Real Religion

“I’m not religious; I just have a personal relationship with Jesus.” Is that really possible? While it is certainly important to know and experience a personal relationship with God, if we ignore others and isolate ourselves like hermits, aren’t we more selfish and worse off than before? Our faith can’t just be “me and Jesus”; if we are not religious, then we are not Christians.

Religion is not a bad word. Unfortunately some words have become associated with religion so as to make it seem as if it is. Who would want to be a “religious fanatic”? Who in their right mind would want to be a “religious nut” or a “religious extremist”? Yet we let those who judge us and brand us as lunatics define what religion is.

Being religious is not any more extremist or nutty than the guy that wears cheese on his head, paints his face and chest, and doesn’t wear a shirt in sub-zero weather to support his favorite team. That guy is a Packers fan (short for fanatic). The guy wearing a paper bag over his head is a Detroit Lions fan. And if we love God, we are religious fans.

Religion has nothing to do with words. Your behavior is the true indicator of whether you are religious or not. If I tell you I am a Yankees fan, but I never watch any of the games, I never wear any of the apparel, I don’t get excited when they win, and I think pinstripes make you look fat, then I am not a real Yankees fan. And if I tell you I am religious, but the only thing I do is go to church and read my Bible and pray before I eat or sleep, then I am not religious. My religion would be meaningless words.

James 2:16-17 is another example of religious people who are not really religious.

Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 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? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:15-17)

Religion is not about you. Going to church is a good deed, but it doesn’t really help anyone. A good deed that only benefits you is not that good. True religion benefits others too.

It is difficult to define religion. You really only know it when you see it in action. And that is the point James makes that still rings true today.
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)
Pure religion is faith in action. It is helping those in need instead of waiting for the government to do it for us. James reminds us that God is our father and because He looks after all of us, we should especially look after those who have no earthly father or husband who are “in distress” or “afflicted.” James is not talking about rich widows in beautiful homes with loving families, but poor widows and orphans forgotten by society and placed in crowded convalescent homes and orphanages that do their best to meet their physical needs, but do not have the time necessary to truly tend to their emotional needs for love and acceptance.

Orphans and widows are just two examples. True religion is visiting the lady with Alzheimer’s who thinks her family never comes to visit because she can’t remember the last time they came. Real religion is opening up your home and heart to a foster child. Genuine religion is feeding a homeless person. Because pure religion is found in those moments of bitter loneliness when we can come and ease their affliction. It is when we act on God’s behalf to be His presence in that moment to someone in their time of need. What a privilege we have for when we visit the hurting and helpless, God visits them.
It is not about numbers. God is not calling all of us to start million dollar non-profit charity organizations so we can feed the world and adopt all of the orphans around the globe. Mother Teresa said, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”

An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.
“Young lady,” he asked, “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”
“The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.”
“But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.”
The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves,saying, “It made a difference for that one.”

‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40)

May we see the face of Jesus in every one who is afflicted so that we feel compelled to help one of the least of these in their moment of need.

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The Four Pillars: Where Our Ministry Is (hopefully) Going

For the last eight weeks, I have been asking myself and the leadership team and anyone else who would listen, “Where is our ministry going?” There are many different opinions and theories. The short answer is simple: wherever God wants to take us. So I searched the Bible (always a good place to look for answers) and I found a starting point on which we can build.

The very first church set the precedent for all other churches and ministries to follow. In Acts 2:42, Luke describes four principles of the church from the very beginning.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Some like to call these the Four Pillars of the Church because they helped build the church so it could grow in numbers and in spiritual maturity. They added new members every day and saw miracles and healings so spectacular that sick people were laid out along the street in the hopes that Peter’s shadow would fall on them so they could be cured (Acts 5:15). If we really want a successful ministry, shouldn’t we pattern it after one of the most successful ministries of all time?

Luke reports that the first church “devoted themselves” to four principles. As with all words in the Bible, it is important to understand what the words meant when they were written before determining how we can apply them to our lives and our ministry. So I will define each principle and then explain how we will try to implement it into our singles ministry.

1. Apostles’ teaching – The Apostles indicated in this verse are the 12 Apostles of Jesus (Judas was replaced at the end of Acts 1). These were all eyewitnesses of Jesus from the beginning of His ministry to His Resurrection and Ascension (Acts 1:21-22). Paul would later be added as an apostle. So the Apostles’ teaching was everything they had learned from Jesus, which was written down later in the New Testament.
Implementing the Apostles’ teaching: On Wednesdays, we meet and sit together at the Troy Campus of Kensington Community Church for the service at 7pm. And on Saturdays, we meet at the 5:30 service at the Troy campus for the series Marriage: Why Bother? We sit in the same area in both services: facing the stage, we are on the right side about halfway down the front section. We will soon have shirts that will make us easier to spot, but we tend to be the last ones to leave the auditorium so it should be easy to find us after the service if you miss us at the beginning. Saturday services are also an opportunity for all of us to bring friends who have not yet committed to following Jesus to a service where they can hear the gospel in a seeker-friendly environment.

