Review: The Loveliest Place by Dustin Benge

Why is More Important Than How

A Christian who has spent any length of time in the Church knows that she can appear less than beautiful when subjected to human scrutiny. Bickering, division, scandal – all of these things and more wound her and leave scars and many within seem to care little about the damage done. But when we pause and consider the view from God’s perspective we’re humbled. He looks upon the less-than-faithful, worldly, gospel-possessing but imperfect Church and He loves her unconditionally because, to Him, she is the most beautiful thing He has fashioned. To read Dustin Benge’s love letter about the beauty of the Bride of Christ is to be moved to repentance for one’s lack of similar vision.

The Loveliest Place is a beautiful book and one that I will be rereading regularly. Theologically deep, the depth is contained in a heartfelt paean to love the Church in the same way God does. Benge systematically presents the unique treasures that have been entrusted to the body and the eternal value that God assigns to them. Dare we consider of less value, or worse, abuse these privileges through apathy or ignorance. I was deeply captivated by page after page or prose that encouraged my vision to lift to a higher perspective, to look past the scars and stains and see the Church as her Creator does. The theology can wait for a second reading if the first pass draws us back to the beauty of the Bride.

The Loveliest Place should be on the shelf of every pastor, elder and dedicated church member. I find it much more powerful than any crop of ministry ‘how-to’ books because it gives the important ‘why’ to everything we do in the Church. Understanding the reason why the Church is so valued by God gives the motivation for everything we do (or don’t do) as people blessed to be part of the Bride. In the introduction, the earth is turned and the reader is confronted with our own attitudes as Benge challenges, “Chosen by God the Father, purchased by Christ the Son, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the church should be cherished and recognized as ‘dear’ by all who call her home.” Reflecting on what we encourage, discourage, allow or ignore gives us our commitment to this truth. Perhaps our prayers need to return to the ‘why’ of the church, to the reason that we want to treasure her and her members.

Planting Seeds of New Life in Prayer

Matthew Henry wrote, “When God intends great mercy for His people, the first thing He does is to set them praying.” History affirms this maxim, as the great revivals that God has sparked around the world have always been launched by prayer. There may have been grand movements of Christians joined in crying out to God that brought the revival, but it hasn’t always been so. In countless instances, the hearts of just a handful of people united to plead with God for new life in their community, their country or their church were the passion to which God responded. It is not the size of the group praying that matters as much as the depth of that group’s heart. They need this depth for the perseverance in petition that renewal often requires. God does not put a shot-clock on these prayers, and He may respond to them at once, or it’s more likely that revival comes after a season of souls persevering in long hours of communal prayer.

God uses our commitment to prayer to prepare us for receiving the life-giving power of the Spirit, and this preparation is two-fold. He first sets out to prepare our hearts to burn for revival. The Christian must be able to see the dry bones of the church or the distracted hearts of their community and then believe that spiritual life can come to them if God moves. This hope is the second area in which the heart is prepared because these prayers for new life can require extraordinary perseverance. Revival may appear like a single cloud on the horizon, no bigger that a fist, and prayer warriors must be patient in the time it takes to blossom into a drenching storm pouring down torrents of living water. Without preparation, our hearts would often fail to have the vision needed or the strength to carry on when answer is not immediately forthcoming.

“From the day of Pentecost, there has been not one great spiritual awakening, in any land, which has not begun in a union of prayer, if only [among] two or three. No such outward, upward movement has continued after such prayer meetings have declined.”

A.T. Pierson

The prepared heart prays in complete honesty [JAS 5:16]. Christians recognize that the spiritual vitality of their church is not what it should be and the prayers that issue forth confess as much to God. Sin, cold fellowship, poor leadership – whatever the list of known deficits holds is boldly and openly laid before the Lord for his correction. Genuine repentance in revival prayer forges a heart soft and malleable for God to turn and shape, addressing these things so that new life does not germinate in rocky soil where it cannot flourish. When we pray for our community and for salvation to come, we are open with God about those areas in which we have not reached out or cared for. He may take the first step of turning our attention to knowing our neighbors and serving this community before He sends the Spirit with revival for the hearts of the lost. Honesty starts in the humbled heart, and a humbled heart is prepared by God and committed to Him above all other things.

Longing for Revival

I passionately believe in the possibility of renewal in the church, particularly the legacy church where the devotion to the Missio Dei has grown cold in favor of comfort and familiarity. I believe that the best way, but not the only, for revival to come to the church is through a return to first principles, a devotion to prayer and worship.

