In my previous posts I started to talk about the “why” and necessity of planting missional churches in Canada and how, given our post-Christian context, we need to do evangelism and discipleship differently from how we have done them before. I promised that I would write some posts on the how of evangelism and discipleship in our brave new world, but I feel like I need to push pause on that potential series of blogposts for now and spend a little bit more time telling you who I am and the journey I’ve been on for the last several years. Who am I? What’s my story? Why do I believe what I believe? Why am I planting a church? I want to answer these questions over the next while, and I want to share with you some of the ecclesialogical/theological paradigm shifts I’ve experienced over the last while as well that have informed the vision, values, and ministry philosophy of our church plant. For now, it makes sense to start at the very beginning, giving a brief overview of my background and how I came to be a follower of Jesus.
I grew up in a Christian home, went to church from a very early age, was taught the Westminster confession and catechism, prayed a prayer to receive Jesus as my Saviour when I was around 6 years old with my Sunday school class, and lived a relatively undramatic life. I was a good kid. I didn’t really rebel even in my early teens, those years when every adolescent is supposed to go off the rails. I never felt much need to do that. I was a good kid, a kid who though he received Jesus as Saviour never really felt like he needed Jesus to save him from anything. Hell was for bad people. Jesus died for bad people. The gospel, when it was preached on a Sunday morning, was for those sinners in the room who needed to know they weren’t right with God. I was not one of those people. I had believed in God since before I can remember. I knew my Bible inside and out. Everyone at church complimented my parents on what a good kid I was. I had received Jesus but I had no real clue what that meant other than it was one more thing in my favour, along with winning Bible quizzes and being at church every Sunday morning and evening while the less devout were at home watching football. And it wasn’t that I didn’t understand because no one explained it to me, the gospel was very clearly shared with me on many occasions, it just never seemed to click as being for me. For me, I was a Christian by virtue of my heritage and my upbringing, my church attendance and participation, my Bible knowledge, and my relative lack of conscious, wilful disobedience to my parents’ and God’s commands. These were the things that made me right with God. These were the things that earned me His acceptance, love, and favour. These were the things, unbeknownst to me, that I was trusting in. Some people needed Jesus’ help, but not me.
However, as time went on there started to be more of a dissonance between who I was at church on a Sunday morning and who I was the rest of the week. I started behaving inconsistently with who I thought I was. I was exploring and trying to find out if the grass was greener on the either side, but I still didn’t really see myself as sinful. The people around me were sinful and I sometimes followed their lead, just to see what it was like, but I was still a good Christian kid, just exploring. I explained away my behaviour, justifying it, blame-shifting. It wasn’t who I really was. Finally one day when I was 16 I went further in my exploration than I was comfortable with and I started to feel real guilt and shame. I was very rattled by some of the things I had done. I started to get scared that I was becoming a bad person. One night I was praying and reading my Bible looking for some kind of comfort, some kind of reassurance that I hadn’t totally blown it and forfeited God’s acceptance of me, but that night I got the exact opposite. God made me deeply uncomfortable. My eyes were finally opened. I became heart-wrenchingly aware that I was not becoming a bad person, but that I had always been a bad person. I looked good on the outside, but my heart was “desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9) full of selfishness, pride, lust, and self-righteousness. I was a sinner. Jesus died for me. That cross that Jesus was crucified on, that was my cross, that is what I deserved, but Jesus had substituted Himself for me and taken the blame for my sins, He endured my punishment in my place so that I could go free. He lived the life I should have lived, and He, the innocent One, died the death I should have died. I came to realize that my heart was sinful, broken, and messed up, and it always had been it just hadn’t had a chance to manifest itself so spectacularly until recently, and I realized I needed Jesus just like everybody else in the world needed Jesus.
