Can You Have Church Without an Agenda?

Can You Have Church Without an Agenda?

A couple of weekends ago, I participated in a men’s retreat. It was one I helped coordinate, and we had invited Wayne Jacobsen (founder of Lifestream Ministries, co-host of The God Journey podcast, and co-author on The Shack) to come and be with us.

I’ve never experienced a men’s retreat like this before. For one, we decided to run the retreat without an agenda. I had heard Wayne talk about this before, and it sounded like amazing things could happen. However, it also scared the heeby-jeebies out of me. Being a good ex-pastor, I always had a plan or agenda for things like this. After all, God’s not a God of chaos, so we shouldn’t be either, right?

Wouldn’t not having a schedule lead to utter chaos?

I decided to trust in the process that God has been leading me in over the last few years, and trust that it was God who was nudging me to have an agenda-less retreat. I ran it by my friend who so graciously offered up his lake house where we hosted the retreat. He obliged to the request.

I’ve seen and been part of retreats that fill up every moment of time, not really allowing you to connect with God, or others for that matter.  I’ve been to others that have a light schedule but also provide room to hear from God. I enjoyed the ones that didn’t fill up the whole time and so I wondered, “What could Father do if we don’t fill up any of the time, but turn it over completely to him?”

There were still doubts and fears, even at one point the first night of the retreat. I kept wondering, “Is this really going to work?” After that first moment of panic, I decided (again) to surrender the schedule to the Lord. We had one dinner planned with the wives on Saturday night; other than that, we left conversations, gatherings, and agenda to Father.

At the end of the weekend, as I reflected, I couldn’t have planned and orchestrated everything any better than what happened. There were deep conversations, there was time spent alone or in groups of two’s or three’s. I got to know new brothers and fellowship deeply with others that I hardly know. There was laughter and joy. There were moments where I was deeply satisfied and

It was, in a word, more.

I felt more community.

I felt more connection.

I felt more “church” than I have in a long time. All without an agenda – and all without planning much of anything.

I used to think that you needed a plan or schedule to make things happen. I really didn’t trust that God would show up without needing a bit of help. Now I know that a schedule isn’t necessary. Father can handle it. Much of the time, we limit God by our own agenda. We read into what He wants, instead of simply surrendering our agenda and plan to Him, because we ultimately don’t trust that He can do things without our assistance.

It doesn’t mean there is not room for a plan, on occasion. However, I think we (I know I did) have a tendency to over-plan and plan God right out of most of what we do. I’ve heard people ask, “Couldn’t God break into [our plan] if he wanted to?” I guess he could, but wouldn’t it be better to let Him lead from the beginning? Trust him with the program and the results.

Try it and see what happens. And when God shows up, I bet you’ll be glad you did!

Where can you create more space for God to set the agenda in your life or ministry? What fears do you have about leaving the results and schedule to Father?

The Dangerous Nature of Shadows

The Dangerous Nature of Shadows

Throughout Scripture, there are a number of earthly “shadows” that point to realities that are heavenly in nature. Many of these substitutes were fulfilled in Christ when He was upon this earth. Others will be fulfilled upon His return and beyond. These are things such as the temple in the Old Testament, the order of high priests, the Mosaic Law, and the Tree of Life in the garden. The nice thing about these shadows was that they were tangible. You could touch and feel some – the fabric in the tabernacle, the animals for sacrifice. Some you could even smell: the incense burning, oil flowing over the temples and beards of the priests, the burning of the sacrifices.

For all the good that these shadows represented, there are also a number of pitfalls that can ensnare the believer. These dangers are outlined in Colossians 2:16-23, and we can also see how others relate to them (like the Pharisees).

  1. They can be seen. 
    The hard notion about the things of Christ is that we can rarely see them. We can often sense them or intuit them, but there is little to “grab hold of”. A shadow can be seen. You might even be able to touch and feel it. The danger is putting a higher priority on things that are seen, as opposed to what is unseen. Why is that a danger? Let’s look at some scripture that will help us:

    18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4, NASB)

    Why would we want to put more emphasis on things that are temporal? The shadows will pass away leaving the reality behind. As followers of Christ, we must focus on the reality and not the shadow.

  2. They can be held onto.
    Since these things can be seen, they can be held. Remember, I’m not talking about a shadow which you cannot grasp. These shadows are representations (think models) of eternal realities that are not able to be held or touched. These representations (like the temple, high priests, etc.) are physical substitutes that point to a heavenly truth.Again, the danger of holding onto something is not being able to let go to see the greater truth and not being able to let go of what we think is the real thing. Look at what Jesus told the Pharisees,

    8 “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! (Mark 7, NIV)

    This isn’t the only time the Pharisees were chastised by Jesus for focusing on the wrong thing. They were more concerned about rules and regulations (i.e., religion) than they were about people and the things that God desires including justice, compassion, care for the widow and the poor, and loving one another.

