It’s common language even today.
Read your Bible more. Pray more. Go to church more. DO more for the Lord!
Moving Out of Obligation
I grew up in a small, West Texas town. Church-going was the norm rather than the exception (at least that’s what I came to believe). My family attended a decent-sized Baptist church in the town where I grew up. My dad was the part-time music minister.
Growing up in that environment, I learned that God expected certain things from me:
- Reading my Bible
- Going to church
- Getting discipled
- Discipling others
And if I didn’t do those certain things, He would be disappointed in me at best, or discipline me, or even worse, withdraw Himself from me. And I really took those things to heart.
There’s nothing wrong with those things, but when we tie them to God’s blessing or love, that’s when it becomes an issue.
If I read my Bible, go to church, attend a small group because in doing so…
God will love me more or approve of me more.
God will bless me more greatly.
God’s favor will rest on me in a greater way or intensity.
That’s when we start to get it wrong. God’s love doesn’t increase because you study your Bible more. God’s favor doesn’t rest on you in a greater way because you made it all 4 Sundays to your local gathering and hit 3-4 of your weekly small group times. Our superior religious performance doesn’t equate to God’s greater love and affection for us (although you might feel that way.)
God’s favor rests on you because the work of Christ was completed through the Cross and resurrection. He loves you because you are His child and you are fearfully and wonderfully made.
He may be disappointed in your actions, but He is never disappointed in you. This is where I’ve gotten in wrong as well. Not only have I believed these things, I even used to teach some of these as a pastor.
Moving into Invitation
Is there a key to moving from obligation to invitation? Really, it’s a shift in mindset. And it can take a while.Trust me. I’m still moving away from the obligation mindset. It can be very difficult; especially if you’ve been steeped in religious tradition as long as I was.
The key is to see God inviting us into what He is already doing. For a long time, I had the mindset that God’s desire was for me to find out what He wanted me to do, I’d go do it (whatever that was), and then He would join me in that and bless my efforts. How prideful was that?!
What I’ve grown to discover over the last decade or so (slowly – I’m stubborn, y’all) is that God is moving and working and constantly inviting me into what He is already doing in and around me and through those in my sphere. The adventure of His life isn’t necessarily drawing me into some grand adventure, but the small adventures He has for me in what I’m already doing: the people I already know and those He puts in front of me; the work I’m already doing and those who I interact with daily; the neighborhood where I already live.
One way (the path of obligation), I’m asking God, “What do I need to DO FOR you?” (As if God needs us to do anything for Him.)
The other way (the path of invitation), I’m asking God, “Okay, Lord – what are you doing? Where are you inviting me in to join you? What do you want me to see today?” And then waiting, resting, and relaxing. When we try to force these things, we can drive people away and we miss where God is moving because we’re too anxious and others around us can pick up on that.
The way of invitation is WAY more subtle than the path of obligation. It definitely takes an intentionality and patience. And, it also allows us to rest and relax. When we relax, others around us feel that too and we can naturally engage in work and conversation and just allow those things to happen naturally.
With obligation, I can (and often do) create work that has the appearance of ministry, religion, being holy, whatever, yet most of the time it’s about me (my unmet needs and wants) and what I THINK God wants me to do FOR him.
With the path of invitation, it really is a lot simpler, yet at first can seem more difficult. I must be patient and wait on God. It requires me to be constantly aware and watching for where God is moving. The hardest thing is being still (if you’re like me) and just relaxing into Father’s life.
As I’ve moved out of obligation and into invitation, I’ve experience better spiritual conversations and more natural ways to minister to people day in and day out. And I’m not perfect, and I’m sure I’ve missed opportunities and the nudges of Father, but it’s so freeing and humbling to see Father moving in and around me. And it really does feel way more natural than trying to “bring up God in a conversation” or trying to “witness to my coworkers or friends” or “sealing the deal.”
I just relax into how God is already moving and working and follow His lead. It’s really that simple.
The Kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed. Luke 17:20b
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were looking for physical, tangible evidence of God’s Kingdom. They wanted proof. They wanted signs. They wanted a kingdom led by a king who would free them from Roman oppression and lead them into a palpable reality. They thought they wanted more, but in truth they wanted less – much less than what Jesus had to offer.
Jesus knew differently. God’s plans were so much more than that. It was better than they could have ever imagined. He wanted something more – more than what people could just touch or see, more than merely a physical reality. His kingdom was one that would touch both heaven and earth. It was a future kingdom that touched the here and now.
Yet, today, we still fall into the very same trap as the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. We want God’s Kingdom to be tangible. We look for ways that God will prove Himself to us. I know because I’ve been there.
As if God needs to prove Himself to us! The very idea sounds ridiculous, but this is what we do. I know I’ve done it. There’s times I still do it.. My faith is weak at times, so I look for proof. Only that’s the opposite of what faith is.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.
Yet God is patient. He continues to draw you and I to a place of greater trust. – the reality of the unseen. It’s a place where I must listen to Him above the noise of the world. It’s a space where I have to press in to know Him deeper and trust that He knows best. A place that is often uncomfortable and stretches me beyond what I think I can bear at times. It’s a space where I must rest in Him, despite the outcome, despite the stillness. It’s a vast meadow with a beautiful spring where He draws me to deeper waters.
Than again, it’s not a place I can see with my eyes. It’s a place that’s felt more than seen and yet it’s so very real. It’s a reality God endears me to as I am captivated by His love and His grace. It’s a reality outside myself where His spirit connects with mine, moving me deeper still.
