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We're in the middle of a sermon series called Restore. The main idea of the series- and the driving force behind our new church- is that we believe that God’s heart throughout history is for the restoration of brokenness, and that passion and purpose of God is embodied in the Gospel- the person and work of Jesus Christ. We believe that this is a work he desires to do now, and that he wants to do that work through us. For more on this, check out the first blog in this series.

This past weekend, during part 3, which you can watch or listen to here, I came up with a phrase on the spur of the moment that seemed to resonate: “We are so busy doing the work of the church that we fail to do the work of the church.” Here’s what that means: Christians often get so consumed with church activities that they miss out on the church’s mission. Attendance at church functions becomes an end rather than a means.

This has always been interesting to me, simply for the fact that 1) I don’t think anyone ever really intends to get sidetracked like this, but they do, and 2) I catch myself doing the same thing with great ease. As a church leader, I take some of the blame because we pastors often buy into the misguided notion that a successful church is a busy church- where there’s always something happening, the lights are always on, and the people are always engaged in some activity. But I think there’s more to it.

One of the most interesting dynamics of the Bible in Jesus’ time was that there was a well-established class of religious leaders, in spite of the tangle of social and political dynamics. This group of religious folks- the Pharisees and Sadducees- was apparently so numerous that they were hard to miss- the Gospels give us the impression that most people were pretty familiar with them, and many had even had personal encounters with them. But in spite of their numbers, influence, wealth, and power, there was also rampant poverty and suffering, a dynamic that plays out constantly throughout the Gospels. These religious leaders would have been experts in the Old Testament law and prophetic writings- writings in which God constantly admonishes the people to address these very issues. So it would have been very hard to miss God’s call to do something significant about the situation playing out right under their noses. So how did they live with that cognitive dissonance?

It’s possible they had gotten so cynical that they no longer even cared, and the allure of influence, wealth, and power would have been hard to resist in this brutal time. But I don’t think things started out that way. I think, just as often happens with us, the “work” of their religion eventually crowded out the mission God had intended for them. Talking about God’s justice and mercy is far easier than doing God’s justice and mercy. Over time, this became comfortable, rewarding, even respectable. So that by the time Jesus showed up, he represented a massive threat to their well-established way.

I taught college for 5 years. One of the classes I taught early on had a very technical section of book work that took up about half the semester, providing a theoretical foundation for what followed, which was weeks of hands-on practical application doing actual projects. I discovered a curious phenomenon: I had a group of students- close to half the class- who would ace the book section, with a strong grasp of arcane technical concepts and details. But once thrown into the hands-on section, many of them fell behind the curve and did the projects poorly. I learned an important lesson as a professor: getting people to talk correctly about something has little bearing on how well they will actually do it.

We like “church activity” because it’s safe- we’re in control, we can manage the outcome, and even reap the benefits, and sound knowledgeable, respectable, and passionate while doing it. And it seems so important, and much of it truly is! But doing the actual work of the church in a practical way- its mission to be the Gospel- is messy, inefficient, frustrating, and even scandalous. And we’re all a lot less adept at it than we think.

After that initial eye-opening experience with my college students, I began throwing them into the practical work of the course on the second week. It was chaos! A complete mess. They were frustrated. I was frustrated. But we kept going- week after week. The needs of the hands-on work made their need for knowledge and understanding of the theory and technical concepts behind their work critical, and they learned those important things quickly. I watched their skills- and their enthusiasm- grow week after week. By the end of this second run of the course, I had a far more capable, far more confident group of students.

How do we do the same in the church? By starting to DO the Gospel- not when we think we’re equipped and ready, but now. Even if it’s a small start. Like any bad habit that needs breaking and replacing with a new good habit, it’s frustrating, unnatural, frightening, and even painful. But it’s the only way.

 Here at Newbridge Church, we’re launching a follow-on group to the Restore series to begin to live as Restorers in a world aching for restoration. We’re going to figure out how to do this. It’s not a study group, it’s a support group. You join a support group when you have a struggle that you need people to walk with you on the journey through. I’ll be joining the group, not so much to lead it as to learn, because I need help with this. I hope you will too. If you’re interested, you can let us know here- just tell us who you are, where you are, and how to contact you. I’d love to learn with you on the journey!

