Category Archives: Transformational Church

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Beware of This Trap

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Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

I remember sitting in a room with other pastors listening to a leader who was highly respected for his discipleship materials, teaching us about righteousness. Specifically, he was telling us how the Old Testament Law was God’s revelation of how one lives righteously. He said we needed to double down and train our people to take spiritual lessons from the law so their lives would reflect God’s glory.

For the first time, I realized I was in the presence of someone Paul would call a purveyor of another gospel. I suppose I had missed seeing this before because his books seemed so helpful and his style so compelling. But the foundation of his teaching really contradicted Jesus’ gospel.

The fact is that Galatians was written because of this very issue. Some were teaching that the way you become a righteous follower of Jesus is to obey the law of the Torah, which had been handed down from God through Moses to the chosen people. As the first to trust in Christ, it appeared to them that the gospel and the law were a match made in heaven.

Paul violently pushed back. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:6-8)

Catch that? If you teach this different gospel, you will be under God’s curse! Not a lot of wiggle room here. So pay attention to what Paul is talking about. This is not a different gospel because it teaches that people will be justified through the law. It is a different gospel because it teaches that people will be sanctified though the law. Their formula was Jesus + The Law = Righteousness.

Keeping in step with the Spirit is the part of the gospel Paul sees being left out of this different gospel. Instead, believers are being encouraged to pursue righteousness by being circumcised and living out the Torah laws’ requirements. It is a total dependency on one’s flesh to become like Jesus. For Paul, this is an utter denial of the gospel. It is no gospel at all!

But this seems to feel right even today to too many believers and a number of teachers, although it is rarely stated so starkly. The law is holy. Many of the earliest believers, who were Jewish, followed the Mosaic Covenant. It would seem that it was a natural continuance to, say, keep the Ten Commandments. To point to those commandments as the standard of what God expected of all of us who followed them into the faith. I mean, everyone gets the Ten Commandments, right? We memorize them, put them on courthouses and believe they are the summary of what God gave on Mount Sinai.

Why would this be a denial of the true gospel? —Precisely because it is focused on the wrong thing. It’s Christ—his life—that is our righteousness! “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!

Paul is not saying that believers should be without any guidelines, that nothing is sinful. In other letters, he goes into some detail about what we should not be doing as believers. But what he wants us to know about the gospel is that Jesus is enough. Jesus will both justify us and sanctify us—by the empowering presence of the Spirit.

Since we live in the Spirit . . .” is the first step of keeping in step with the Spirit. If you are going to be transformed into Jesus’ likeness rather than try to reform yourself to look like Jesus, you have to be convinced in your mind that there is no other way. No other version of the gospel. The Spirit’s power is the only way. Or you have nothing at all that will remake you into the righteous person God has already decided you will become.

-Steve Smith


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Saints and Super-saints?

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Saints and Super-saints?

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

Jesus did not come to send us on our own personal spiritual journey, but to build his church. Each believer is a living stone of that church. Jesus is not calling us to be part of a Kingdom where we are competing for the top seats. He came to restore us from brokenness and sin into a people who are known as his because they love one another.

Looking back through church history, you have to be struck by the arrogance people have hadand still do have—concerning their siblings in the faith. When I met my wife, she had just transferred from a Bible school seemingly founded on the principles of separation; separation from the world; separation from anything that smacked of sin, or that was edgy; from anything that did not meet the prescribed rules of the institution. As a result, students divided themselves into two categories. The largest group was referred to as the saints. But then there were the super-saints. These were young adults who had already scaled the heights of holy living and could, and did, look down on those who were merely saints.

When Paul gets into Peter’s face at Antioch (Galatians 2:11ff), saying, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’(v.14 NIV) you see that the same dynamics had been at work. Peter and the rest of the Jewish believers had been living life together with the Gentile believers for some time. They ate together as a sign in their culture of being one family. After some teachers showed up from Jerusalem, Peter and Barnabas switched sides and returned to the practice of separation. “It’s not that we can’t eat with you. It’s that we won’t eat with you because we are righteous in a way you are not and may never be!” is the underlying theme.