I also came to realize that my religion was repugnant to God. Yes, I knew my Bible inside and out. Yes, I went to church faithfully every Sunday and wasn’t overly rebellious or habitually immoral. Yes my parents were Christians. Yes I knew all of the answers to the Bible quiz questions, but I didn’t do any of the things I did because I actually loved God. I didn’t have a thriving, vibrant, living relationship with God. I didn’t know Him as my Heavenly Father. And I didn’t love His Son. I didn’t see my need for Him. I didn’t sing songs of worship on Sunday thinking “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see” or “Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke the dungeon flamed with light, my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee”. Those words were not a reality in my life. I didn’t need Jesus’ sacrifice. I didn’t need saving. I was making myself right with God, ignoring what God said about me and about what I needed, trusting in myself instead that I would someday get to the pearly gates and be able to say “let me in, I am not like other people- cheaters, sinners, adulterers…I fast twice a week…I give you a tenth of my income” (Lk 18:9-14). In all my religious activity I didn’t realize I was far from God, not trusting in Him but myself, not loving Him but myself, not centering my life on Him but on myself, not dependent on Him but on myself. And I didn’t realize I was not a lover of people. I was a good church kid, a God kid, of course I loved people I thought, but the reality was I looked down on people who I thought were not as good as me. I blamed them when I took a wrong turn, they were bad influences on me, they were sinners trying to corrupt me. They were lost and needed Jesus, but I didn’t. I judged people and didn’t feel the kind of compassion for them that God did. In my religiosity I was proud, arrogant, and self-righteous. I was lost even though I was a relatively moral and religious person.
My eyes were finally being opened to all of these realities. In one evening! It was an overwhelming, world upending, emotionally tumultuous evening, but it was a glorious evening in that it was the evening I stopped being my own saviour. I repented of my sins, and I entrusted my salvation and my life to Jesus. I acknowledged and confessed that I am a sinner deserving of hell, but Jesus took my hell for me that I might get God. I finally, in tears of joy, acknowledged and confessed that I needed Jesus, that through Jesus alone could I be forgiven and fully embraced, accepted, and loved by God. My right standing was no longer dependent on me, but it was dependent on what Jesus had done on my behalf. He took my messed up record as His own and took my punishment, and He gave me His perfect record as my own so that when God sees me He doesn’t see my blemishes, but He sees me as He sees Jesus, He sees me as His blameless son. God sent Jesus to live, die, and rise for me because He loves me, and Jesus absorbed God’s rightful justice against my sin that I might only experience His love, His perfect, unwavering, unceasing, unconditional, irreversible, and unfailing love. I am His and He is mine. Now, I have a relationship with Him, though its rocky from my end on many days, and I love Him, though imperfectly, and I know His love for me, though I still get distracted and believe lies. Now I am a Christian, and I get what it’s all about, it’s about trusting Jesus every day and living a changed life out of the deep heart knowledge that through faith Jesus has forever made me a child of God and nothing can separate me from His love (Romans 8:31-39). This frees me to live with real joy and peace. This frees me from my fears, anxieties, worries, and insecurities. This frees me to love people, not condemn them or look down on them because who am I. Jesus needed to have His body ravaged to the point of death to save me, who am I to condemn or look down on other people. Pride and self-righteousness has no place, but I am to be kind, selflessly loving, gracious, and forgiving to all my neighbours whether they deserve it or not, as God has been all of these things to me even though I don’t deserve it. This frees me to love God, because He is not an unpredictable cosmic tyrant to be feared, but a Heavenly Father who gave His all to have me. And this frees me to serve Him joyfully, not out of fear, not out of a striving to be good enough, comparing, justifying, blame shifting, self-glorifying, but out of grateful joy. The phrase that Tim Keller often uses to contrast religion and the gospel is, religion is “I obey, therefore I am accepted,” whereas the gospel is “I am accepted, therefore I obey.” I had not really understood this before. I was obeying as a means of saving myself or of maintaining my right standing, which actually put me at odds with a gracious, merciful God and pulled me away from Him, and it made me an unloving, shallow, self-righteous, unrepentant, selfish, and proud person who practised an empty religiosity and a superficial morality and who thought he was close to God and heaven bound when he was in fact far from God. The gospel shattered my illusions that fall evening when I was 16 and I understood the depths of my sinfulness but also the amazing, unfathomable grace of God. Jesus died for me. Because of Jesus and Jesus alone I am forever loved with a “wonderful, never-stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love” (Jesus Storybook Bible), and God forgives me, accepts me, cherishes me, delights over me, and is pleased with me, and out of the deep heart knowledge of this acceptance, I obey, I live a changed life. This is the gospel. This is Christianity. This is relationship.
My journey of following Jesus, which for many years I thought had started when I was very young, started when I was 16 years old, the day I truly understood the gospel, the good news that Jesus saves sinners, “of which I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). And it has been quite a journey.