Posted by Michael Hoddy with

Finding Michelangelo

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This past Sunday, in the midst of a tremendous ice storm, we continued our Restore series at Newbridge Church. You can watch or listen here. The big idea that drives the whole series is that we believe as a church that God's heart throughout history is for the restoration of brokenness. 

 When he walked the earth, Jesus preached a message of hope and salvation for all who believe. But the message is only part of the Gospel- there’s a reality that follows it. Jesus spent at least as much time wading into the despair, disease, poverty, oppression, and hopelessness of the day- in the flesh- and healing, restoring, and bringing tangible hope that reflected the reality of the message he preached. This is the second part. Often, modern Christianity errs by favoring one part over the other- preaching without doing, or doing without clearly proclaiming Christ. These two parts of the Gospel, when combined and embraced with passion, give the movement of Jesus tremendous, subversive power. And we’re called to join in.

 This raises an important question: How does doing move from simply being good works and acts of kindness to being restorative? How does a person become more than just a well-intentioned do-gooder? Many people do good things without any faith at all. The key is anchoring restoration in Christ rather than us, and without this understanding in the church, the pendulum simply swings back and forth between “evangelism” and “social justice” just as it has for generations.

Whether we notice it or not, many of our “good” works are actually very self-centered. This isn’t intentional, it’s just that we as human beings are naturally self-centered and often insecure, and unless this foundation is intentionally dismantled and replanted elsewhere, our efforts at service and evangelism often are rooted in our own lives. We witness because we have something to prove or feel like we need to “please God,” or make the voice of our conscience heard in a crowded, noisy, often hostile world. If we’re honest with ourselves, we often serve because of the rush of affirmation we feel when we do it.

In the early 16th Century, the great artist Michelangelo painted his now-iconic work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome over a period of 4 years. Since that time, this large-scale painting has been universally recognized as a landmark in the world of art. Thousands from all over the world visit Rome each year to see it. But like many great works of art that have stood the test of time, by the 1970’s, more than 350 years after Michelangelo painted it, the Sistine Chapel ceiling was in sad shape. Hundreds of years of candle soot from worship services in the chapel had come to rest on the painting. Water damage had taken its toll. Stains were abundant. The work of previous restoration efforts was showing its inconsistency. The Vatican, recognizing the scale of the work needed, commissioned a complete restoration of Michelangelo’s original work.

In 1980, a team led by master restorers Gianluigi Colalucci, Maurizio Rossi, Piergiorgio Bonetti, and others began a project that would not be complete until December 1999- more than 19 years later. Painstakingly, they restored every square inch of this mammoth work to its former glory.

What’s interesting is that we don’t remember the names of Colalucci, Rossi, or Bonetti, even though they are masters in their field. Very few talk of their work, and no one comes to Rome with their names on their lips. But because of their largely unseen labors, we can once again experience Michelangelo- his mammoth work- in its full, undiminished glory. We remember Michelangelo, long after the others are forgotten. This is what the work of a restorer looks like.

 You have to get so consumed about the way things were originally supposed to be that you don’t care any more if your name is on the painting.

Your work- whether declaring or doing- becomes Gospel work, not when you seek to make your mark on the world, but when you get so carried away with how the original picture- God’s masterwork- was supposed to look that you gladly give your life to seeing it restored. This work starts in your own heart, and then extends everywhere- from your closest relationships to people you don't even yet know. Few may remember your name, but all will see and revel in the glory of the original artist- God himself. Just like Michelangelo, but on a much larger scale!

In the beginning, God painted a masterpiece in this world- all creation, the universe, and the world around us, culminating in humanity. The effects of sin, evil, and the ravages of time have tarnished this work and driven a wide gulf between humanity and God. But the traces of the original artist remain- everywhere, on every human face. Our mission is to allow God to be seen, and both halves of the Gospel to be experienced- beginning now, and completed in eternity. To undo the ravages of time, the tarnish of brokenness, and to declare the remedy for sin’s wasting effects- Jesus. So that the work of the artist- God- is seen in its full glory once again.

Posted by Michael Hoddy with

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