As a matter of regular meditation, I consider the list of things I believe:

  • The eternal God of the Bible created, sustains, and has a purpose for the universe and my life within it
  • Jesus gave His life to atone for the sins of the world (Mark 10:45) and by vesting belief in Him, people are saved (1 Corinthians 1:21)
  • The Holy Spirit of Christ miraculously indwells redeemed people (1 Corinthians 6:19)
  • The Colorado Rockies will win the World Series (someday, no scripture reference)
  • Many churches need and can have revival

I passionately believe in the possibility of renewal in the church, particularly the legacy church where the devotion to the Missio Dei has grown cold in favor of comfort and familiarity. I believe that the best way, but not the only, for revival to come to the church is through a return to first principles, a devotion to prayer and worship. A renewed sense of the mission of disciple-making results from the first sparks of spiritual life that ignite, giving evidence to my belief. I believe these things are Scripture honoring and God glorifying.

There are doubtless many reasons that churches fall into decline, some beyond their control. As we talk about revival, it’s important to distinguish between spiritual and material poverty as a contributing factor. Geographic factors and demographic shifts can be the reasons that churches find themselves in material decline, making closure a choice that has to be made. We can identify numerous other external factors as reasons for the death of a church, and we need to be clear-eyed in assessing these realities. Conversely, spiritual decline has but a single source, the dimming of the passion of the members of a body for the gospel mission. Jesus spoke of this as forsaking “your first love” (Revelation 2:4).

While external factors may be beyond the control of a local church, the spiritual fire they exhibit is not. I believe that the Lord’s promise to be with His Church always (Matthew 28:20) assures us that any spiritual spark can be fanned into a roaring flame through His power. What does it require? I believe this inferno lies at the juncture of a return to heartfelt worship and the restoration of the Church as a house of prayer. Does this guarantee revival? Perhaps not, but it ensures that any ministry that emanates from a church is glorifying to God.

I Am Not Ashamed of the Gospel

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…” Romans 1:16

Gospel Square 1The gospel that the Apostle spoke of is good news, stupendously good news. God had intervened in history, entering personally into the morass of human rebellion against Him and making a way out, a way to be freed from the entanglements that drew them to destruction. Jesus Christ entered the world in purity, lived a life of perfect holiness and died as the sacrifice for the sins of the world. His death atoned for all sin. When Jesus was then resurrected on that third day, He demonstrated indisputably that He had overcome death and broken the entrapping bonds of sin. The long-awaited promises to Israel were fulfilled and the blessing of God extended to all who would believe that Jesus was their only avenue of freedom from the bondage of the Fall.

That is fabulously good news. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Romans 10:15

The Apostle quoted the prophet Isaiah in this assuring statement. The prophet communicated to God’s people Israel that their exile would end, that they would be released from their captivity in Babylon, that freedom was imminent. Good news to be sure, fantastic even. Except, the power sin remained and, while physically freed, people were still held in its vise-like grip. Better news was still to come.

The better news is Jesus. Jesus, the savior who died for the “sins of the whole world” 1 John 2:2. The amazing news is Jesus who overcame death and its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55-57) and gives all who will believe that victory. Jesus not only makes the way of atonement, He shepherds believers along the path of life (Hebrews 7:25) until they are rejoined with God in perfect communion.

This is good news. This is the gospel.

 

The Way to a Positive Alternative

2589059730_be5d058882_mIn a culture that is hostile to Christians one has to admit to asking the question, why engage in the social issues of the day? The price is high, victories are few and far between and the culture at large seems to continue its inexorable slide each day. When the Christian stops to consider the definition of a “win” there is often silence. If our goal is to bend people to our will we find ourselves woefully off track and defeated.

Perhaps our objective should be colored with more humility. Rather than being seen as attempting to enforce a moral code at the end of a pointing finger we can be known for presenting a positive alternative. Painting a different picture of the good life, liberty and freedom that is winsome to those who stand in opposition to your beliefs, moral code and ethics. It will gain you an audience faster than vitriol and accusation and even if the recipient ultimately rejects your positive alternative they will have bared—if only to themselves—their true reason for choosing the social path that they are living.

Consider St. Paul’s imperative in the fifth chapter of Ephesians – “Be imitators of God”. The imitator takes on the characteristics of the original in such a way that the viewer gains the impression that they are seeing the real thing. Paul is certainly not recommending an idolatrous path to making ourselves into little-G gods. Rather, he compels us to model the attributes of God as He has revealed them to us in forming a positive alternative to share with the world at large.

If we recognize that God is patient [trusting in His Spirit to be work] and He does not want anyone to perish (2 Pet 3:8-9) and God’s kindness in this respect leads to repentance (Rom 2:4), we will also discover that He wants all men to be saved and to come to know the truth (1 Tim 2:3-4). If we further come to know that God is compassionate towards even those who are His enemies (Rom 5:6-8) and that His love for the world (John 3:16), we will better comprehend this love in terms of Christ dying for the ungodly (Rom 5:6) and that Christ had the same compassion for people (Mt 9:36-38). We can marinate in these twin threads of compassionate desire for the salvation of all people and develop from it a powerful positive social alternative.

