Where is the Church?

John 17:15-18 ~ In the world and not of it.

John 17:15-18   My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.  (NIV)

It was Jesus' plan and prayer that His church was to be in the world AND not of it.  Yet here's how far too many believers read this passage (select one):

  1. We are not in the world. <-- And emphasis on this period.  Here the church becomes monasteries without walls populated by monks fulfilling their manmade vows.  Don't touch, don't taste, don't go there, don't read that, don't associate with&ldots;; no, no, no. 

  2. We are in the world. <-- And emphasis on this period.  Here the church is all about copying the world, imitating the world, not making waves, assimilation into the world or assimilation of the world, acceptance of the world, and compromise with the world; yes, yes, yes. (Or sometimes whatever, whatever, whatever).

Adherents of these two opposing positions point fingers at each other and say "you're wrong," yet the truth is this: option number one and option number two are both wrong.  This passage in John's gospel teaches something far different.  The church is to be in the world AND not of it.  This is not a suggestion; it is what Jesus desired for every believer both then and now (see also John 17:20).   Simply put, this is what God commands of every believer.

What does this "in and out" look like?  Consider Jesus.  He rightly used himself as the perfect example.  Yet Jesus was accused of being a drinker (Matthew 11:19), a friend of prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners (Luke 7:34; 15:2).  He was in the world, mingling with it, living among it and He saw its sights and the worst of the human condition.  We need to be doing the same.

This, in no way, is to say that parents can't or shouldn't protect their children from undue influences.  Indeed we all must learn to take every thought captive and make it subject to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).  We must learn to turn our eyes away from worthless things (Psalms 119:37) and to not look lustfully upon the opposite sex (Job 31:1) or the things of the world (1 John 2:16).  This is learned and must be taught.  Not everyone is ready for everything or to go everywhere, but you have to start somewhere.  God's revealed plan to deal with all these temptations was not removal from the world; it is to be in it while simultaneously learning how to not be of it.  Wouldn't it be far easier to never see or be exposed to any of it?  Sure, but God never promised that His plan would be easy.  In fact, if you live it, you can pretty much guarantee that someone will sometime laugh at you, or call you names (Acts 17:2; Matthew 10:24-25).  Perhaps it's time someone started calling Christians names for a good reason - specifically for acting like Jesus - rather than for staying in our stereotypical box and throwing rocks at a culture we do not know and won't attempt to understand (1 Peter 3:17).

Excluding those who have embraced and compromised with the world (James 4:4), it would be difficult to find Christians who have been accused of being a drunkard, a friend of prostitutes or corrupt government officials (tax collectors) or sinners - as was Jesus.  Indeed, numerous churches wear this as a badge of honor - "our church doesn't have anything to do with those things."  It is safe to say that they can't tolerate any of those sinners.  They have embraced a theology of withdrawal (the monastery mentality).  In this mindset, the sinner must somehow come inside the monastery because there's no way that they - as "good Christians" - would willfully spend time outside it.  In their self-imposed separateness they can be content to profess to love the sinner while hating the sin, though in practice they have abandoned both.

This is sin.  The believer, or church, that adopts such an attitude has relegated God's plan to the dustbin and is holding up their own selfish plan as being superior.  Read our passage in John again; God commands us to be IN the world AND not of it.  Our freedom in Christ does not free us from following God's mandates; it binds us to them because anything else is sin (Galatians 5:1, 13-14).  Piling on self-made rules makes for an orderly but disobedient church.  True freedom is always messy. 

Isaiah 28:13   So then, the word of the Lord to them will become: Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there - so that they will go and fall backward, be injured and snared and captured.  (NIV)

Believers need to be interacting with sinners, seeing the desperation of the world around us.  Merely being present doesn't count.  Many believers are already "out there," surrounded by the lost at school, in recreation, or at work, but they have effectively insulated themselves from seeing or hearing.

Do you hear the cries for help and the worldly search for meaning in the television, movies, music, and blogs of this generation?   Do you see the lost trying to dull their senses and consciences with chemical excesses?  Have you recognized the utter desperation that fills academic hallways, books and scholarly diatribes?  Can you recognize the hopelessness that consumes the powerful and corrupt?  With the Apostle Paul we should be greatly distressed by the idols we see within our city (Acts 17:16) and recognize the truth mingled with lies within their belief systems (Acts 17:22-31), as well as being fully equipped to present God's unchanging truth (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 2:15).  Can we, as did Paul and Jesus, interact with the poets (writing today's music), the philosophers of our modern Areopagus (universities), and the outright sinners on our downtown streets?

