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Upstream? Downstream? Or Just Across?

How should our journey with Jesus be? Upstream? Downstream? Or just across?

In the book “The Jesus I Never Knew” by Philip Yancey, he shared a true story which he heard from a friend who worked with the homeless street people in Chicago, USA:

A prostitute came to me in wretched straits,
homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter.
Through sobs and tears, she told me
she had been renting out her daughter - two years old!
- to men interested in kinky sex.
She made more renting out her daughter for an hour
than she could earn on her own in a night.
She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit.
I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story.
For one thing, it made me legally liable --
I'm required to report cases of child abuse.
I had no idea what to say to this woman.

At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help.
I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock
that crossed her face. "Church!" she cried.
"Why would I ever go there?
I was already feeling terrible about myself.
They'd just make me feel worse."

What struck us about this story is that why women like this prostitute should flee away from Jesus instead of running to Him. Jesus is still their refuge, strength and hope! The problem is definitely not with Christ, the Shepherd of love, but His followers named Christians! The church at large has lost the touch, the love and the grace. While Jesus was on earth, He ministered among the prostitutes and sinners, and they felt welcomed and loved by the Lord. But what happened to His followers today? Many prostitutes and sinners no longer feel welcome or wanted in the church! What has happened?

What is the picture of a church in the minds of the people in the world? A holier than thou bunch of people? A group of religious people and hypocrites? The unchurched people would think that the church is a place for holy people, and a place one can only go and visit after their acts are cleaned up.

This misconception by the unchurched is not totally biased or misrepresented. Many Christians, having received the unconditional grace and love of God and experiencing forgiveness and abundant life, fail to give unconditional grace and love back to others, and very often, we harbour unforgiveness and resentment towards the people of the world, especially those who are homeless, prostitutes, gangsters and drug addicts.

There are many Christian ministries now serving among these peoples through soups kitchens, homeless shelters, hospices, abused women and prison outreaches. But the great majority of Christians, while celebrating our journeys upstream to God, fails to reach out to those along the way. Most of us will be like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:27-37), busy with our religious activities and schedules, will just pass wounded mankind by, failing to minister the oil and wine, hospitality and bread! We neglect to love, and show grace in a hurting and wounded world. When we receive true grace from God, we must be gracious and give grace to others! Freely we have received, freely we give!

I believe that a paradigm shift is coming! This calls for a change in church structure and definition! The current emphasis of the local congregations is to attract people to come to the physical property of the church. If sinners want to become Christians, they must clean up and be involved in the church activities and to be a part of the life in the church. This model began in the Roman Empire after Constantine’s conversion. Christianity then became the official Roman religion. Everything became legalized, institutionalized and structured inside religious buildings! Since then, a Constantinian Church Model led their congregations to place emphasis on what was happening in the physical church buildings or services instead on the people.

Jesus said that He would build His church, and we should feed His lambs and sheep! But we are now trying to build buildings called churches, and leave the feeding of the lambs and sheep back to the Good Shepherd! We become mechanized, very impersonal, program and result-oriented. With high-tech, we have become low-touch! Some church phone systems are automatic electronic answering machines, with impressive and comprehensive menus of questions and answers. Sometimes it is harder to get near a pastor than the prime minister! Some church websites have more programs and attractions than Disneyland!

As a result, congregations are strong in religious services and structures inside the church buildings but are weak in ministries outside the church buildings. Jesus ministered among the people where they were – in fishing villages, besides the seas, on the mountains, hills and valleys, in the homes, and along the dusty roads. Jesus had no physical church buildings whereby people came to hear Him speak! Jesus went to visit them where they stayed or worked. He even ate and drank with them! He washed their feet too, and allowed them to wash His. His church is a community of people, not a building! We are the living stones!

But now what? In order to join Christianity, the unchurched must leave their cultures, and become one of us in order to join our church. The church does not go to them. The church does not visit the homeless, and even those in hospitals! We have adopted the Constantinian Church Model This ‘come to us’ concept is not biblical! We often say that Christianity is unlike other religions. In other religions, people come to God but in Christianity, God comes to man! But our words do not match our actions! The church is still having the “come to me” mentality! Jesus said, “Go into all the nations and make disciples!” But we said, “Come into our church, listen to what we have to say and participate in our programs!” Eventually, some unchurched come into our congregations and become part of us. They adapt themselves, and ultimately adopt our cultures and weekly activities. Our missionaries doing church planting in foreign lands will also repeat these standard procedures and plant Constantinian congregations in those lands!

Today, there are a few Christians who begin to see the Constantinian Model as flawed. They see that the mission of Jesus is to seek the lost, ministering outside the walls of religious institutions and buildings! This paradigm shift calls for the church to leave the safe perimeters of her church buildings, out of her comfort zones, and move into the world where the lost and needy are! We will serve the unchurched where they are! We must adapt to their languages and cultures rather than asking those outside to learn English, and change their cultures in order to find God. We must communicate Christ in words and deeds of love.

