the gospel

Altar or Throne?

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Last week I started looking at what may seem an anomaly but is more typical than we'd like to accept. By we, I mean Christian believers who hold the Bible as authoritative in matters of faith.

Over many years, a cultural shift took place within the church in America. It impacted both beliefs and practices. This shift has been addressed by many, and in one instance given a term—moralistic therapeutic deism.

This cultural shift impacts the church in a powerful way because what people believe in their hearts is directly connected to how they live.

Professed beliefs don't always line up with what's held in the heart. You've likely heard the expression, "do as I say, not as I do," but the reality is that actions speak louder than words.

What people believe in their hearts is directly connected to how they live

A disconnect

Perhaps the question to answer is—Why is there a disconnect between what is believed and how one lives? What people say they believe and what they do and say in their daily lives are often incongruent. They may talk like Christians but they live like agnostics and atheists.

It's similar to what cross-cultural missionaries contend with when sharing the gospel within another culture than their own. Beliefs are often traditional, even cultural, but don't seem to have much impact on daily life.

An article I read by Dr. Philemon Yong said this about how westerners present the Gospel and why it can lead to an animistic belief—

"The gospel comes not as a story that has a beginning, middle and end. The parts, though true, are not always connected. Worse yet, the content of the beliefs is never defined, and the relation of the gospel to specific cultural practices is often left untouched, leaving the hearer to decide for himself what it means for him to now follow Jesus."

Along with articles noted in a previous post, it's not hard to see similarities to how the gospel is often presented in the US with similar results.

Is there a disconnect between what you believe and how you live?

What gospel have you heard?

How have you heard the gospel shared with you? How do you share it with others? Was it something like—"Jesus died for your sins!"—or—"God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life!"?

Phrases and statements like these are certainly true, but they are just fragments of the whole truth of God's redemption. I've posted about this on many occasions (see links below) and wrote a book prompted by this concern.

When we reduce the gospel to a phrase focused on what's needed to get into heaven, we minimize the work of Christ's redemptive work on the cross. We also ignore the gospel Jesus preached (Matt 4:17; 5:1–7:28; Luke 4:18-19; 9:1-2).

Do we preach the gospel Jesus preached or a minimized version?

Why this matters

In western culture, thinking is more linear—a line of thought in a logical and systematic thought process. Piecing separate bits of information together to understand a larger truth comes more naturally for well-educated people in a western culture.

Non-western cultures, as in Asian, Mideastern, or African nations, think more globally or holistically. The parts are seen in the whole but not extracted or extrapolated apart from the whole. The details of the whole aren't separated out to consider but seen as part of the whole.

This fits with how eastern cultures put less importance on individuality, which is typically emphasized in western cultures. Non-western cultures elevate the value of a group, family, community, or national identity over individual interests.

People who are non-analytical thinkers don't piece things together the same way as analytical and linear thinkers. Consequently, the less analytical thinker hold bits and pieces of truth that can also be associated with other information or beliefs.

Global thinkers don't piece things together as analytical and linear thinkers do

Altar or throne?

When you come to God, are you coming to His altar or His throne? Perhaps you wonder if there's much of a difference. There is!

Altars are erected as places of offerings, often sacrificial offerings. Thrones are places of authority. Things offered on altars typically cost a person something. There's effort involved in presenting what's offered.

People sit on thrones—people in authority. Those who approach whoever sits on the throne acknowledge the authority of the one who sits on the throne. Their acknowledgment is shown by some type of submission, allegiance, respect, or honor.

When you come to God, are you coming to His altar or His throne?

Christian altars

As a young believer, I remember calls to "come to the altar" to give my life to Jesus or rededicate it to Him. At other times, calls to come to the altar were for repentance, healing, dedication to some service for God, or whatever else the speaker exhorted people to do.

In my early days, I responded to these calls because I thought it was expected. As I matured in my faith, I realized I didn't need to respond to these various altar calls because they often didn't apply to me.

The throne of grace

I also realized that Jesus' call to follow Him was an all-inclusive commitment (Matt 16:24-26). I didn't need to make individual or special commitments, I just needed to follow through on my initial commitment to follow Jesus.

I realized Jesus' call to follow Him was an all-inclusive commitment of my life

This singular and continuous commitment is reinforced in the book of Hebrews—

...let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16 ESV)

How do you approach God?

Let me ask my earlier question again. When you come to God, are you coming to His altar or His throne? We are told in the book of Hebrews that the tabernacle under the Old Covenant was a copy of what was in heaven (Heb 8:5-6).

