Monday, July 6, 2015

"Discovering Jesus Beyond the Crowd" by Pastor Alan E. Johnson

A new Pew Research Center study says the number of people identifying as “Christian” in America is declining.  Nearly 20% of American adults who were raised as Christians no longer identify as one, and nearly 25% describe themselves as agnostic, atheistic, or of “no preference.”  This decline is against a backdrop of the fastest growth of the worldwide church in history, so how can this be? 

The American church is actually a product of the 313 Edict of Milan, when Roman Emperor Constantine decriminalized Christianity, and the persecuted house church emerged from the shadows. This newly legitimized church began to build extravagantly, professionalize its clergy, and exchange favors with governments, but today these are the churches – mostly of Europe and North America – that are declining.   

At the same time, the fast growing world church – mostly of Asia, Africa, and South America – is rising from the soil of poverty and persecution, and without government favor.  It is pre-Constantinian, and dependent upon the Holy Spirit for its daily life.  The declining church is largely institutional, while the growing church is largely organic.  For many in America, being Christian means as little as checking a box on a survey, but for marginalized world Christians, it means obediently following Jesus.        

Obedience is what Jesus demands, and he always prefers a small band of true followers over an uncommitted crowd.  In John 6 he “tightens the clamps” with some hard teachings, and many begin to complain.  He doesn’t back down and says, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life,” and with that, many of the crowd turn back and no longer follow him. 

Then he turns to his disciples and asks, “Do you also want to leave?”  Peter answers, “Master, to whom would we go?  You have the words of real life, eternal life.”

Even as Christianity declines in America, many are finding Peter’s words to be true:  “You have the words of real life, eternal life.”  It is a difficult day for the institutional church, but the organic church is thriving, and is rapidly gaining ground in America as it overflows onto our shores.  And for those who are checking “no preference” in some religious survey, the greatest discovery is yet to be made - that regardless of the crowd’s opinion, Jesus remains the source for both real life and eternal life. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Trained by a Dog

My wife and I purchased an Irish setter pup while living in Chicago and knew training would be particularly important in the city, so I bought a recommended dog training book and decided to follow every step.  A few months into training, everything was going well and our pup was ready to learn to “heel” — to walk on my left with her head next to my knee.
The book said to attach a long line to her collar with the instruction that “when your dog goes on the opposite side of a tree or post, keep walking but don’t look back.”  She did, I never stopped, and that one time taught her the first lesson in learning to heel: “Never allow anything to come between you and the master.”
Step two used the same long line with instructions that “when she tangles, keep walking but don’t look back.” The line went tight, I kept going, and just then I passed a woman who said, “Do you know you’re dragging your puppy?” Totally embarrassed, I stopped to explain the training, my pup untangled, and from then on my dog never let that line go tight. Lesson Two: “Never allow any distance to come between you and the master.”
Before long she was heeling perfectly and even sat when we stopped. We began taking walks without the leash and one afternoon, as we crossed a busy four-lane street, a car unexpectedly pulled out to pass in the lane we were about to enter. I immediately stopped, my unleashed dog sat, and the car missed us by an arm’s length. She had learned lesson three: “Never, ever, take your eyes off the master,” and it had saved her life.
As a Christian, I have found myself considering these lessons, but not for my dog — for me.
As the saying goes, “When God seems distant, guess who moved?” I have returned to the disciplines that keep me at his side —  a good place for any of us as we navigate this busy life.One night I was awakened with the thought that despite a full schedule of good work, I wasn’t as close to Jesus as I wanted to be.  In the darkness I recalled the lessons:  “Don’t let anything come between you and the master; never allow any distance to come between you and the master; and never, ever, take your eyes off the master.”

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Rehabilitating the Teacher

My dad was a sixth grade teacher who later moved into school administration, and in our large family, “back to school” was a high time of the year. In northern Minnesota, killing frosts already threatened our early September nights, but the return to school meant friends and school activities and, in those days, it also meant stiff new blue jeans and a fabric-covered notebook that had to last the whole year.
Little did I know then that I would be in and out of school for the rest of my life, with undergraduate studies and degrees from two seminaries, and that the aspect of school I dreaded most — sitting in class — would become a privilege I relish today. I’m not an academic, but build study into my routine, and now more than ever, “the more I learn the less I know.”
So, in one of my classes at a Pasadena seminary, Dr. Dallas Willard challenged us to “rehabilitate” Jesus as teacher. He explained the importance of becoming students to the one called “rabbi” and challenged us to establish him again in this role and to sit at his feet as students.
He described it like this: “You are pushing through a crowded and dusty market when you come upon an obscure, hand-written sign that simply says, ‘Students Wanted,’ with an arrow pointing down a dim, narrow alleyway.  Intrigued, you walk till you come to a small shop where you look in and see people sitting at the feet of Jesus as he teaches them.”
It is said of Jesus that in him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” suggesting he has the most important things to say about all of the most important topics. And among his teachings is a call to “obedience,” meaning that his students are learning to live what he teaches.
There are some who claim to be Christians without having the slightest smell of Jesus about them. Their belief is academic, and they have even killed each other over those beliefs. The student of Jesus, on the other hand, takes in his teachings through the mind, but allows them to touch the heart and break into a new way of living.
Today, the small sign is still at the crossroad of our lives, beckoning us with “Students Wanted,” as Jesus invites us to learn from him the best way of living.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Taking a Lesson From the Heron

by Pastor Alan Johnson

Great blue herons are seen throughout Northern Minnesota, where my wife and I sometimes canoe to an island rookery and view hundreds of them nesting atop the tallest trees.  These stork-like birds are typically loners, but this unique island is stained white from years of bird droppings. 

One morning I scanned a nearby marsh and saw a motionless heron standing at water’s edge, and moments later it plunged with its dagger-like beak and lifted a pierced northern pike from the water.  In one smooth motion it thrust the two foot pike into the air and caught it expertly so that the fish slid head first down the heron’s long neck. 

I wondered what would happen next, and imagined the sensation of that large thrashing fish in my stomach.  How would the bird be able to fly after such a hefty breakfast?  As I watched, I got my answer – the bird didn’t fly.  Instead, it turned and waddled into the marsh where it digested its meal.

Later, I was reminded of this experience when I read Matthew 6, where Jesus says, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”  Jesus’ take is that our frenetic grasping is due to worry about the future, and he wants us to learn from nature about God’s generous provision. 

This is an impossible lesson for those who believe everything is up to them.  They are trapped because they have never known that God provides, as when John D. Rockefeller was asked “how much would be enough?” He answered “just a little bit more,” even though his wealth was almost 2% of total US GDP!

As Jesus develops his thought, he says that the reason God wants us to learn that he provides is so we can give attention to greater matters.  Of these material things, he says, “your Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”   

He is recommending life at a higher level – a life free of worry, and focused on the things that really matter.  Our culture may measure life by what we possess, which leads to a frenetic grasp for “just a little bit more,” but Jesus recommends the far superior life of loving God and serving others.