Paul was brutally honest. He saw these actions as not acting in line with the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:14). He immediately demotes the Torah to the level of merely Jewish custom rather than allowing the idea to stand that those practices constituted a superior means to righteousness. A means that was allowing the Jewish believers to believe they were super-saints.

The truth of the gospel is that all of us came into a relationship with God as sinners (Galatians 2:17). This is everyone’s confession if they are to be included in Christ. Jew, Gentiles, male, female, slave, free—are all equally needy at the foot of the cross. We bring nothing to Jesus he wants or needs but our miserable lives, which are not only justified by the cross alone, but are transformed by the Spirit alone.

What this confrontation at Antioch reveals is that whenever we forget this reality that all of us are level at the foot of the cross and fall into thinking we are superior saints, division and distrust break out in the church. People who should encourage each other, serve each other, spur each other on to good deeds begin to divide into different camps, sure that theirs is the one blessed of God. This is what Paul is referring to as not in keeping with the truth of the gospel.

The reason I have looped back to this matter is because of the verse that follows “keep in step with the Spirit.” Paul warns, “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Galatians 5:26) He indicates that not keeping in step with the Spirit creates a toxic fellowship for believers. Instead of loving each other, we end up at each other’s throats. We find ourselves looking down on the others in our congregation, internally motivated either to fight or to gossip about them.

So if you… belong to a faction in your church looking to grab the power,… or if you find yourself looking down on others as failures in the faith instead of realizing that, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’… or if you find yourself holding on to grudges and speaking disparagingly about other believers to people in your own circle, then you can be certain that you are not keeping in step with the Spirit. And, like Paul’s cold slap in Peter’s face, it should bring you up short because you are not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.

Keeping in step with the Spirit is a necessity for each of us separately and together. If we are going to be part of a healthy, hope-filled faith community, keeping in step with the Spirit is something we cannot disregard.

 -Steve Smith


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Are You Cursed?

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Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

Why does Paul talk about keeping in step with the Spirit?

I really think that the issue here for Paul, in the earliest of his letters, is the basic difference between the teachings of Jesus over against the beliefs of the Pharisees. Remember that Paul got his religious start as a Pharisee who was murderously against Jesus and his followers. I am sure his recollections of his days as the chief enforcer against the church were populated with memories of debates about law and how what Jesus said—and did—never measured up to the demands of holiness expected of real Jews. And forgiving people—what was Jesus thinking?!

It was all about power to obey. Both Jesus and the Pharisees were all for righteousness. But unlike the Pharisees, Jesus recognized the pathetic inability of his hearers—all people for that matter—to live out the righteousness of God’s law. Hard as it is to believe, Jesus knew his hearers could not do what he was teaching them to do—to obey his commands.

I find that this is often overlooked in the way we think in the church. We look upon the commands of Jesus as completely doable and many believers deeply desire to do them. Except that each of Jesus’ commands overtaxes our abilities.

Take for example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45 NIV) We all think that we love our enemies, but there are people you know that you do not love—you don’t need to search your memory to know this is true. For some, it’s the abortionists who routinely rob babies of their future life. For others, it’s the LGBTQ advocates who demand full acceptance of their lifestyle, even to the point of intruding into their child’s bathroom. What about the atheists who actively work to remove Christianity from the public square? What about the people who make up ISIS? When they cruelly and casually kill people, is your first thought to love them? And what would that even look like to love them?

Yet God so loved the world! Everyone was his bitter enemy, living out a life that shouted denial at God’s right to reign over those whom He created. But instead of mass destruction, God came near, lived among us as a human and died for the sins of the whole world.

We all know this. But we don’t know how to do this. And the power to actually love in this kind of way is quite beyond us all.

