Read a good survey lately?
Perhaps the most ubiquitous thing in American life, second only to Coke and "The Simpsons," is the public opinion survey. Surveys are interesting in several ways. They are interesting to those who want to use them to see what people think about a certain issue, tracking changes in societal attitudes. They are interesting to politicians in search of their next passionate commitment. They are interesting to me in the amazement that so many people think surveys are worth much. However, despite my jaded attitude, there are some things of legitimate interest in public opinion surveys.
It is interesting that surveys of professing evangelical Christians have shown that the majority have never once shared their faith with anyone. It is interesting that other surveys have shown that the majority of people attending any given evangelical church on a typical Sunday will not profess to be "born again." It is interesting that-so say the surveys-Christian young people watch more MTV than unbelieving teenagers. It is interesting that the divorce rate among Christians is just as high as among couples outside the church, according to the surveys.
All of these distressing statements-from research done by respected Christian demographic research groups-are true, and should give us pause. In fact, they should cause us to be appalled.But it will do no good to be appalled, if that is all we are. We must seek the reason for these things, and then act.
The questions are complex, and there are no simple reasons, and no simple solutions. There are many possible reasons, and as many proposed solutions. Adding my rantings to the rest, I believe there are some factors which, when missing from our lives, ensure failure to live a biblical life. Some primary elements, which are rarely considered, are possession of a mission and vision, and a focused, determined fearlessness.
Plowing straight furrows
There is a story told of a farmer who was plowing his field, preparing to plant the season's crop.
He was a pretty good farmer, and he was careful to keep his focus on an object off on the distant horizon, to give him an "aiming point," a landmark to ensure that he was plowing straight furrows. However, when he reached the end of the field and looked back, his "straight" furrow was a great arc curving across the field. Oops. What happened? He had done it right, except for one thing: the aiming point was a cow. And as cows are wont to do, this cow wandered across the pasture sampling the grass, with the farmer dutifully following, plowing a large arc across the field.
Every farmer knows that to plow a straight furrow, you can't look back at the furrow you have just dug, and you can't focus on the spot where the plow is presently turning over soil. An occasional glance back is okay, just to see what the past looks like. And some attention must be paid to the point where he is plowing, to be sure the plow is working properly. However, the focus must be on the goal, on the aiming point that gives perspective to the entire process. Focusing on either the past or the nuts and bolts of the present results in a furrow resembling a mountain road. Straight plowing requires that the plower fix his eyes on something outside of himself and his work, which will give him a better perspective on what is really "straight." Straight living requires it, too.
Our farmer seems to have forgotten that the target must not only be at enough distance to see clearly and in perspective, but it must be stationary and unchangeable, predictable and dependable.
Everyone is a farmer
We are all farmers. We are all plowing a field-life-and hoping, at the end, to look back and see beautiful, straight furrows. Or at least furrows close enough to straight to make the effort of plowing them worth while. But few of us have any idea of how to do that, and as a result we come to the end of the field, look back, and see a crazy quilt of twisting, wandering confusion, a field devoid of order or purpose, and not much good for planting a crop.
Our problem is that we do not have our focus on an appropriate target, a landmark by which we can judge our direction. In other words, we may be making pretty good progress, but we have no idea where we are going. So, as we try to plow our field, what do we need to ensure straight furrows? Remember, the "target," the landmark by which we navigate, must be recognizable, it must be unchanging, and it must be something we can see accurately. Few of us have anything like that in our lives.
It's sad but expected that the world would go around in circles, passing the same point over and over, and yet never realizing the lack of progress and futility of it. However, for a Christian to live this way is simply unacceptable. God expects better of his kids than to just muddle "onward through the fog." So what is our "aiming point," and what are some things that will help us to finish plowing and to stand before the Lord of the Harvest, to hear Him say, "Well done. I am proud of you"?
Aiming point #1: mission, vision
The first aiming point we need is in two parts, and the first part is a sense of mission. We need to know why we are here.
A mission must be something that (1) is solidly based in scripture, and (2) answers the question, "Why am I here?"
Different suggestions given to explain our purpose have included worshiping, witnessing, and a myriad of others. However, they are either not well thought out or are simply unbiblical. Worship just has to be better in Heaven. And we are never told "to witness," but are told, rather, that we "shall be witnesses." Grammatically, "witness" can be either a noun or a verb, but in evangelical Christianity, it is used almost exclusively as a verb. It's something we are supposed to do. However, in scripture, it is used as a noun. We are told in Acts (1:8) that we will be witnesses. So this is not our mission, either; it's a part of who and what we are.
One clear statement of purpose is in the "Great Commission," and it is simply to "make disciples." It's something we clearly cannot do in Heaven, and it's not the same as being a witness (or witnessing, either). Making disciples requires that we be joined together as a body, since alone, we can only "disciple" within the limits of our own maturity and idiosyncrasies. Making disciples is a difficult but joyous task, and one that brings with it great satisfaction.
The question arises, how do we know when we are successfully making disciples? Some churches do have discipling programs, but what is the measure of success? I propose that we are successful when (1) our disciples begins to resemble Jesus, manifesting his character and his perspective on life, and (2) our disciples in turn reproduce and begin the process of discipling themselves.