If we are to be imitators of God then we must reflect to all we encounter the desire for their ultimate redemption and do so with compassion.

Image by Loreen Liberty

All The Cool Kids Are Doing It

“Pastor, everyone thinks that…”

“Hey, everyone is going to …”

“Mom, everyone will be at …”

Everyone is an interesting pronoun. It is an indefinite form that doesn’t refer to a specific person or thing. While plural in its scope, it is treated grammatically as a singular. Everyone is the faceless mob.

Pastor, everyone dislikes the color of the carpet in the sanctuary!

Wow, you wonder, how could I have been so wrong? How can I be the only person who likes the [color of the carpet, the new sound of worship, the Children’s church, the youth pastor, (insert your current issue)]? This reflection should only last a second though as you recall your grammar. It represents the whole as a single entity, and since you don’t dislike (whatever) you recognize that the scope of its usage is necessarily limited.

Everyone is not leaving the church. Everyone does not disagree with the decision to name so and so as a ministry leader. Everyone is no one until you are included. Until then, the scope of the commenter is subject to challenge. When you do however, an interesting thing happens.

They almost never include themselves in ‘everyone’.

‘Everyone’ is a challenge or a test. The person using the term is poking and prodding to see what kind of a reaction they can provoke in you. If you take the bait and respond by asking what can be done about the issue at hand, don’t be surprised if the solution is deeply enmeshed in that person’s agenda. This isn’t necessarily malicious but it may threaten to derail the plans that God has laid before you for His church.

When I am confronted by ‘everyone’, I use a number of probing questions and statements to get to the heart of the issue:

  1. “Do you dislike …”: Often, this simply question helps to uncover the true nature of the speaker’s concern. Perhaps there was safety in posing the question as crowd-sourced and now they feel safe in speaking for the group even as they give their personal take on the issue.
  2. “Who exactly is unhappy with …”: This question can put a stop to agenda promoters as you indicate that you will speak to the other people directly, freeing her from the enormous responsibility of being the spokesman for the crowd.
  3. “You and I agree that … should be done, so it really isn’t everyone is it.” This is another statement that uncovers what really wants/needs to be said.

Grace and peace to everyone…

Regaining Our Missionary Footing

Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…

The majority of churches in the American context have lost their sense of mission, settling for the comfort and care of their congregants and attenders. Missions—where supported—has a foreign connotation, referring to those sent to exotic outposts to evangelize the indigenous peoples. Seeing the blocks that surround church building as a mission field is left to the church planter.

…You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

While we should not go so far as to say that all of the Church is to see itself as mission outposts, certainly a fair percentage of churches should seeking the will of the Shepherd as to their calling in this respect. How many churches see their neighbors and neighborhood as a mission field in the same way as those sent to Japan or Mexico? How many congregations have done the kind of sociological research on the people in the immediate vicinity of the church that a denominational missions agency has done on the ends of the earth? Are we still attempting to attract people to programs rather than seeking out ways to deliver living water to them?

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…

The American church has grown to accommodate the culture, adapting the culture’s ways to the service of Christ in an effort to attract more people to the building. Few practice service to others without the agenda of attraction, even if it is unspoken. The Church’s local influence should be such that we are culture makers, not culture takers.

The Church must regain its missionary footing and take the first steps right outside of her door. The Lord did not leave us the option of ignoring (our) Jerusalem in favor of the ends of the earth. It will require an outward focus from the top down, possibly at the expense of internal comfort. The mission re-starts right here, right now.

Grace and peace to you…

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Danger Close

 

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A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.  J.A. Shedd

Moving forward in any meaningful way demands a step in faith. Faith–deep soul-rooted, life-directing faith–may lead to danger. We take the steps of faith because we trust in God for what may come, whether it be into blissful comfort or the first tentative steps into the enemy’s territory, fully aware that sacrifice may be the result. A church that never moves from the sanctuary is safe, but that is not what the Church is for.

Read Paul’s boasting in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. Contrary to the witness of those who merely call themselves Apostles, Paul has the scourge scars and water marks of one who has walked, trusting God with each step as he fulfilled His calling to bear witness to Christ to the Gentile world. We continue to marvel at his effectiveness thousands of years later as he is held up as the model for our own vocational calling. We marvel, but are tempted time and time again to retreat to the safety of tradition and practice.

Church, this is not what we were created to be or do. We are the last hope of a dying world. We possess the fire of the indwelling Spirit meant to guide our hands and feet in boldly stepping into the darkness to call others out. Like the sailor who knows nothing of buoyancy and displacement but who trusts the Oak, nails and pitch to keep them afloat in the capricious and danger-filled seas, Christians need not know how or why God may lead them into a ministry effort, only that they may trust Him that it will not be in vain. 

Grace and peace in the Spirit to you…

image National Library of New Zealand