gospelYou have probably noticed the increased emphasis that Uniting Church and Home has placed on the gospel and specifically, our identity in Christ in our seminars, writings, and resources. What does the gospel and identity have to do with Uniting Church and Home? In one word, EVERYTHING.

The False Gospel of Formulas

We all like formulas. A formula is simply a list of steps usually involving little effort that we follow to achieve a result. Formulas also usually do not require us to wrestle with our own sin or to rely on Jesus to provide the victory. We desperately want to believe that there are fast, easy formulas for addressing difficult questions such as: How do I get my teenager to stop flirting with “the world” and to seek Christ? How do I not lose hope when my spouse continues not to listen? How do I make disciples of my kids? How do I love the people in my church who I feel judge me for my choices? How does my home and my church work together rather than against each other? How does our church have a more effective outreach in our community? While practical answers to these and other questions are necessary, in over 28 years of ministry I have learned that the practical alone, which today really means a fast-acting, proven formula, is not what we need.

The pressure to provide formulas has pushed many churches and para-church ministries into providing many practical answers in the form of well-intentioned programs, curricula, conferences, and a plethora of self-help books. But, tragically, many of these have accomplished little in addressing the true need that continues to go largely…unmet.

God Seeks What Formulas Cannot Provide

This issue of the heart, is at the root of every single issue (Luke 6:43-45; James 4:1-4) we face.  Heart level transformation, not mere outward change, is God’s chief concern and what each of us desperately needs (Isa. 29:13, 64:6; Matt. 23:23). Heart change is a joyful satisfaction with God alone that motivates joyful obedience to do what he commands.

Practical knowledge, even perhaps a list of steps, and applied effort are critical to change. But authentic heart change is ultimately a work of God through the gospel. Only the gospel, applied by faith through the work of the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to crush the idolatry that rules our hearts and drives our actions.

Idolatry is Fueled by Formulas

Merely following a formula grants us the illusion that we can still have what WE want, the way we want it, regardless of what God may want. This is idolatry.

Many people think of idolatry as gold trinkets and Asherah poles rather than the driving force behind their own thoughts and choices…including sometimes their desires to have a biblical family and a church that they can join that meets their exact specifications. The fervor and in some cases, militancy, with which some have pursued these exposes the idolatry that drives them even in their efforts to seek something that God says is good.  Our problem is not only the bad things we do, but the good things we do for the wrong reasons.

Sometimes, our intentions in dealing with the problems we encounter with each other appear righteous, but at the heart are actually idolatrous. Appearances to the contrary, we really don’t want to help the other person grow in Christ, rather, we want to remove a source of irritation from our lives.

Even if our intentions are god-honoring, God may still want us to struggle through a problem for a longer time until we deal with what he sees needs to change… in both of us. If we settle for some sort of fix that gives an appearance of change without real change, we will miss something God wants us to learn. In such a case, God will just allow another set of circumstances to occur so that we are forced to deal with the heart issues we skirted. Very often, this explains why so many problems persist without little or improvement. Through it all, we get really good at coping without ever really addressing the root issues which are the idolatrous desires that make idols out of things and each other.

Business as Usual Does Not Work

Consider that the failure of men to lead in the home has not been corrected by regular attendance at men’s meetings.

Teens have not stopped abandoning the faith simply because more charismatic youth leaders have been hired.

Unbelievers have not been more attracted to our churches even though we’ve moved to more contemporary styles of worship and the pastor preaches without a pulpit in a grungy T-shirt emblazoned with an edgy slogan.

Families have not begun to minister and share the gospel with their unbelieving neighbors because the pastor preaches a series on outreach.

I’ll never forget a pastor who called to invite me to come and speak, as he said, “To get my families ministerin”. In our preliminary discussion, I learned that he had put his families through several outreach programs, but to no effect. He felt yet another speaker might make the difference. I suggested that the problem was not practical in nature, but instead, a heart problem: one of motivation. They simply did not want to do it. I suggested further that what they needed was to be brought back to the gospel. To really understand who they were, already, in Christ. I was disappointed, but not surprised by the pastor’s response, “I’ve already preached the gospel. They know that. I don’t need to do that again.”

What Gospel?

I recently received a letter from a national family ministry that was asking for donations for an evangelistic project. I will attest that this ministry has done many good things to help families. This letter, however, was just one very clear example of how we’ve drifted from the gospel in the life of the believer…

The first sentence in the letter said, “When you consider what your support for (ministry name withheld) can do, sharing the gospel might not be your first thought”.