This is why Jesus promised that God would send us the Spirit. We needed power we did not have. This is what sets the gospel of Jesus apart from the teaching of the Pharisees. And this brings us back to why Paul is talking about the Spirit.

Because of his own experience, Paul was concerned that the Galatian believers were going to be under the curse. “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” (Galatians 3:10 NIV)  He points out that the law curses you if you fail to keep it, instead of you living in freedom. Deep anxiety is ahead. Feelings of alienation from God will mark you. Fear and failure will dog your steps if you try to do in the flesh what the Spirit only can do for you.

Are any of these emotions part of your experience with God? Do you suffer anxiety, fear or sense you are alienated from God? I did. I remember the years I spent preparing for ministry, first at Bible college followed by seminary. I wanted to be used by God. I studied hard the biblical languages, interpretation, preaching and all the other subjects that would be useful for teaching people how to know God’s Word. But in my personal time with God—well, I didn’t really have a personal time with God. I was afraid of Him. When I did get before Him, I groveled. I expected judgment because I was not measuring up to what I found in the Bible and how I was urged to live by men and women older than me.

I lived as if I was under the curse. But I did not have to be. And eventually, as I trusted in the power of the Spirit, my relationship with the Father changed from unhealthy to whole. And I now understand why Paul was so exercised over the misdirection that the Galatians were receiving. There is nothing freeing about depending on one’s own strength to keep even the best of rules.

Keeping in step with the Spirit is our only hope for freedom.

-Steve Smith


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Why Don’t We Teach This?

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Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

“Why hasn’t anyone ever taught me this before?” is a common refrain from the men and women who go through Key to Deep Change training. I identify with them. Growing up in the church I do not recall anyone discipling me concerning the Holy Spirit or even giving a cohesive lesson on walking in the Spirit. To be honest, the Spirit himself was a mystery to me.

I knew the Trinity was made up of three persons, the Father, the Son and, the Holy Spirit. The Father created the world and reigned over it. Jesus came to die for our sins and now sits at the right hand of the Father. And I understood that the Spirit came to live in me. But that was as far as it went. I thought that the Spirit was kind of an extra conscience, prompting me to do good and avoid being bad. Like, “Psst! You aren’t reading your Bible enough.” or “Remember to give your tithe this week!”

In my later teens, a couple of my friends started telling me about the way they experienced the Spirit at their churches, with people speaking in tongues and falling onto the floor. Yet these outward displays did nothing to really change their everyday lives. Talking about spirit power and experiencing manifestations unfortunately did not also mean they knew how to depend on the Spirit the rest of the week.

Instead, we were taught that we have responsibilities. We are responsible to obey. Responsible to read the Bible, pray, witness, tithe, be kind, honor our parents—responsible to be like Jesus.

Of course, the work of the Spirit was sometimes mentioned in passing. But references to him almost felt like a drive-by shooting. For example, I own a 24 full-page study full of good stuff about putting off sin and putting on righteousness. One small introductory paragraph mentions our need for the Spirit to accomplish this, but it did not go on to explain how to surrender to his work. If you study most basic discipleship materials, learning to understand how to keep in step with the Spirit seems assumed. There is nothing that can make disciples feel more hopeless than teaching as if people already know what it means to keep in step with the Spirit. What they really hear from us, whether we mean it or not, is ‘just be obedient.’

This is why it’s tough to find good materials for making disciples. So many discipleship materials begin in the middle of Ephesians—urging believers to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” These resources teach a whole lot of good things that every Christian ought to do. What is missing is the foundational instruction from the scriptures on how the Spirit makes the walk walkable, or standing in warfare possible. I sometimes call this the ‘Twice the Child of Hell’ approach to discipleship (Matthew 23:15). Although my tongue is firmly in my cheek when I say that, I remember the despair of ever measuring up when it came to living the life I believed God expected of me. —Despair that almost led me to give up altogether. —Despair that others have confided in me that almost drove them away from God.