The second part of this first aiming point is the possession of a vision. Misssion and vision are inseparable twins, not the same, but both essential to success. We know that we are to make disciples, but what does that look like "with skin on?" Making disciples is a valid mission, but it is too vague to work alone. It needs something more-a vision-to give us a direction to move in. How do we see God using us in disciple-making? This is not something uniquely based in scripture, though it should never conflict with it, but is something we carry with us as a gift from God. A vision is somewhat more difficult to carry alone, and this is best accomplished in the company of like-minded believers.
A good word to remember in thinking about vision is "HWIKIIISI." Okay, you're right, there is no such word. It is a sort-of-word coined by the Harley Davidson motorcycle company while in the process of their amazing corporate turnaround. It is short for, "How Will I Know It If I See It?" Be assured, when your heart is his, God will begin to use you to make disciples; how will you know it when you see it? It's important to know, you know, and worth thinking about.
Aiming point #2: focused fearlessness
The second aiming point is a "Joshua trait": focused fearlessness.
If we went down to the "First Church of Whatever," and asked everyone to identify their favorite biblical character, we would get a variety of responses. Paul. Peter. John. There would be many. However, since few in the church read the Old Testament, few would list Joshua, and they would be missing a good bet.
Joshua was one of history's great leaders, in or out of the Bible. There are few at any place in history who can equal him. He had a life rich with lessons for us, and the book bearing his name is equally rich, with many valuable lessons of history and of God's principles for success.
Who was this Joshua? How did he come to the place where we find him, a place of great authority and great responsibility? He was in a sense the savior of Israel, and in fact, his name means "salvation."
Joshua had years of training and preparation before God put him in the leadership role we know best. He was Moses' "attendant" from his youth (Numbers 11:28). He was a man of character and courage; he was teachable and he respected authority. Joshua commanded the Israelite forces in their first battle, against the Amalekites (Exodus 17), and was one of the twelve chosen by Moses to enter the land as spies (Numbers 13:8,16). He was one of only two to come back with a positive report (Numbers 14:5-10), an amazing demonstration of courage, considering the response of the people, who threatened to stone him and Caleb, his compatriot.
Joshua was hand-picked by God to succeed Moses, and to lead Israel into the Land (Numbers 27:15:23).
The book of Joshua begins immediately before Israel enters the Land. Moses is dead. The Israelite people, enough to populate a major modern city, plus large numbers of animals, have just come through a four-decade period of cleansing, training, and molding. They are on the verge of something new, and they know it.
In this time of expectation, God speaks to Joshua, and reassures him of His call, His presence, and His commitment. God promises him (1:3) that he will have all the land he can walk on. Then God tells Joshua perhaps the most important things anyone could hear. Certainly, these are keys to success: "Be strong and courageous" (v. 6). And again He says it, more emphatically, "Be strong and very courageous."
People just like us
Most of us don't really think of people like Joshua or King David, or any other biblical or historical character, as real people. It's just too easy for us to picture them as superhuman: They had no doubts, they had no fears, they just kept on truckin'. But the truth is they were people just like us, with the same struggles and problems, needing the same encouragement and admonition from God. God saw fit to include accounts of repeated exhortations to Joshua to have courage and strength. Scripture tells us nothing of struggles that Joshua may have gone through, but they were there.
It's not by accident that God told Joshua, over and over, to be strong, to be courageous, and then to be focused. We can conclude from the repeated exhortations that Joshua was perhaps subject to the same fears and doubts that plague us. This is an important lesson. More Christians are defeated and stopped from realizing God's will and purpose in their lives by fear and lack of courage than by anything else.
The next verses, in which God continues to instruct Joshua, contain an important additional word. In addition to strength and courage, Joshua is warned to be obedient and focused: "...be careful to do according to all the law...; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go" (v. 7). Five times in this chapter Joshua is told, by God and then by the people, "be strong and courageous." (In 10:25, we see the same words again, but this time spoken by Joshua to the people.)
Four things to remember
There are four important keys in this section: Be strong, be courageous, be obedient, and be focused. And they are interrelated: the first three come from the fourth.
The key to being strong and courageous, and to being obedient in all circumstances, is in the last: being focused. If we remain focused on God, on what He says to us, ignoring the circumstances, living by faith and not by sight, then strength and courage follow as surely as sunshine follows rain. His strength and His courage, "transplanted" into our spirits. A leader in God's kingdom once said, "If God is for us, and we know He is for us, we can be absolutely fearless in this life." True enough, and worth remembering: God is, indeed, "for us."
The cartoon strip, Pogo, contributed for us a saying of profound wisdom: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." We are most often defeated, not by Satan or some supernatural force, but by our own faults. Success is seldom determined by great intelligence or wonderful gifts or great wealth. History is replete with intelligent, gifted, wealthy failures.
The difference lies in a having vision based in a mission based solidly in God's word. Then-and this is of paramount importance-we must walk forward, living out our vision, with a focused fearlessness, a lack of intimidation that comes from knowing that we are called by the One True and Living God, chosen by him to be the instruments of the redemption and reconciliation of creation. Anything else leads to failure. These characteristics of success-mission, vision, and focused fearlessness-combined with a godly spirit submitted to the One who is our Lord and the Lover of our souls, ensure that nothing can stop us, and we will see wonderful things in our lives.