The layout of the tabernacle had the altar outside. This is where sacrifices were made. Only the blood of atonement was brought inside to the innermost room and only once a year by only one person (Heb 9:7-8, 11-15).

That innermost room—called the Most Holy Place—represented the very presence of God above the mercy seat with its golden cherubim (Heb 9:4-5). Jesus made His atoning sacrifice once for all (Heb 7:27; 9:12, 26, 28; 10:2, 10, 12, 14) in the very presence of the Father.

No sacrifices needed or required

God neither desires or requires any further sacrifice from us—those of us who trust in Him by faith because of His grace. Jesus invites us to follow Him in a simple way. If we choose to follow Him, He says we need to deny our selfish nature and die to our self and live for Him (Mark 8:34-37).

Personally, I accepted the sacrifice of Jesus as perfect and complete, and that I could not nor need not offer any further sacrifice to Him. I chose to commit my life to Him many years ago and I affirm that commitment on a daily basis (Luke 9:23).

So, how do you approach God? Are you bringing Him a sacrifice of some kind or trusting in Jesus and His perfect, once-for-all atoning sacrifice?

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace!

Many Altars but One Gospel

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Most religions have some form of an altar as a means of worship. Primitive altars are where sacrifices, sometimes animals or humans, were made to appease a deity or god. In the Old Testament, altars were part of the worship of Israel using prescribed sacrifices for specific reasons.

Altars can also be figurative. In most traditional churches, a table or cabinet serves as an altar where certain elements of the worship service are placed. More contemporary churches might consider the front platform area as an altar.

Physical altars or places to offer gifts or sacrifices are common in many cultures around the world. I'm more familiar with Thailand and the Philippines. I've traveled and ministered in Thailand many times. It has an abundance of altars in many places.

Most religions have some form of an altar as a means of worship

Land of many altars

Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist nation, and Buddhism breeds and thrives on an animistic belief. One look around at all the spirit houses and altars or shrines erected throughout the nation makes this clear.

It is difficult to preach the Gospel in Thailand and see genuine conversions to following Christ—both culturally and spiritually. The truth can get lost in the various layers of culture and spirituality present in Thailand and in other nations.

Living in another culture different than your own helps you see things from a different perspective.  This is one of the values of true cross-cultural missions. In a sense, I had two home cultures—American and Filipino—while living in the Philippines for fifteen years.

Living in another culture than your own helps you see things from a different perspective

Although they are quite different from each other—one is western and the other eastern philosophically—a vast difference exists between both of those cultures and Thai culture, at least on the surface.

Is there really that much difference between how Christianity is practiced in America, Roman Catholicism in the Philippines, and Buddhism in Thailand? Perhaps not as much as you think.

Buddhism and altars

Buddhism with its thousands of gods is intertwined in its origin with Hinduism, an ancient religion with millions of gods or deities. How can there be so many gods?

Most ancient religions were prone to associating deity or god-likeness with creation. This is noted in the first chapter of Romans (Rom 1:25). It's termed animism—the worship of non-human things as if they had souls or spirits.

Animism exists throughout the world today, even in unexpected places and ways.

It's common to see small altars of fruit, toys, incense, and other things offered in many places to many gods throughout Thailand. Ancestor worship is also mixed into many ancient religions with animistic belief systems.

Most ancient religions were prone to associating deity or god-likeness with creation

Roman Catholic shrines

Throughout the Philippines, it is common to see both Roman Catholic statues or images along with Chinese religious symbols, where ancestor worship is common. Shrines to Mary and to the infant Jesus are found in homes, businesses, as well as in churches.

Riding in a Filipino cab one day, I noticed the driver—a Roman Catholic—had a Chinese religious symbol hanging from his mirror and a Christian image or two on his dashboard. As he drove me across town, we talked about Jesus. "He's my protector, I trust in Him," said my taxi driver. 

It made me realize how many Christians in America have a similar approach to covering all the bases. Of course, as evangelical Christians, we don't see it that way.

Many Christians in America have a covering-all-the-bases approach to their faith

American altars and shrines

People in animistic cultures have a difficult time with the typical western approach of sharing the Gospel in bits and pieces—"Jesus died for your sins" or "God so loved the world." It's difficult for them to disassociate these bits and pieces from what they already believe.

When bits of pieces of the truth spoken without their greater context come across as abstract truths. Abstract truths connected to testimonies of success and blessing as often occurs in evangelism, lack the scriptural frame of reference to be understood well.

People in such cultures can both accept and reject the Gospel readily. They pick and choose between what appeals to them and what doesn't fit their belief system and worldview of life.

Are American Christians much different than religious people in other places?