“Keep in step with the Spirit.” This is why this verse matters to you and me. It is Paul’s sign-off conclusion of the whole letter to the Galatians. Instead of tolerating the fact that people to whom he taught the transformational gospel were going down the wrong road, he breaks back into their world like Batman out to destroy the Joker—what these guys are teaching you is unacceptable!

I am not going to just talk about how to understand this truth. I am going to help you live it out in your life. And there are two important reasons why you need to understand how to keep in step with the Spirit.

  1. It leads to the formation of Christ’s character in you. What Paul calls the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ is who Jesus is. He is love, joy, peace, patient, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, kindness, and self-control. He did not work to become this way and neither can you. You are led to become these things. So you should want to know how instead of wasting time trying and failing.
  2. It gives you the power to live the life and not be blindsided by the flesh. ‘Flesh’ is Paul’s word for the part of us that has been affected by the Fall. We, like the first couple, are born with the illusion that we are in charge of our life. When we seek to be righteous on the strength of our flesh, we find ourselves living a destructive life—not intentionally, oh no! But that’s where we ultimately end up.

If you have never been taught this before, you are going to find out that this is one of the freeing parts of the gospel. It will lift your confusion about how to live the faith life. No false guilt or shame will be placed on you, but you will gain a transformational knowing that you cannot shake. Come along with me as we explore this topic.

-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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Let’s Get Honest about Restoration

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Indispensable Leadership Skills #5: Let’s Get Honest about Restoration

He made the front page of the local paper. His sin was published almost before he was released on bail. Both his employers and his church closed their doors to him immediately. He was unclean, a pariah, too messy for anyone to help. Weeks later someone who knew him invited him to visit my church. Over the next year and a half, he was surrounded by a committed group of men who walked with him as he was restored in his relationship with God, his family, and the church. It was an investment of love, but had we not practiced restoration, who knows what might have happened to this man.

Too many leaders have a throw-them-under-the-bus approach to sinful people who do not immediately repent and confess. Or even if they do repent and confess, little is offered to help them restore their walk with God, the congregation, and their family. The danger to this approach only becomes apparent when the condemning leaders get caught in sin themselves.

Restoration is something Jesus himself practiced with Peter after he denied Jesus in Pilate’s courtyard. Had he consigned Peter to hell for his denial, we would be justified to do the same with people who mess up in our congregation. But everyone who leads in Jesus’ church has to follow Jesus on this as well.

Restoration is not always a popular choice. Once when I chased a man caught in sin who was not looking to repent—looking more like he was happy to keep going deeper into the pit, I was told by other leaders that since he was not repentant, it was a waste of time to try to restore him. I knew they were wrong and they came to see that they were.

Mastering restoration is about learning how the gospel saves the saved. The power of the gospel not only restores the lost, it restores the saved when they willfully stray back into the enemy’s camp. Even if your congregation has a transformational culture, you will have plenty of people who will need restoration at one time or another. But you have to choose to practice it. You will not restore believers merely by wishing they would repent. Sometimes you have to lovingly chase them and they may just fight you until God wrestles them to the ground. Other times, people will be relieved to be caught because they hated what they were becoming.

For restoration, you will need to cultivate two characteristics and master two skills. The two characteristics are gentleness and humility. We all have the tendency to be disappointed to the point of anger at people who fail. Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit’s work in us that gives us control over our words. Humility is a product of our recognition of our own failure to be good for God. To be humble is to have learned that there is zero difference between us and those who are in the grip of sin. He or she could have been us and maybe someday it will be us. The combination of gentleness and humility guides how we become safe to help our siblings trapped in sin.

The first of the skills you need to master is the intentional confrontation, characterized by Nathan’s challenge “You are the man!” to David when David ‘secretly’ impregnated Uriah’s wife and then oversaw his ‘accidental’ death. Intentionally confronting someone produces two results apart from potentially seeing the person restored. It announces to the rest of the body that we are not helpless. Secondly, it tells them that saved people matter to God and therefore matter to us as well.