Now let’s consider this statement for a moment. As I said, the work of this ministry was helping families, not evangelism. In their minds, and I hasten to add, in the minds of many Christians, the gospel is tragically known as only what the unbeliever needs, not the believer. Therefore, “the gospel” is not what this ministry to families normally talked about. But, I ask, what is any Christian ministry doing if it is not directing people to the gospel in some way? Is there an answer to any problem we have that is not somehow connected to our hearts and God’s remedy in Christ? No. And again, NO!

We Need Jesus Each Day

For real change and restoration to take place, an encounter with Jesus is always necessary. We encounter Jesus when we apply his message, the gospel, to our hearts. The gospel tells us of our sin and it tells us of the fullness of the riches that are ours in Christ by virtue of our union with him. Realizing who we are now, and marinating in the riches of our inheritance in Christ drives us to confess, repent, and walk by faith. This is what we ALL (husbands, fathers, wives, mothers, youth, children, siblings, singles, seniors, etc.) need many times each day to defeat idolatry. But this understanding, unfortunately, appears far from the standard formulaic fare in our churches and homes.

“Standard formulaic fare” is what we have demanded that our church leaders provide or we will simply go somewhere else. That’s a tragic commentary that I don’t offer lightly or with any sort of malice. I just believe it is accurate.

Relationships Help us Apply Jesus to our Lives

The gospel of Jesus Christ comes with a delivery mechanism; relationships in the church and the home. We become more effective applying this simple message by practice, practice, and more practice with each other’s help. This admittedly, is hard work because it takes time, accountability, and real faith in God to work in and through us. This is far from a mere formulaic solution.

The discipleship of my five teenage children is my responsibility, primarily. I dearly love them and delight in how they are each unique. But I also admit that discipling teenagers, at least for me, is very hard work that’s somewhat unpredictable and seems to always push me to the edge of my time and emotional limits.

One of the commitments I have made is to meet with my teenagers as a group every other Tuesday evening to discuss spiritual matters, usually through a book discussion. This is an intensive discussion that augments other things such as family worship… and late-night conversations! While I do enjoy these Tuesday meetings, I have to fight like mad to keep them on the calendar. It takes an intentional effort to prepare my own heart for the discussion and to remind them to be prepared, too. Praise the Lord that there has been some good fruit observed in the discussions we’ve had. It’s very encouraging. But because I am naturally a very selfish person, it is still hard. I fail. It’s a humbling process.

I can identify with many men who admit how much easier it would be to just drift down the river of life doing the discipleship when it’s convenient. It is so much easier, so much more comfortable, to follow the formula of dropping the kids off at church to be discipled by a trusted youth or children’s ministry leader. While youth and children’s ministry can be an important ingredient, they do not stand alone. I have met many youth leaders who passionately agree as they suffer under suffocating expectations of parents and leaders alike.

Many men might also conclude that a women’s ministry, or coffee with an elder’s wife can be far more effective at meeting their wives’ various needs than they are. And while women meeting to teach and encourage each other is a solid expression of healthy covenant community, Paul is clear in Ephesians 5 that husbands have a direct, personal ministry to their wives. They are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (V.25). They are called by God to wash their wives in the word (V.26). Satisfactory pursuit of these responsibilities by husbands may be augmented, but not completely delegated to a simple formula that only requires little of us.

We Have What We Need

We already have what we need in the gospel. We do not need to wait for some new insight gained from scientific research or a new list of steps (formula). We must get down to the hard business of exercising our faith in what we already have been given in Christ with one another.

Transformation keeps the indicative (identity: who we are in Christ) connected to the imperative (the practical that are to do). Indicative without imperative is antinomianism. Imperative (i.e. formula) without indicative is moralism. Both are Christ-less.

Uniting Church and Home Restores Balance

At Uniting Church and Home, we seek to restore lives through relationships where the indicative and imperative are kept together. It is a joyous privilege for us to start a seminar knowing that people who are struggling with real personal challenges are going to leave the seminar with joy, renewed hope and confidence because they learn how their identity in Christ is the key to overcoming struggles that have burdened them for years.

YES, men need to know how to lead. YES, children need to be trained to know and serve God. YES, churches need to equip families for ministry. “Formulas” promise much but ultimately deliver little.  These and other challenges need to be addressed through relationships that are committed to the deeper heart work that takes time and that seeks to apply the gospel in these situations. This is the only way to transform our hearts, our relationships and live for God’s glory.

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