Below is a testimony from Mark Peske, a missionary to the Ojibwa:

“In previous years, I invited people to church when I met them,
thinking in that way they will hear the gospel.
I began to see that I was giving the church an unfair advantage.
I was asking them to come to my turf, where I was the leader,
where I stand and speak while they sit and listen.
It was a lack of courage that led me to rely on
bringing them to a place where I was the boss,
and they were the servants.
What I had to learn to do was speak the gospel on their terms -
in their homes, in their boats - as a friend and as an equal.”

It may be safer to remain in our congregations, hoping that the unchurched will come to us where we are. Just take a look at the churches in Europe and USA. They care about themselves, but lose their cutting edges! But the safest place for the church is to be where Jesus is. Jesus is ministering outside the walls of the church buildings! We should be there too!

A key element of success in world evangelization is building relationships. Good relationships account for more conversions than does all media, crusades, personal witnessing and foreign missions put together. According to some recent studies in a variety of countries and cultures, nearly 90% of the unchurched come to Christ through the influence of their family members or friends, especially so within a clan or house group. It is, therefore, essential for local congregations to find ways to harness the vast potential of healthy relationships outside the churches. Many Christians today do not have close friends outside their churches! Worse still, we also do not have good relationships with God and one another! We must allow ourselves time and resources to build healthy relationships with God, other Christians and also the people where we live and work with!

Another key element is to esteem others better than ourselves! No culture is more superior to any other culture. Christians are not more superior than non-Christians! The only thing we have is this: “God is our Father in heaven, and we are His children!” It is this relationship that makes a great difference! Missionaries must never view their own cultures as more superior compared with those they are ministering. God does not show favoritism to any culture. In every nation, culture or people group, He accepts those who fear Him and do what is right.

For missionaries going across air, land and sea, to reach other people groups, requires high costs and efforts. Beyond the cultural differences and barriers we have to cross, there are many other differences that lie within those cultures we must come to term with, such as the culture of children, the culture of the deaf and dumb, the culture of the addicts, the culture of prostitutes and the culture of those stricken with AIDS. Often we cannot start church services immediately! But we can begin to shine for Jesus in those corners of darkness! We are called to be the light of the world!

The first few things we can do are simply to listen to the Lord, and listen to the cries of the peoples there! What are their needs? What is the Spirit saying? We are not there to do our own things, and start religious services! We are there to minister healing to the peoples! And we should not invade their cultures with all our own cultures! We must not want them to talk, dress and act like us! We must allow God to make them to become more like Jesus! The Holy Spirit will do the work! We just do our part!

Another key element is practicing pure and undefiled religion. What is this?

Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this:
to visit orphans and widows in their trouble,
and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (James 1:27)

And this is what the gospel of Jesus is all about!

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." (Luke 4:18-19)

Caring for the widows, the orphans, the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the blind, the oppressed and the sick! This is the same gospel message of Christ with divine power to heal and to save! But many of our churches have become entertainment centres, caring for ourselves rather than others!

For if you love those who love you,
what reward have you?
Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brethren only,
what do you do more than others?
Do not even the tax collectors do so? (Matthew 5:46-47)

Agape love is lacking in our midst as our love is offered with personal gain in mind and many strings attached. The desperate and needy in our communities are watching us! Our actions speak louder than our words! As we have received freely, we must give freely with no strings attached! Unconditional love and grace!

If the whole image of the sun can be contained in a droplet of water, if the infinite God can make Himself so small as to dwell inside our infinite hearts, if enormous nuclear energy can be contained in a single atom, how come our hearts cannot condescend so as to be able to contain the plight of others?

Shall we swim upstream or downstream? I guess the answer is neither. It’s to swim across and reach out to our neighbours. How do we know that we love God? By loving others!

If someone says, "I love God,"
and hates his brother, he is a liar;
for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen,
how can he love God whom he has not seen?
And this commandment we have from Him:
that he who loves God must love his brother also. (1 John 4:20-21)

Yes, we must reach out and touch others in our homes and neighbourhoods! When we are successful, then we are able to bring the gospel from our neighbourhoods to the nations! Not up, not down but across!

But you shall receive power
when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;
and you shall be witnesses to Me
in Jerusalem, and in all Judea
and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

One more thing about the church. The church is not a building, but the Body of Christ!

Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you,
and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking
in regard to Christ's afflictions,
for the sake of His body,
which is the church. (Col 1:24)

However, a physical church building is necessary for corporate worship and services. Just like Jerusalem is the place where the Israelites go up to worship God, the church building is a place for this same purpose. But the building is not the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ, namely the church, is made of living stones called the people of God!

For where two or three are gathered
together in My name,
I am there in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:20)

The woman said to Him,
"Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.
Our fathers worshiped on this mountain,
and you Jews say that
in Jerusalem is the place
where one ought to worship."
Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me,
the hour is coming
when you will neither on this mountain,
nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father.
You worship what you do not know;
we know what we worship,
for salvation is of the Jews.
But the hour is coming, and now is,
when the true worshipers will worship
the Father in spirit and truth;
for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.
God is Spirit, and those who worship Him
must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:19-24)

The more important thing is not the place, but the people! Just take a look at the great cathedrals in Europe. Many have become shopping malls, museums and restaurants. When we begin to refocus on the people again, I believe the prostitutes and the sinners will again feel welcomed and loved in the church, in the Body of Christ, among the people of God, outside and inside the walls of the church buildings!

Written on:
13 July 2007