming from. Nor were they showing me how to be healed and delivered from them—so I wasn’t.

Many biblical churches fail to disciple believers to look deep enough. We all know the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve. We learned that this was the genesis of our separation from God. We also know the gospel is the cure—the bridge over which God, in mercy, brought us back from our self-imposed exile. But the often overlooked consequences of the Fall still beckon each of us to personal destruction. We cannot by our own strength close our ears to their siren song because they are rooted in our hearts.

The first of these consequences is the hurts we have accumulated from living in a world where everyone has been affected by the Fall. As each of us lives our unconscious version of being god—determining what is good or evil for ourselves—our decisions inflict pain on the lives of others around us. These blows rock those we love—or don’t love—and act as a painful bone spur in their souls. Those people do it back to us as well. And none of it heals with time. Right now, you are possibly unaware of the multiple hurts guiding your life decisions.

The other consequence in your heart is sin living in you. Paul talks about this disconcerting truth in Romans 7. He is confused about why he does not do the good he wishes, instead doing stuff he’d be ashamed for his mother to find out about. When he sorts out the cause of his addictive behaviors, he finds his choices are coming from sin in him. Paul uses his own experience to explain why all believers continue to struggle with obedience. We all have sin present in us.

Here is the outcome of the presence of hurt and sin in our hearts. We were not created to live with pain. Therefore, when we hurt, we look for comfort. Sin offers an emotional release from the pain, so we choose it over being healed from the pain by God (remember, this is the result of our personal godhood myth). We do this unconsciously when we are young, but as we age, we can be very deliberate about this choice. The outcome is that our hurt and our sin choice bond together, becoming inseparable in terms of how we live. This bonding produces the destructive outward actions or symptoms that everyone can see.

I grew up in the reformational church. They were all about obedience to rules. They recognized that these symptoms were destructive. They preached hard against these symptoms, calling the symptoms out for what they were. People “Amen’ed” this kind of preaching.

What I and others who grew up in a reformational environment experienced was hopelessness. We lacked hope we would ever really do much more than manage these symptoms. One young disciple I know pushed back at his pastor with, “I sense you are saying that not only are we required to follow Christ’s commands, we are obligated to do them perfectly even though we don’t. We aren’t commanded to try really hard. We are told to live a life worthy of the Gospel. I feel like you’re pressing me to repent of some sin that I’m not aware of, and to start getting my act together ‘or else.’” He ended up leaving this church in despair of ever being able to be obedient enough for God.

Churches without a culture of transformation are, lamentably, a culture of disappointment and quiet desperation. They teach the biblical truths of how God has designed His people to live. They challenge people to reform—to stop acting out the symptoms and start acting on these truths until they reform the pattern of their lives. And so often that is what people in these churches do—they put on an act.

Transformational churches seek to address the root issues of believers’ unfinished business. They do this not just through sermons, but by discipling people to pursue intimacy with God so that their inside issues will be addressed by Him through the empowering presence of the Spirit. They counsel people that it is their unfinished business, not their symptoms that is wreaking havoc with their lives, their marriages, their children, their future. Transformational churches have a culture that communicates that believers are changed from the inside out by the Spirit instead of by modifying their behavior. This is the good news of the gospel, that where the Spirit of the Lord is, people are being set free (2 Corinthians 3:17).

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Is Your Church Reforming or Transforming?

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Two Kinds of Churches Part 2: Is Your Church Reforming or Transforming?

There’s a big push among North American churches to be transformative because leaders realize how spiritually impoverished the country has become. Both newly started and established churches are adopting the adjective ‘transformational’ as part of their current label: “We are a transformational church.” “We exist to transform people.” “We exist to bring transformation to our community.” Conferences are convened and seminars are offered to teach churches how they can have a transformational impact on their neighborhood. “And after all,” we might think, “where there is all this smoke, there must be fire.”

Or is it just smoke and mirrors? Maybe it’s just a lot of talk. You cannot have transformational churches if they are not producing transforming disciples. If you consider the kind of disciples being produced, it is not hard to see that transformation may not be what many churches actually are pursuing.

There are two kinds of churches. One is the reformational church, where people are taught God’s truth and encouraged to obey it without being taught how the Spirit, who is in them, is empowering their obedience. These kinds of churches present a reform-yourself-into-the-image-of-Jesus approach, which puts the entire obligation on the believer to be obedient.

In contrast, a truly transformational church, while teaching God’s truth, knows and teaches that no one can obey God in their own strength. This is why God gave the Spirit to everyone who puts their faith in Jesus. It is by his empowering presence that believers are conformed into the likeness of God’s Son. Because of our inability to be good for God in our own strength, transformational churches disciple people to keep in step with the Spirit—to surrender to his work.

All churches have the potential to be transformational because of the presence of the Spirit. But regrettably, they don’t necessarily focus their teaching and discipleship with this in mind.