It's one thing to say that the Bible has all the solutions, but what use is having the answers when you don't know what questions are being asked and you've never really met those who are doing the asking? 

It is necessary to emphasize that the Bible does have the answer.  It's too easy to fall into another unbiblical trap of extremes here as well.  On one hand, some get so caught up in the physical needs of those they see that they will forget there is a far greater and much more deadly void in their lives.  John 3:16 is far more than a slogan or placard to hold up in sports venues.

John 3:16   "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  (NIV)

The cup of cold water must be given in Jesus name (Mark 9:41), which means explaining what is so important about the name of Jesus (Acts 2:21; 4:12; Romans 10:13; Philippians 2:6-11)!   In the big picture of eternity, what good is it making a sinner more comfortable and then sending them on their way to Hell by our silence?

Romans 10:14   How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  (NIV)

Unfortunately, others get attached to Romans 10:14 and forget something equally important.  The person in physical crisis or need often can't hear our most important message over the din of their empty stomachs or lack of necessities.  The words "God loves you" sound hollow when the one speaking it can't or won't demonstrate it.

James 2:15-16   Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?   (NIV)

More of how we should be doing all this is found in the passage we began with in John.  Jesus clearly proclaimed that the Father's way to sanctify (or make Holy) His people was not to be found in withdrawing them from the world.  It is solely found in being in God's word.  The Holy Spirit of truth that lives within us (John 14:16-17) uses Scriptures to convict and teach us - to guide us into all truth (John 16:13).  This is the key; all believers need to be learning the word, growing in the word, and meditating on the word (Psalms 119:11; Colossians 3:16) - all while we live in the world.  God's word is going to change the way we think, not just superficially, but clear down to our attitudes and motives (Hebrews 4:12).  In fact, I believe that the Christian who sees the desperation and sin of the world will be driven to cling all the more to God's word.   (Why would God warn us to be careful when helping those who fall, unless He intends for us to get in there so closely that we can likewise be tempted?  See Galatians 6:1; Jude 22-23).

It is our mind and soul that has "come out" from among the pagans (2 Corinthians 6:14-18).  Unlike ancient Israel, we are no longer required to physically retreat to a specific location or land and to physically conquer our enemies; the New Israel is to be spread throughout the nations and we are to show love to our enemies (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27; 6:35).  Believers are to be seen everywhere (Mark 16:15!).  We, as God's salt, are to be slowing down the decay of this perishing world, and are to be sprinkled on every land and among every people (Matthew 5:13).  The bigger the stink of rot, the more salt is needed.  

A plain yet imploring billboard, alongside the highway (I75 in Georgia), featured huge text: "Go to the church of your choice."  The subtext, though smaller, well reflected the desperation of the anonymous advertiser, "Please just go."  Many questions and comments could follow such a display, perhaps the greatest being "why would a lost person want to go to ANY church?" and secondly, "what kind of church would a lost person want to go to?"   Unfortunately that latter question has developed a Christian cottage industry trying to market the church to lost people.  I can save those churches a lot of money; wickedness hates the light and does not want to come into it (John 3:20).  The only way those in darkness can be lured in is to camouflage or hide the light.  The problem then becomes keeping them once you get them.  Too much light and they will flee.  This is why the Biblical church was to be a gathering of believers (the "called out ones"); a place where Christians would be refreshed, corrected, strengthened and weekly sent out into the world (2 Timothy 4:2; Hebrews 10:24-25).  Any lost who came in should be convicted (1 Corinthians 14:24-25) and any unrepentant sinners masquerading as believers were to be put out (1 Corinthians 5:9-11).  Believers trained and growing in such an edifying setting then shared the gospel out in the world and those God saved willingly joined with the church (Acts 2:47; 5:14).   No need of fraud, deception, or bait-and-switch in God's plan.

