Churches build these great ministries and put on outstanding programs, then fail in one critical area: they hide them inside the walls of their buildings.
Then a leper came to Him, and on his knees, begged Him: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out HIs hand and touched him. “I am willing,” He told him. “Be made clean.” Immediately the disease left him, and he was healed.
Then He sternly warned him and sent him away at once, telling him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go and show yourself to the priest, and offer what Moses prescribed for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”
Yet he went out and began to proclaim it widely and to spread the news, with the result that Jesus could no longer enter a town openly. But He was out in deserted places, and they would come to Him from everywhere. (Mark 1:40-45)
I’m always struck by the incongruities–the oddities–in people’s behavior, particularly in biblical stories. Consider these unexpected aspects of our Lord’s encounter with the leper:
–The leper felt free to come to Jesus. The law specifically forbade that (Leviticus 13:45-46). Lepers were to shy away from others and to call out “unclean,” lest they be accidentally touched and therefore unclean.
–Jesus reached out and touched him. Our wonderful Lord did the unthinkable and touched the untouchable. As always, He was driven by compassion.
–Then, after the man was healed, the Lord told him to keep it to himself. These were the early days of the Lord’s ministry and the last thing He needed was crowds mobbing Him as a cult hero.
–The man disobeyed Jesus and told everyone he met. We can hardly blame him. I’ve sometimes felt half-seriously that the only unfair command our Lord ever gave was telling this fellow to keep the news to himself. Like he could! And like no one would notice.
Those are four strange aspects to this wonderful little story. But they suggest an even greater oddity about the Lord’s people today: Jesus told that man to be quiet, but he went out and told everyone he met. He tells us to tell the world and we go home and sit down.
We keep the most wonderful news in the world to ourselves.
Something bad wrong with that.
Even the finest Christian workers in today’s churches have a tendency to clam up rather than share their faith with the outside world. We love the Lord, we’ve been saved, we are grateful for His grace and power and mercy, and we love to worship Him and sing and talk about Him.
To one another.
What we are not doing is telling the world.
And that is the strangest thing of all.
After healing the man we call the Gadarene demoniac, Jesus told him, “Go home to your friends. And tell them what the Lord has done for you and how He has had compassion on you.” (Mark 5:19)
Go home and tell.
We are under orders.
For believers today, telling non-Christians about Jesus is not an option. We are under the mandate of Heaven. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:18-20)
Sure, it’s great to talk about these things to one another. It encourages us to hear what God has done in the life of a friend. But we must not restrict our telling to that.
The world needs to hear also. In fact, it’s dying to hear.
God’s people are locking ourselves inside.
Consider the oddity of our church programs. We make the greatest presentations…to one another.
The Lord’s people will plan excellent programs to celebrate our Saviour Jesus Christ. At Christmas we herald His birth and at Easter we celebrate His death and resurrection. We invest hundreds of hours in these presentations. We will present the finest programs and preach the strongest sermons and give our glowing testimonies. We have the greatest message ever.
The problem is we keep it all within the walls of our churches.
There the programs will be seen and heard only by those already convinced and the lucky few outsiders who happened to be in the audience that day.
As a retired pastor, I do a half-dozen revivals a year. Churches will spend many thousands of dollars and invest enormous energy and weeks of planning in order to reach the unsaved. Then, typically, pastors will tell us there may be one or two non-Christians present in each service, if even that.
What’s wrong with this picture?
What’s wrong is that we trying to evangelize the world without ever leaving the four walls of our church plants. And that is not about to happen.
We’re like the early Christians in that strange interlude between the death and resurrection of Jesus but before Pentecost: locked up with other believers.
In the evening of that first day of the week, the disciples were gathered together with the doors locked because of their fear of the Jews. (John 20:19)
After eight days His disciples were indoors again, and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus came…. (John 20:26)
Locked into the building. Sound familiar?
When Pentecost arrived–when the Holy Spirit came in power and filled each believer–the first thing the Lord did was to blow the doors off their hinges and drive the disciples into the streets where they shared the gospel with visitors from all over the known world. (Acts 2)
You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
In the months following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on the City of New Orleans, I saw something fascinating take place in two of our churches.
James and Amy had come to town from Louisville to begin a new church in the uptown Magazine Street area. They rented a vacant store and set up chairs. I was there one Sunday evening when 25 or 30 people gathered. A couple of people played guitars and we sang. And that’s when an unusual thing occurred.
People began walking in off the streets and joining our service. They seemed to have no idea what we were doing. But because the vacant store had a huge plate-glass window, outsiders could see people inside who were singing and enjoying themselves. They wanted in on it.
Gentilly Baptist Church suffered an incredible amount of devastation from the hurricane floodwaters filling the church and remaining for weeks. While the buildings were being gutted and rebuilt, Pastor Ken Taylor and his congregation placed chairs on the front lawn and held services outside. To their delight, neighbors sometimes walked up and joined in. And more than once, motorists traveling down Franklin Avenue spotted the little crowd in folding chairs and stopped and joined them.