The church potluck

American Christians tend to pick and choose what does and does not appeal to them regarding the Gospel, and with doctrine and practice. It's as if the gospel and Christian beliefs are laid out on a table as with a church potluck.

Perhaps it doesn't seem this way, but consider how many different Christian churches exist. Often times, the only distinction between one church and another is the presentation or methodology of the church service itself.

There's too much to get sidetracked on with this issue, but consider what draws you to a certain church or type of worship service. What do you expect when you go to church?

American tend to pick and choose what they like and don't like about the Christian faith

Is your Christianity animistic?

For more than four decades, I've heard questions from prospective churchgoers like, "What do you have to offer that's better than the church down the street?"

Why are so many American Christians like this? Is it because we are so self-focused? Well, yes! 

We take the bits and pieces we hear of the gospel and Christianity and connect them to our own perceptions of blessing and success. In this way, our Christianity becomes more animistic than the gospel in the Bible.

Christians prefer bits and pieces of the gospel that connect to blessing and success

The western church promotes this with how we present the Gospel, Jesus, and various concepts of church-community. Consider the following questions—

What appeals to you about church, the Gospel (God's Story), and Jesus?
What is it you like or dislike? What makes you comfortable or uneasy?

Over the next couple weeks, I'll continue to look at this issue of altars and the gospel. Next week, I hope to challenge you to answer whether you come to God's altar or God's throne?

The gospel and animism—

The following articles may provoke you to thought, even upset you. I hope so. They are written by missionaries—one in Thailand and one in Zimbabwe in Africa. You can post responses on this blog or on social media— but let them be edifying and gracious

Animism and the Prosperity Gospel

Why Your Gospel May Be More Animistic Than You Think

Connecting Your Story with God's Story

Photo by  Phil Coffman  on  Unsplash

Photo by Phil Coffman on Unsplash

I heard many dramatic testimonies of God's work when I was a young believer. It was the early days of the Jesus People Movement, an exciting, dynamic time.

Story after story recounted how God set people free from dark deeds and lost lives. Each time I heard these stories, my own life story paled in comparison.

I wondered if my story had much value.

How about you? Have you ever wondered if you have much of a Christian testimony?

The tale of the Christian testimony

I wasn't raised in an evangelical Christian home, but I did have a belief in God. I went through confirmation classes in an Episcopal church but soon questioned the church and Christiin general.

As the 60's rolled in, I rolled with them. But still, I was never in a gang, nor strung out on heroin, and never went to jail. In short, my life before following Jesus wasn't dramatic or sensational.

Don't get me wrong, I was no saint, and my life was not exemplary of any virtues. But my pre-Jesus life wouldn't be featured in magazines or on any talk shows.

Your life story doesn't have to be dramatic or exciting to be worth sharing

The value of our life story

I've thought about this over the years. My four children grew up in church—from the nursery to youth group. They don't have exciting testimonies. Neither does my wife and I, but we all have valuable life stories.

It's time to put aside stereotypes and unnecessary expectations when it comes to sharing our life stories. It doesn't have to be dramatic, nor difficult.

Each person's life story has value because each person has value. You and I have value in other people's lives, and that's not just positive spin.

Ok, so you're not an evangelist nor a rock star. Neither am I. But how your life story connects with God's story is worth hearing. It's real and genuine because it's true.

Each person's life story has value. It's real and genuine, because it's true.

Connected stories

So, how can you share your life story so it connects with God's story, to connect others with Him?

Here's some simple guidance to do this—

God's story

Look for stories in the Bible you can relate to and that resonate with your own life. They could be in the Old or New Testament, a parable, or part of a larger story.

It's helpful when stories have an element of redemption in them.

Then, learn these stories by heart and in your own words (IYOW). These biblical stories should flow out of your heart in a natural way.

Your story

Keep it short and simple. You can always share more details when people ask for them. Going on and on with details turns people off, and shuts down discussion.

Keep your life story short and simple. You don't need to be the center of attention.

Write out a brief outline, reduce it down, and focus on how you started following Jesus.

Here's a guide to help you— Guidelines-LifeStory

Life story of other people

You need to ask people for their life story. Then, you need to listen, really listen.

We can be so focused on what we want to say that we ignore the person instead of connecting with them. Listening well is important!

People will share their story, and be open to hearing ours when they know we care about them.

People will be open to hear our life story when they know we care about them.

When we gain people's respect and trust we can share God's story with them.

How to connect

  • Pay attention to who you come in contact with in daily life
  • Consider people with whom you have some influence in everyday life
  • Be attentive to what's going on in other people's lives
  • Be considerate and compassionate with others
  • Look for an opportunity to connect God's story to another person's story
  • When you've made a connection it opens the door to share your story
  • Let God make the connection by His Spirit—don't force it!