And this is only the beginning.
This is the intangible kingdom.
For we live by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7)
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)
This is really a follow-up post to Can You Have Church Without an Agenda? If you haven’t read that, I’d encourage you to read it first before continuing.
I can’t tell you how it happened or why it happened in the timing that it did. I can only tell you that it did happen. The events that have taken place over the last couple of weeks have been more than mere coincidence. I consider them to be divine encounters.
Maybe the Lord has opened my eyes to see more clearly the way He moves. Why now? This is a prayer I’ve been praying for years. What has changed and what has happened these last few weeks? As far as i can tell, nothing special. I haven’t changed jobs or received some kind of special revelation. Only, I’m beginning to see things differently. What I might have chalked up to happenstance encounters, I am beginning to see with new eyes.
Shortly after the men’s retreat I talked about in a previous post, I was tempted to “start something.” You might know that urge that I’m referring to. The need to start a Bible study, a home group or home church, or something else. Yet, I resisted. I did not feel that I was resisting Father, but my own flesh that felt the need to “help God out” and make something happen.
There were three words the Lord gave me for this year towards the end of last year. Release, relax, and rest. Little did I know what those meant at the time. But it’s those three words that have been the focus of my year when it comes to both my relationship with Father and learning to live by His rhythms.
- Connecting with a couple who we have been trying to get together with for over 2 years on Halloween night simply by popping in (and staying for 2 hours!) since we were already on their street for Trick or Treating.
- Getting to eat lunch with a friend on the same journey when he was at my work for a workshop and luncheon.
- Having the freedom to go to a baptism where my friend (who I baptized a few years ago) got to baptize his daughter – it just so happened to be one of the weekends I was free in October.
- Hearing from a couple of brothers who are dear friends and on this Jesus adventure together in the same week.
I am so encouraged by what Father is doing in my life right now. I know there are some who might read this and are struggling to understand or connect to how He’s working in your life, or feel that He is silent or withdrawn.
I went through a period of feeling like that, too. I’m not sure why it feels that way or why He seems to be quiet sometimes. Yet, I always believed that God was speaking. It wasn’t necessarily His fault that I had trouble listening. There are times I believe we look for the wrong things and assume God is speaking in certain ways when He wants us to tune in to a different frequency, so to speak.
I believe that God is always speaking and speaks to us every day. Whether or not we hear Him is a different matter. It’s worth learning to recognize His voice. In fact, His sheep know His voice and know how to follow.
This happens based on a relationship. There’s no principle to follow or “how-to program” to go by. It’s a daily recognition that He is speaking and learning to discern what is His voice, what is yours, and what is noise and distraction. The only way to do it is by a daily focus on Him and a continual quieting of both internal and external disruptions. As soon as we feel or sense that we are getting off track, it’s simply a matter of refocusing our attention on Him.
It can take a while. It’s not a striving to hear Him perfectly. It’s a step by step journey to discovering which voice is His, which one is mine, and the ones that are trying to lead me off the path and into the ditch. When you discover His voice, it’s not a raging cacophony, but a quiet whisper, a gentle nudge, or a sense or urge that says, “Come this way. Walk over here for a while.”
Learn to trust yourself and the nudges that you sense are from Father. You’ll make mistakes. It’s okay. I’ve made plenty. But when you learn His voice, and you know it’s Him and you obey and follow, it opens up a whole new world.
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?
Tonight, my 10-year old son wanted to go for a walk but didn’t think he could keep up with my wife and I as we were walking the dog, so I told him I would go with him later. He spent the day at home with a headache and wanted to get some fresh air.
I know that these invitations from him to spend time together will eventually fade, but I hope that’s many years away. All the same, I want to take advantage of these opportunities as they come along and as I am able.
As I’ve been on a journey to find community outside normal, traditional religious structures, I’ve come to see the life we live in Christ as a continual invitation. He invites us to spend time with Him, to listen to Him, and to follow Him.
“Come, follow me,” is a continual invitation, not a one-time decision to escape eternal fire and damnation. We tend to replace this ever-present beckoning with a safe and secure structure where we don’t have to depend on God on a daily basis. Jesus never asked anyone to resurrect a monument in his honor or construct a building with his name on it. (In fact, he encouraged the disciples not to at the transfiguration.)
“Dad, will you go for a walk with me?” What if the language that my 10-year old used to ask me to spend time together is exactly what we should ask of our heavenly Father? What if it were that relaxed? That easy?
I can tell you that as I’ve walked this journey over the last couple of years, I tend to make it way too difficult. I knew God could speak anywhere, but I also felt that I had to be in a certain place or do certain things to get Him to do what I wanted – or even just to pay attention to me. A certain time, the right Scripture, the right atmosphere, or even humbling myself by kneeling at the altar or raising my hands in worship.
The truth is (and was) that God loved me despite those things, not because of them. The invitation is always open. God is continually saying, “Come, child, walk with me.”
“I’ll set up my residence in your neighborhood; I won’t avoid or shun you; I’ll stroll through your streets. I’ll be your God; you’ll be my people. I am God, your personal God who rescued you from Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians. I ripped off the harness of your slavery so that you can move about freely. [Leviticus 26:11-13, The Message]
The God that rescued the Egyptians out of captivity wants to walk with you through your neighborhood. He’s already there.
All you have to do is ask.
“Dad, want to go for a walk?”