These days, James Welch’s church and Ken Taylor’s church are meeting back inside church buildings. One wonders if strangers drop in any more.
There’s something about a church building, humble or majestic, which shuts out the world.
The curb market near my house went out of business not long ago. As I drove by and spotted the sign announcing the closure, something hit me: I know why they didn’t make it. Most curb market owners know that what sells produce is the visual impact. So, first thing each morning, on opening their doors, they drag bins outside so passersby can see what they have to offer.
The failed market however, had not done that. Instead, they had paid a painter to draw pictures of fruit and veggies on the wall. Evidently, no one wanted to buy a picture. There is no substitute for the real thing.
Jesus sent you and me into the world as the real thing.
To withdraw from the world and sing His praises and give our testimonies only to one another defeats the purpose.
“You are a chosen race….so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. (I Peter 2:9)
Take your church outside.
I am not suggesting that we ought to sell the church buildings. Rather, that once in a while leaders take your worship services, your Vacation Bible School, your evangelistic meetings, your Easter services, even your prayer meetings–to the ball stadium, to the public park, to the church parking lot. Hold your concert in a public arena. Do at least one performance of your Christmas program in the school auditorium or union hall or even the shopping mall.
Try different venues until you find the one that works.
Anyone who spends any time at all checking out youtube.com’s offerings has seen video clips of church choirs singing “The Hallelujah Chorus” in the food court of shopping malls. The choir members seem to come together spontaneously and blend in with one another. Shoppers are fascinated and stop to listen. At the end, they break into applause.
Why, I wonder, does this sort of thing happen only in large cities with professionally sounding choirs. Why not in Smalltown, USA?
What would happen if ten members of the church choir decided to sing one number from the Easter cantata inside the local Wal-Mart? If they planned it just right and did not make a spectacle of themselves, they could pull it off without telling management or asking for permission (which might put them on the spot). The singers would have shopping baskets–they are customers and buying stuff!–and after their song, they would fan out and continue shopping. No manager is going to mind this if these singers are paying customers and not creating a scene.
The choir could do the same thing before a ball game. The fans are gathering in the high school stadium for Friday night’s game. Someone breaks into song and other choir members (who are scattered across the same general area of the bleachers) blend in. They sing one song and no more. They would soon have the undivided attention of the audience around them. Conversations would follow with some of the spectators.
Such a “spontaneous” presentation would number more unsaved people in its audience than in a month of typical church services.
What if your church collected all the unused Bibles now gathering dust in the homes of members and held a free-Bible-giveaway in front of the church? Enlist some volunteers to help, insert literature on salvation and your church inside the pages, erect signs announcing “free Bibles this Saturday 10 am” and get ready for the response.
Take your faith outside.
My friend Joel brings his Bible into restaurants when he’s eating alone. He sits there reading it during the meal. He tells me the wait staff and nearby diners notice this and have sometimes raised question about God and religion, giving him a great opportunity for a witness.
In the years since Hurricane Katrina, untold thousands of the Lord’s people have made the trek to help New Orleans rebuild. Again and again, we have heard restaurant workers say how impressed they were with the fresh-faced teenagers and college students who flowed into their eating places, who showed a gracious respect for the wait staff, and who held hands and bowed their heads in prayer.
When some atheistic group erected a billboard in downtown New Orleans that said, “Imagine No Religion,” citizens scoffed at it. Without the loving ministries of multitudes of followers of Jesus Christ, this city would still be struggling to survive.
This scenario has played out hundreds of times. Volunteers from churches across America are helping a citizen rebuild his house, and doing it at no cost. The homeowner has been fighting battles with government red tape and is used to getting the run-around. Then, a team of Christians arrive and go to work. He is overwhelmed. He asks them why they are doing this, why they put their lives on hold back in Michigan or Tennessee to come at their own expense to help people they do not know. When that happens, the Christians tell about Jesus.
A lot of our residents now know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior just because of that.
Take your faith outside.
Why aren’t we doing that? I expect one reason is that the only people we’ve seen ministering in public have been extremists. In New Orleans, we have the occasional street preacher who yells at pedestrians and motorists as they go by.
But what if we did it right? What if we who love the Lord and love people took that love into the marketplace and simply told what the Lord means to us?
Church workers are prone to make assumptions.
“The people of our community know we’re here. They know when we meet. They know the gospel. They know they would be welcome in our church. We don’t have to tell them.”
On this website, I have told of meeting Bill, a young man who had just joined our church. A carpenter, he had expressed to a co-worker he had a hunger down inside his heart, but he did not know “what for.” The friend invited him to church with him.
Bill said to him, “How do I do that?”
The other carpenter said, “How do you go to church?”
Bill: “Yeah. You mean just anyone can go to church?”