The second skill is leading someone on the pathway back again. A full description of the restoration pathway can be found in my book, Build Deep: Developing a Culture of Transformation in Your Church. But understand that you only really gain mastery when you actually do it. And you will find that it changes you. Every time I have participated in restoring someone caught in sin, I become more in tune with my own need for God to reign over me, more aware that I am prone to wander, too. And I become more conscious of how much I need my church family to watch over me. You cannot practice restoration and be unaffected yourself.

Mastering these four practices—repentance, confession, reconciliation, and restoration—will make it possible for you and other leaders to help develop a transformational culture in your church. You will be able to disciple others so they can do them too. This is how people become confident that there is a reality to their faith. People in your congregation will go where you go or they will go out the door. Give them every reason to stay and grow with you into a transformational church by becoming leaders they can imitate.

-Steve Smith


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Let’s Get Honest About Repentance

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Indispensable Leadership Skills #2: Let’s Get Honest about Repentance

I think we all know that leaders are not the untouchables—those who can do no wrong. We know we need to be open to the convicting work of the Spirit. We know we need to be the ones who quickly respond when we become aware that our actions or attitudes are not matching up with the character of Jesus. Most of us have already learned the basics of what to do when we sin. We repent. We run back to the cross and ask God to forgive us and restore us. But mastery in repentance is not always about the out-there-where-everyone-can-see-it kind of sin. Many lessons in repentance are much more subtle because Satan is always subtle when lying to us and egging us on to defeat.

Repentance is about giving up your false idea that you have the right to reign over yourself—acknowledging that it’s your Creator who has the only right to reign over you and all your decisions. Leading a congregation, you have plenty of areas where you can be blind to self-rule. Your vision for the church, your way of building church systems, how you handle leadership, how you handle people, what biblical truths you choose to teach and how you choose to teach them—all these offer pathways to let your unfinished business destroy others.

Recently the North American church has been watching with great concern as a high profile pastor was called to account for his bullying ways. He had been successful by numbers and influence. It was precisely because he had been successful that no one had confronted him successfully. In the aftermath, those who should have held him accountable have found themselves repenting publicly for allowing so many to be wounded by this wounded leader.

If only this were the exception and not the rule. He and they are the poster children for all of us who lead while blinded to our unfinished business. While our own expression of self-rule may vary widely from theirs, the impact of our unrepentant sin reverberates in the lives of people we shepherd. Some of your worst moments of self-rule may be taking place as the “Parent” of your children or “Spouse” in your marriage, where the people you love are assigned second place to your all-consuming desire to be successful in ministry.

Mastering repentance means you ask God consistently to make you more aware of what lies you have believed about yourself that are offensive to Him, whether they be pretty lies or ugly ones. Whether they appeal to the lust of your flesh, the pride of your eyes, or the pride of life, as John puts it (1 John 2:16), you want to recognize the lies you have embraced for what they are, turn from them and humbly ask God to empower you to live out the truth.

Moreover, mastering repentance includes recognizing when God is leading you to do right in a culture that condemns righteous thinking. Sometimes you will find people are offended because you chose God’s ways over politics, over political correctness, over cultural prejudices, over religious taboos. Jesus knew that no one could ever meet the expectations of people affected by the Fall precisely because they were affected by it. He pushed back, saying the religious leaders had rejected John the Baptizer as having a demon for not eating and drinking with the crowd and were now calling him, Jesus, a drunkard and glutton for doing the opposite. Repentance for you also involves recognizing when you have been holding back in challenging those stuck by culture and personal preferences because you have been listening to the crowd, perhaps your own crowd, to get your bearings.

If you are going to master repentance, let me encourage you to take some previously given advice and get a partner whom you trust and who trusts you. Give each other permission to speak into the other leaders’ lives when he or she sees behavior that suggests underlying unfinished business. This is not a one-week assignment. This is a life-long quest because Satan will find new lies to tell you in the coming years.

-Steve Smith


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