Transformation is the practical application of this gospel we proclaim—that God sent Jesus to die and return to life in order to restore us who put our faith in him back to the persons we were created to be. Paul said this eloquently in Romans 8:29. “For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Paul’s point is that Jesus is the second Adam—completely human in the way that was lost when Adam and Eve chose the lie of the enemy over the truth of God. Though the effects of the Fall in Genesis 3 were potent, the gospel is more potent still. No one who humbles themselves before God and receives what He offers should remain broken, rebellious, deceived, confused and soul sick. Instead, we are becoming the person we were created to be all along. We progressively become like Jesus. The topper to all of this is that God already planned to do this in every believers’ life and whatever He has planned, He will do—whether we go willingly or kicking and screaming.

The temptation at this point is to present a superlative description of the ideal transformational church. But the truth is that transformational churches are just as messy as any other living church body. If you look closely into one you will see lots of people making bad personal choices. You will see people who need restoration. You will see the mud that was thrown at others recently. These churches attract a lot of ‘extra mercy’ required people. The sinful nature shows up. Transformational churches are full of people who have a long way to go before they ‘reflect God’s glory with unveiled faces’.

Consider the Corinth church. In his two letters, Paul writes some of his most stirring transformational words—“by the grace of God I am what I am.”—“and we are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory.”—“where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”—“But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”—to a church that was full of factions and doctrinal confusion. Packed with believers who were taking each other to court and others having to be told that their freedom in Christ doesn’t stretch to cover having sex with temple prostitutes! Where the church bumper sticker might have proclaimed “I have the right to do anything!” Corinth was a transformational church in process, not a finished product.

If Corinth can be described as a transformational church, can’t it be argued that all churches are transformational? That’s a pretty good question, because ‘transformational’ is the trendy word for the church today.

In practice, many churches essentially follow a reformational model. In the reformational model church, people are encouraged to be submissive to Jesus and live out the Christian life laid out in the Bible. These churches—and they are legion—emphasize personal obedience and sincere effort, which has a strong flavor of rightness about it, but misleads people away from the essential core of the gospel as Paul characterizes it in Romans chapter 8. The gospel is not just about obedience. It includes a core change that takes place in us by the Spirit. We become like Jesus, demonstrating his character. Obedience is a by-product of that.

So is your church teaching people to reform or to be transformed?

-Dr. Steve Smith


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Is Your Church Making Cutting Edge Disciples?

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Two Kinds of Churches Part 1: Is Your Church Making Cutting Edge Disciples?

“It doesn’t matter whether you go to a traditional or a contemporary church. It seems that they are focused on what they do to attract people but they do not seem to be producing changed people.” I sat across from a friend of mine who worked for a major parachurch organization, listening to him voice his frustration over not being able to find a church in his neighborhood that he felt was making a difference within the community. He was not lamenting any lack of evangelistic zeal. He was questioning why so few churches were actually transformational. He wondered why they desired to be cutting edge in style but are generating so few cutting edge disciples— disciples who are becoming more like Jesus.

He’s not the only one to wonder about this. I often hear this lament from people. Why is it that our churches seem to be full of people more like the ones that crucified Jesus than followed him? People who are so careful about their personal purity they are ready to throw those who fail to measure up under the bus? Who are fine as long as the church rolls along in calm waters but become aggressive sharks when the pastor or the leaders falter? Why are churches full of people who wander away from the faith as casually as changing phone services? People who seem indifferent to holy living and stay spiritually underdeveloped long after the time when they should have gone on to maturity?

What if you could see deep change in the lives of those who claim to follow Jesus? What if you could be part of a church that is regularly having more and more of its people truly become more like Jesus? What if you could see this kind of deep change in your own life? What if you could become transparent about your own failures and bold in your dependence on God to transform you? What if you could see the people of your church impacting your community with the evidence of the gospel in their lives? Would you be willing to pay the price to become the person who initiates that?

You have to start by humbly admitting that your church has a culture that does not produce such people if it doesn’t. Maybe it produces hard-working people. Maybe it produces pretty obedient people. Or maybe it produces biblically literate people who are friendly and generous. I have been in many churches that have such people but have found fewer churches which produce disciples who have been changed deep down in their soul. Whose journey toward intimacy with God has given them unshakable hope even though they know they are not whole yet. Who know they are safe in His love for them. Who are changing the world around themselves by living as light in the dark, as salt.

Perhaps you describe your church as exciting and full of enthusiastic people. I sat in a new church that was popping out of its sanctuary with new growth. The place was electric with excitement. But when I checked in with the pastor later that week, I saw the underside of the congregation. Quizzing the pastor, I realized that excitement was a substitute for spiritual life. From experience, I knew that the excitement would pass just like that new car smell. When it does, people’s lack of knowing how to pursue God in intimacy would create a backlog of counseling for the pastoral staff. It always happens.

It’s possible you have never thought of this before because how you ‘do church’ feels so natural. You have never understood why people are not being deeply changed. Do you really want to see deep change in the people you do church with? Do you want to see them being used to change the surrounding world? Then be willing to unlearn what you think you know about transformation. Learn the truth that helps people pursue real spiritual transformation. Let me show you what it means to address the under-the-surface discipling issue that can allow you to build deep into the lives of the disciples you make.

More next week….

-Steve Smith

A book about this subject: Build Deep: Developing a Transformational Culture in Your Church

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