The friend told him to just drive to the building, get out of his car and walk in and take a seat, that everyone is welcome. Bill did this, heard the gospel, and gave his life to Jesus.
I said to a friend at church, “We make such assumptions, don’t we? We assume that everyone knows they would be welcome in our church. That everyone knows how to come inside and what the procedure is.”
My friend said, “You know my story, don’t you?”
Mike was grown before he heard the story of the resurrection of Jesus for the first time. He was dating Terri and that Easter Sunday they went to her United Methodist Church. Later, he called to tell his father, these days a godly man whom Mike reveres. That day, on hearing Mike’s amazement at the story of the resurrection, his father said, “Son, everybody in this city knows about the resurrection!” Mike said, “Dad, how would I? You never told me. You never bought me a Bible. You never took me to church.”
Mike’s father is typical of the membership in our churches. Longtime residents in particular are prone to think the community has been blanketed with the gospel just because there are so many churches.
The average American community is changing right before our eyes. New residents are flowing in from every direction, particularly from Hispanic countries in our hemisphere. Many of these have never heard the gospel.
Each new generation produces a new crop of pagans. Christians are presented with a continuous challenge to get the gospel out every day.
One day, I took a handful of cards of new residents to our city and went knocking on doors. That’s how I met a little grandmotherly woman who lived in a humble duplex. At first, she seemed suspicious of me, particularly when I said I was calling from First Baptist Church.
She said, “I have my own religion.”
I said, “Oh? I would love to hear about your religion.”
She said, “You don’t want to hear about my religion.”
I assured her that I did. But I was not prepared for what came next.
“I’m the only person of my religion in the state.”
I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that.” I said, “May I ask how long you have belonged to this religion?”
She said, “For thirty years.”
I said, “Now you’ve really sparked my curiosity. For thirty years you have been the only person of your faith in this state?”
When she nodded, I said, “One of my roles at our church is teaching people to share their faith. May I ask you during all these years, did you ever share your faith with other people?”
She said, “I believe if my God wants anyone to know about him, he will send them to me.”
I thought–and wisely decided against it–about saying, “Well, here I am.”
Eventually, she invited me into her little home to learn more about her faith. I have long since forgotten the name of the religion which was formed in–where else?–California early in the 20th century and has only a tiny following.
She showed me the pamphlets and long-play record album that provided the gist of her worship activities. I tried reading the material, but found it to be unintelligible philosophical meanderings. The printed material had yellowed with age and the record was warped.
Later, I had an epiphany. I suddenly realized why the Lord had sent that woman into my life that day.
She’s like us. We’re like her.
A great many of the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ have similar stories. Thirty years ago, we had an experience with the Lord and nothing much since. Our testimony has yellowed with age and warped with time.
Like her, we shut ourselves up inside our little buildings and dare God to send anyone in our direction to learn about Him.
And we wonder why nothing much happens in our churches any more.
Why our services are so routine.
Why no lives are being changed.
Why the community ignores us.
Why revival tarries.
My friend Russell is a deacon in our church. He comes from a large family and loves to travel back to Arkansas to visit them and hunt on the family tract. Last year one of his brothers said to someone, “I love Russell and I’m always glad to see him. But I wish he would leave his religion at home.”
Russell never leaves his religion at home. His faith in Jesus Christ is as much a part of him as his joints and marrow.
Recently, Russell tells me, that brother came to know the Lord. “What’s funny,” he said, “is that now that brother will not shut up talking about Jesus.”
That’s how it happens. We take the Lord Jesus outside with us. We talk about Him. We live this life before the world. We have no secrets, no fears, no hesitations.
Our Lord Jesus said: The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until it spread through all of it. (Matthew 13:33)
She might have thought she was hiding that leaven. But it could not stay hidden for long. Pretty soon everyone knew where she had put it.
That’s how it is with the gospel. If we are living it, if Jesus Christ is reigning over us, we will not be able to bottle it up and wall it off from the world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Secret discipleship is a contradiction in terms. For either the secrecy will kill the discipleship or the discipleship will kill the secrecy.”
One of the best pieces of advice we can ever give to new followers of Jesus is three words: Take it outside.
An addendum. Added April 13, 2011.
Not far from my house is a restaurant that just closed and has been reborn as a pizzeria. I could have predicted as soon as the restaurant opened they would not be long for this world.
Whoever designed that restaurant clearly knows nothing about hamburger joints, which is what it was. For reasons unknown to me, there was not a single window in that place. It was walled in.
Restaurants need windows. They need openness.
Now, it’s not that people in a restaurant necessarily want to look out. But people on the outside need to have a clue what’s inside before they are willing to risk entering. But this one looked formidable, like a fortress.
After they closed, a pizza establishment bought the building and went to work changing its appearance. Among the changes they main, the most obvious was that on the side of the building facing the major street, they knocked out the wall and added a glassed in porch. Now, as we drive along, we see people dining in that area enjoying themselves. I’ve not stopped yet, but I plan to. It looks so inviting.