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How Do We Find Our Voice Again?
I was speaking in Australia and was on my way from Sydney to
Perth. On the overnight fl ight, I got up to stretch my legs in the back of the plane. A young fl ight attendant began making polite small talk as she prepared the drink cart, asking me where I was from, where I was going, and what I did for a living. I often hesitate to tell people I'm a pastor --- our reputation is not exactly well received.
That day, however, I just let it go. 'I'm a pastor,' I began. 'I'm here to speak at some seminaries and colleges in Australia about how to start churches.' What a great opener for an evangelism experience!
Right! Only she didn't seem the least intrigued.
'Good luck. You won't get much of an audience here,' she said nonchalantly. 'I think you'll fi nd it's quite different than what you see in America. No offense, just the way it is.'
'None taken,' I offered. Now I was the one intrigued. 'So what's the deal? Is God just not part of the equation of life? What do most Australians think of him?'
She didn't hesitate. 'It isn't that I'm angry with God or don't believe in him. He's just not a player, if you will.'
Granted, she maintained her friendly fl ight attendant demeanor,
but her matter-of-fact response to the topic at hand still threw me.
'So help me understand this,' I probed. 'Have you been hurt in the past by the church somehow?'
'No,' she smiled, undeterred. 'My granny goes to church. As a matter of fact, I had a friend who had an awesome tragedy. The way the church stepped in and helped out was incredible. No questions asked.'
I retraced our steps. 'But you believe in God?'
'Of course. You'd have to be an idiot not to believe. I'm very spiritual, as are most of my friends; I'm just not religious.'
'How do you get in touch with your spirituality?' Great, there's a token pastor-type question. She took it in stride, however, as she continued loading her cart.
'I walk in the bush, or take a long walk on the beach, or visit with my mates for a long time.'
'What would make you want God or pursue him in your life?'
What was this bloke getting at? she must have wondered.
She paused for a moment before responding, 'I can't answer that. I'm just perfectly happy without him.'
'So not angry, bitter, or resentful --- just indifferent?' I offered once more.
'That's it,' she concluded.
That was it. Tragically, Chris tian ity (as she understood it) had nothing to offer this young woman. How can that be? Does the gospel have the ability to reach happy people who 'have it all'? Or is it just a crisis decision? I knew Jesus spoke to deep levels of truth and meaning beyond a crisis, but I was having a diffi cult time convincing her of that. Is the gospel powerful enough to be enough in and of itself, or does someone have to respond only because they're hurting? How do we help people understand that they need God because he's God and that there's no true or ultimate meaning without him?
As I visited with her, I ached over the fl aws in our understanding of what it is that we invite people to experience and our inability to engage the culture at a signifi cant depth. Where is the church today speaking to justice and mercy? Where is the church today serving the poor and the hurting? Where is the church today serving as a prophet to society? Her view of the church was that it existed as an institution for itself --- neither good nor bad, just irrelevant to her.
We cannot expect to help people understand there is value to following God and a depth of life that comes no other way if we don't deal with issues at this level. We would have nothing different to offer them from the Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, animists,
and other religions who merely beseech their gods in times of need for things they desire. When America was more 'Chris tian' in its cultural moorings, it wasn't necessary to understand apologetics.
Thinking about the deep issues regarding the existence of God was not as prevalent then; now that has all changed.
When the church began to institutionalize and focus on gaining infl uence in political arenas and amassing wealth and respectability in global affairs, it lost its mooring --- the central message of hope and healing that will transform individuals and cultures. The church became a regimented system, corralling its constituents into programs --- and yet not without results. Megachurches exploded.
Church networks grew. Something was happening --- and as long as the numbers grew, we self-validated all the results. Instead of all our movement being God's work, we convinced ourselves of the opposite. We surmised all our feverish work must signify a movement of God.
I HAD TO GO HALFWAY AROUND THE WORLD TO FIND IT
How did this colossal mistake happen? Somewhere along the way, we became lost. I didn't even realize how lost I was until I saw what the church was really supposed to look like. At fi rst, I didn't even recognize it; then I wanted to rationalize it. I had to go halfway around the world to fi nd it --- in the persecuted underground house church in Asia. I had heard the stories and statistics, but I
had never met anyone face to face. For the fi rst time, I found people who were living a Divine Conspiracy,1 as Dallas Willard would say.
They were nothing like me. They were nothing like any believers I
had ever met --- not even Willard! Not just culturally, but spiritually they blew me away. Sure, their theology is fuzzy. Some don't even have whole parts of the Bible, only perhaps an entire book or a few passages. But they know God at a depth I never had nor knew anyone else who had.
Worship takes on a completely new expression on the other side of the world. No sound systems, no calculated transitions, just sweaty believers crammed together into small rooms, weeping as the
Holy Spirit oozes out among them, as I never before experienced.
I don't know if they are charismatic or not (all I knew was it wasn't my tongue), but it doesn't matter. No one is getting rich, and no one is fi ghting for control or position. If there is a favored position, it is the privilege of being the fi rst to die. Living on the edge as they do leaves little room for insincerity or self-promotion. These people are living what I grew up hearing the church should be.
Through small, indigenous, underground house church networks,
these churches are transforming lives and their cultures.
They cannot be stopped. There are too many of them, and they are spreading everywhere, every day. Here's a shocker: Lay people start these movements, not just those 'called' to full-time vocational ministry. Their church planting is the result of transformed lives and not the result of a grand strategy, even though the strategy is grand.
The differences are striking and so are the results --- so much so that in spite of holding so many degrees and an earned doctorate,
I've learned more about how to do church from outside America than I ever did inside America. I fi rmly believe that in order to fi nd the real church, one has to get on a plane and fl y west at least twelve hours over the Pacifi c. And then, one won't fi nd it in a church building --- it will be in a neighborhood. Don't go looking for it on
Sunday, but seek it early in the morning or late at night as people quietly come in singles and pairs in order to not draw attention to themselves.