2. Fellowship – The Greek word for fellowship does not mean to hang out and talk as those fluent in Christianese might think. “Fellowship” is about community and partnering with others as we go through life together. The root word means “common” so it literally means “common things.” It “includes a considerable readiness to share material possessions” (TDNT p. 798 vol. III). This is not the only expression of “fellowship,” but it is the most commonly mentioned in the Bible. In Acts 2:44-45, only two verses later, the new community of Jesus followers is described having “everything in common” and specifically “selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”

“Fellowship” is not just sharing wealth, but sharing ALL things – even our feelings. So when one is sad, we are all sad. When one is happy, we are all happy. It is empathy within community so we can truly “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) and be able to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). We will soon find that “shared feeling moves over into the sharing of active assistance” (TDNT, p. 807, vol. III). We will no longer be able to stand idly by and watch our community falter. We will not be able to tolerate orphans left unloved, the poor left homeless and broken, or the elderly left alone to die.

Sharing, community, and partnership are good words to describe the Greek word for fellowship, but one of the reasons translators pick “fellowship” is this: it is about a “fellow” and a “ship.”  “Fellow” is not like “That guy seems like a nice fellow,” but more like “Steve is a fellow coworker or a fellow traveler.” He/she is someone who works along with you and walks with you on the journey of life. They are fellows in the same boat (or “ship”) as you, so what happens to you affects your fellows as well. That is what fellowship is really all about.

Implementing Fellowship: This is possibly the hardest to implement because it is based on trust and mature relationships that only happen over time spent together. To begin with, our social activities will help introduce others to our community, but ultimately small groups will be formed so true fellowship can really grow. And every month we will have at least one community service opportunity to help feed the hungry or take care of the widows and orphans that society has neglected in our nursing homes and orphanages.

3. Breaking of bread – Some scholars believe that this refers to communion, but there is nothing in the literature of that day that equates “breaking of bread” to communion. It simply means eating together. If you have ever been to church, you know that eating is possibly the one thing the church does the best. I mean, we do it really well. From potluck to holiday celebrations to eating after a service, breaking bread together is always filled with good times and great conversation.

And that is why the early church made it so important. Eating together tells you something about a person that you will never find out anywhere else. You really get to know someone when you break bread with them. Do they eat healthy or not? Do they treat the waitress with respect or like a slave? Do they talk with their mouth full? Do they use a napkin at all? Do they use silverware or shovel everything into their mouth with their hands? Do they tip well? You can learn so much about others and yourself from your behavior at the dinner table. You can tell if someone is courteous, generous, and a good listener or disrespectful, cheap, and egotistical just from one meal with them.
Conversations often get deep as well. You learn about each other’s passions – whether they be sports, politics, their occupation, or God. And I don’t know why, but when you eat with someone, an instantaneous trust is formed and barriers are brought down. Breaking bread really is a unique experience of bonding and trust.

Implementing Breaking of Bread: Every Wednesday night after the 7pm service, we go to a restaurant to break bread with one another. We rotate between local and affordable restaurants like Chilis, Buffalo Wild Wings, Azteca, and The Hills so everyone can come and so we can create relationships with the restaurant staffs in our community.

4. Prayer – Literally this is “the prayers,” which refers to traditional Jewish prayers and possibly the Lord’s Prayer. The first Christians “continued to live as observant Jews, attending the set services of worship in the Jerusalem temple. The two principal daily services accompanied the offering of the morning and evening sacrifices.” (F.F. Bruce, NICNT, p.77) So the first church prayed together twice a day.

Praying together was a point of emphasis to the first church. It is a unique bonding experience and promotes unity like nothing else on earth. Even your heart rate and breathing synchronizes with those with whom you pray. Your desires and vision for the future tends to also synchronize with your fellow prayer partners as your desires become God’s desires.
Implementing Prayer: Not to sound facetious, but we are still praying about how to implement praying together. Despite its obvious benefits and importance, it is hard to get people together to do nothing but pray. Part of this is because it feels awkward. Some feel embarrassed to pray out loud because they know it won’t be very eloquent or their prayer might be judged.
When I was in youth group, the leader decided to have prayer meetings. Attendance was very low. So he decided to combine activities like Prayer and Putt Putt or Prayer and Polaroid Panic (a road rally /scavenger hunt with Polaroid cameras because they hadn’t invented camera phones yet). Us kids figured out that if you came 30 minutes late, then the only thing you missed was the prayer. For those who hadn’t figured it out yet, you could almost hear them silently praying that prayer would be over soon so we could hang out and eat.

So combining something with prayer is probably not a good compromise. Perhaps a prayer team is the answer. Perhaps the leadership should meet just for prayer. But if the first church thought prayer was that important, God will show us the best way to implement it.

The Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer are not the only core values that a ministry should have, but they are a great starting point. Creating a safe place where women can come and not feel as if they are a commodity or prize to be won or a piece of meat is also a top priority of our ministry. Creating a culture where the leaders are followers of Jesus and servants to all is another one. There are and will be more, but I think Acts 2:42 is great place to start. I hope you think so too.

And just like the Four Pillars helped build the church, they will help build you up to a more mature and well-rounded follower of Jesus. If you feel as if you are stuck in a rut or you always feel lonely or you just can’t seem to break free of the things that hold you back from being all that you know you can be, start making the Four Pillars a priority in your life. Go to church more often, eat with other Christians, go to a community service project and serve, and/or find a way to pray with others. You were never meant to be alone. You can’t carry your burden alone. Let your fellow Christians help you on your life’s journey.