Hoping the lost will come to us, or trying to entice them to us, doesn't work or accomplish what God desires.  If God wanted them to come to us He would have commanded the church to build buildings and acquire sacred lands and stay out of the world.  But He didn't, He commanded us to be IN the world AND not of it.  We are to take the light into the darkness (Matthew 5:14-16).  If we stay out of the world it becomes easy to not help, to not give, to not invest our time, because we've willfully shielded ourselves from seeing and hearing the cries of the lost.  How can we defend the cause of the weak and fatherless or seek justice for the poor and oppressed (Psalms 82:3-4; Proverbs 31:9; Jeremiah 5:28-29) when we stop ourselves from seeing their plight and barely acknowledging their existence?

Oh, but we have professional Christians that we pay to go out there and reach those sinners and untouchables.  Wrong.  God's servants, even if they get paid, are all to be amateurs (a word whose original meaning expressed "for the love of").  That makes us all equally responsible for serving.  Every one of us, out of love for God (Matthew 22:37-38), must love our neighbors (Matthew 22:39), and stop asking "who is my neighbor (Luke 10:29; James 2:8-9)?"  We already know God's answer (Luke 10:30-37); it's that seemingly unlovable person that's just down the street or around the corner, all places that are outside the safety of your home and church.   Have you ever wondered why new believers, who have come out of the worst of the world, are some of the most eager to get back into their former setting and share what God has done for them?  They already know and understand where their lost friends are at.  They are not ashamed to associate with them, and their love for God now motives their love for their neighbor.  So why do many churches want to immediately pull them out and forbid them from leaving the ivory walls of the church, warning them to stop associating with those people and to become card-carrying members of their exclusive club.  It might be excusable, (okay, not really), if the rest of the church was down there taking their place but that's not how it's done.  Just invite your former friends to come here, the saying goes.

Rather than lamenting the condition of our nation and the rampant immorality that fills our airwaves and newscasts, or even continually calling for more prayer and hoping for effortless miraculous revival, it's time for the church to get back into the world while not being a part of it.  It will change the church in positive ways.  The believer in the world, striving to not be of it, will have lots to pray about (as they need God's wisdom to stay "not of it").  They will have multitudes to pray for - or perhaps even better; specific individuals to pray for (as they grieve for their need, heartache and desperation).  On the heels of such a needed reformation, returning to what God has said that He wants, maybe then God will use His church to spark a true revival!

This is not to disparage prayer or God's ability to miraculously intervene at any time, should He desire to do so (Isaiah 46:10).   But, and this is important, the example God has given throughout His word is this:  If He has established a means for doing something and His people ignore it, miraculous intervention is rare and not to be expected.   It is the prayer of a righteous man that is favorably answered, not because of their righteousness, but because their prayer is seeking God's will (1 Peter 3:12; James 5:16b; 1 John 5:14-15). 

There are two notable yet opposing ways of ignoring God's prescribed means.  Firstly, is to know what God has desired and commanded and then outright ignore it or treat it as being optional.  The second is perhaps even more insidious; manmade programs and methodologies, to "do it better," are substituted for the real thing.  Cloaked in the busyness of doing something, this latter extreme often makes it harder to realize that nothing is really getting done if it's not being done God's way.  The protest here is almost always, "but we see some fruit from our efforts!"  Can and does God work in spite of our disobedience?  Thankfully yes; but consider how much more He may be pleased to do, if we humbly accept that His way is the only right way.  Wickedness and sinfulness doesn't have to look like abject evil, far too much of it is cloaked in good intentions, feel good experiences, and a prideful spirit that says our way is better.

Isaiah 1:15-17    When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.  Your hands are full of blood;  16 wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight!  Stop doing wrong,  17 learn to do right!  Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.   (NIV)

Why are we willing to settle for scraps when the possibility of a feast is offered for our faithful obedience?    Pray for revival, embrace personal reformation - this is the prayer of a righteous man.  Our unchangeable God uses prayer to change us. 

Jesus said there will always poor among us (John 12:8).  This is not because an occasional poor person might stumble into our facility; it is because we are to be out there among the poor!  And when God adds them to our number, because He often does (1 Corinthians 1:26-29), we'll already know them and have even more basis for the friendships that will accompany our fellowship.   Do you believe in spreading the good news?  Better yet, do you see the urgency of spreading the good news?  People are dying.  The good news is only good news if it reaches the people in time. 

Mathew 9:36-38   When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."  (NIV)

Article by Brent MacDonald, Lion Tracks Ministries (c) 2012
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