  3. They can be idolized.
    The biggest danger of these shadows is that they can be idolized. We can put them in the very place of God, holding them up and clinging to them as “the things” of God, all the while missing God Himself and God’s true commandments, much like the Pharisees did.They idolized their rules and regulations thinking they were doing God’s work, yet neglected the true compassion and mercy that God intended. Jesus demonstrated this by healing on the Sabbath (something forbidden by the religious leaders of his day); not following the rules of washing; eating with tax collectors and “sinners”; the list goes on and on.

Jesus’ non-traditional approach to people and faith made almost everyone turn their head and take notice. It should be the same with His followers. People should take notice of His disciples not because of what we’re doing, but because of what He’s doing in and through us. This is a subtle shift but a very important one.

We are to be people that cling to the substance that the shadow points to, especially when we can’t see it or touch it. Life is not found in the shadow but in the reality. Funny isn’t it? That the very thing that we can touch and feel won’t provide life, yet what is true and real is the very thing that, for now, we cannot see. Yet we must press in to life, to Him, to restore us, to give us hope, healing, and to renew all the things that He wants to redeem.

We are to be the messengers of the great reality that is found in Kingdom life and living – the reality that says that Jesus is not only our Savior, but our brother and our friend. He calls us to live a life that we cannot live on our own.

A life that reaches beyond the shadows.

A life called out of the shadows and into the Light.

giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

What shadows have you been clinging to that God is calling you to let go of? How can you help move someone you know out of the shadows and into a greater reality with His Life and Light? 

Shadow, Substance, and the Lego Vatican in Philadelphia

Shadow, Substance, and the Lego Vatican in Philadelphia

In recent days, the pope made a historic visit to the United States. One of his stops was Philadelphia, where a Catholic priest had built a replica of the Vatican out of Legos. If I took you to Philadelphia and showed you the Lego Vatican and said, “Look! It’s the Vatican.” You might reply by saying, “Well, it’s a model of the Vatican.”

“No, no, no! This is THE Vatican. See the courtyard and the columns? The dome, the piazza, and all the people? The nuns? And look – the Pope is here and he’s even waving to the people.” If I said that you would know that I was either delusional, lying, or maybe a bit of both.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing a deep-dive of Colossians. I’ve taken a slow and Spirit-led (and also very non-linear) approach to studying this book. It has long been one of my favorite parts of the New Testament, and I am finding a vast richness and untold treasures as I have dug in and allowed the Holy Spirit to reveal things to me.

One of the more significant passages in Colossians 2 has struck me recently:

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

With the things of God, there is shadow and there is substance. These themes run throughout Scripture:

  • The temple was a shadow of the reality of heaven and eternal life (the presence of God in and around humanity).
  • The Old Testament high priests were a shadow of our great high priest, Jesus Christ.
  • The Sabbath is a shadow of our eternal rest found in the work that Jesus did on the cross.

There are many more, but I think you get the idea. Now, if this is unfamiliar to you, please bear with me and hopefully it will become more clear.

The Shadow Points to the Reality

The things of God which are a shadow point to the reality. The shadows themselves are not the true things; however, they are often mistaken for things which have true substance. This was the problem with the Pharisees. They took the things of God which were shadows and built a religion out of them. Their understanding was limited and much of what they saw was not the true reality.

Take healing on the Sabbath, for instance. It was forbidden by the Pharisees. Why? Because it was considered work, and God had told them that the Sabbath was a day of rest. There was to be no work. When Jesus came, he healed people on the Sabbath. Again, why? Because he understood the reality of the Sabbath (that it was a shadow of things to come). God is for His people and He is working to restore all things back to Himself (See Colossians 1:20).  This is just one way that Jesus demonstrated that truth.

As impressive as the Lego Vatican is (it does have a waving pope, by the way), it is not the real thing – it’s merely a representation of a greater reality. That’s what the shadows are as they relate to the things of God. The shadows are a representation of a much grander reality, and we must come to know the reality, or we will be left (like the Pharisees) holding up the obscure things as those with substance.

The Substance Belongs to Christ

These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:17).

Because Christ dwells within us, we have a vast wealth of resources at our disposal.  I have said before that although we have an inheritance of princes and princesses, we often live like spiritual paupers. That’s because we live by shadows and forget about the true substance. (The reality is that many Christians have been taught more about shadows than substance. It likely isn’t even your fault.)

The things which have substance are Christ’s alone. Colossians tells us that the great mystery of the ages is not just found in Christ, but it is Christ Himself. If that’s not enough, the mystery is also referred to as “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Can there be a greater mystery? How Christ could dwell in us? It is almost unthinkable. But that is the greatest reality. Christ dwelling in His believers.

One of the most challenge things for me in my spiritual journey has been to sift through the shadows to find the true substance. It is a journey that God is hammering into me at this very moment, and it is one of my favorite times in all my years of following Christ.

Leave the shadows behind and follow what’s real. You will not regret it.

What other things can you think of that are mere “shadows” of things to come? What are you holding on to that’s merely a shadow of the truth? (Feel free to share in the comments below.)