What's your experience in sharing God's story and your story with others?


When you do make a connection with someone and want to share your story of faith and the gospel with them—remember to explain Christian terms and Bible verses in your own words (IYOW)! Here are a couple of posts related to how and why to do that—

IYOW—a Useful Acronym

The Illusion of Obscure Language

Need Help on How to Share Your Faith?

Evangelism. What does this word bring to mind? Typically, most people think of street preachers, revival tents or mass crusades, and handing out gospel tracts.

But the most effective means of evangelism, since the time of Jesus till now, is personal evangelism. Person to person, relational, intentional sharing of God’s Story—the gospel—in a personal way.

Some people are called to be preachers, whether on a street corner or in an auditorium. Others are quite bold and confident in approaching people in any circumstance for the sole purpose of sharing their faith.

But not everyone is like this. I’m not.

My personal experience

Even though I’ve preached in church pulpits, public outreaches, on the radio, and handed out tracts on the street, evangelism is not what I'm inclined to do. I'm not an evangelist.

Many people are not equipped, nor called to traditional public evangelism, but we are all called to be ready to share the hope we have within us—Jesus—and our relationship with Him (1 Peter 3:15).

The hindrance for many of us sharing our faith is timidity and lack of confidence, but the key is focusing on building a relationship.

A more typical focus is on the mechanics of how it should be done or the content of what needs to be said. But when we look at the example of Jesus in the Gospels, we see a very tailored, personal approach. 

Jesus showed more interest in the person than a methodology in reaching people with the gospel

When I share on evangelism, I encourage people to consider how each of their life stories connects with God's Story. I also encourage people to use biblical storying to share their faith with others.

Our prime example—Jesus

Compare Jesus' example to the more common approach of monopolizing a conversation with a prepared spiel, in an attempt to convince people they are sinners.

We see Jesus' example early on when He was in the temple among the Jewish leaders and rabbis (Luke 2:41-50). Jesus is found “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” He isn’t preaching to them, but listening and asking questions.

Further along in the gospel narrative, we find Jesus engaging people with stories and wise sayings called parables.

Jesus engaged people with stories and wise sayings called parables

He often used questions when challenged by the Jewish leaders, asked questions of the crowds of people when He taught them and used questions when He explained things and to exhort His disciples in private.

The Jesus-way of evangelism

Jesus engaged people from all backgrounds and stations of life. He seemed to tailor His interaction with people to their level and state in life.

He treated those with questionable backgrounds and character with unexpected dignity. He rubbed shoulders and ate with prostitutes, drunks, unethical business people, political agitators, and the like.

And His band of followers included uneducated fisherman and tax collectors (renegade IRS-agent types) to mention a few.

His tactics were different than anyone expected, which included His followers and the Jewish spiritual leaders.

Jesus' tactics were different than anyone expected

His tactics were different from what is customarily seen today. Jesus' way is different than what is found in most evangelism training programs and books on evangelism, let alone stereotypical evangelists, whether well-known or not.

Learning from Jesus' example

How can we learn from Jesus' example? It just might make sharing our faith with others easier, and more fruitful.

People, worldwide, know they are sinners in some way or another, or at least that they are less than perfect. Most people, throughout the world, are lonely and often feel less than important.

When someone shows interest in them and is willing to listen to their story, they take notice. I have found this true traveling nationally and internationally on planes, and in airports, and other situations.

People want to tell their story to someone

One reason people seek out a counselor or therapist, even in social networking, is to find someone who will listen to their story.

A simple starting point

Here's a simple starting point for personal evangelism. Simply ask a person about himself or herself. Who are they? What do they do in life? Just show interest in them. Genuine interest.

This builds rapport, the beginning of a relationship. It establishes interest and even a sense of trust. It builds a bridge that makes it possible to share your own story and the greatest story—God’s story.

This requires genuineness above all. Most people are perceptive enough to know when you are listening to them, or just listening for an opportunity to break in and say something.

Once you hear a person’s story, you've built a bridge of respect and trust. This will often give you an opportunity to share your own story, your life story of faith.

Once you hear a person’s story, you've built a bridge of respect and trust

This isn’t a complicated or new approach. In fact, it takes place many times a day, often without any intention. It just happens.

Wouldn't it be nice if sharing your faith just happened in a natural way?

It can. I'll post a follow-up to this next week... so stay tuned!

Think about what I've shared so far.

Take some time to look at how Jesus engaged people with the truth of His story—God's story.