The two previous essays have been an attempt to put pen to paper in regards to the two most common questions we receive. They surface repeatedly, in correspondence, and especially in public question and answer sessions. They were variants of, number one, “How did you come into the message of grace?” and number two, “Why don’t people see this and how do I get friends and family to listen to this message?” The first is essentially biographical, where I recount my journey, and the second is asked of concern and frustration. We are so taken with what we have seen in Jesus, we want some help in giving that revelation to others.
I hope the first two answers have been sufficient, and that they have helped you to understand my journey, and my advice on how to help others along. The third question, unsurprisingly, has to do with grace, the message, and the church, and it combines elements of the first two questions: it leans on my own experience of grace, and my professional attempts to convince others.
The question goes something like this: “Is the message of grace winning? Is it changing the landscape of the church? Is the grace movement gaining steam?” I pose the same essential question in several different ways to cover the ground. In each of these forms, the same thing is being asked. It’s only my opinion of course, but people know I travel widely, have friends with different backgrounds, and have a decades long history with the church. Therefore, everywhere I go, someone wants my take on the state of the church, or more specifically, the state of the message of grace within the church.
First of all, I don’t feel all that qualified to comment on the condition of the church at large. All I really know is what it looks like now, in my little corner, versus what it looked like earlier in my lifetime. But we can all do that. I can comment on the heart of the question, which has to do with what this glorious message of grace has done to the church in the dozen or so years since I walked into the revelation, and whether or not that grace wave is still rolling.
My first attempt at an answer would be that I believe the grace movement, is over. I don’t mean people are not still turning on to the knowledge of God’s love and grace, but as a movement within the greater body, I think we are beyond the crest of the wave. And I think that’s a good thing. As a movement, grace held no more power or authority than the movements that preceded it. It was filled with people who latched on because it was the next big thing. Grace was seen as the thing they had been waiting on, which was exactly how they felt when they first heard about the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, or the Word of Faith, or myriad other concepts. Grace as a movement was big time. It had famous television preachers, best selling authors, and whole churches springing up, or shifting gears around the “message of grace.” It didn’t take long until it felt like the early days of any other denomination, where people had a revelation, and then built a structure around it. The language became, “Does so-and-so have the message?” spoken as a sort of insider lingo for, “Have they come over to our way of thinking?”
Grace as a movement spawned what it hated: division and sectarianism, and when one of the core tenants of the “message” proved to be insufficient for day to day living, the movement was in trouble. That core tenant? “Grace plus nothing,” or “it’s only grace.” I fell into the trap as well, advertising our ministry for a long while as “Grace Is Everything.” The problem is, it’s not.
I get the principle. Jesus is grace, and Jesus is everything, therefore, by a circular argument, grace is everything as well. But Jesus is also truth, and by that logic, then truth is everything. Truth isn’t everything if grace is everything. You see the conundrum. I also get, and whole-heartedly agree with the fact that God’s grace doesn’t need your works in order to work, or law, in order to be balanced. For sure, I agree. In that sense it is grace plus nothing, or only grace, or grace is everything. But grace without the Holy Spirit, is liberty without a rudder; no steerage system, no guidance, just freedom. Grace without faith is laziness and irresponsibility; no need to do anything, work on anything, or even believe for anything, God’s grace will take care of it.
Taken to its greatest extreme, “only grace” has caused us to drop some of the fundamentals from our teaching repertoire. I have seen more people confused on how to pray than I ever did before I came into grace. It could be because their formula for prayer used to be begging and repenting, and now, with their identity firmly planted in who they are, they don’t know what to say anymore. Instead of teaching on prayer, or the other Christian disciplines, we have started to view those things as too “topical,” or outside the baseline necessity of preaching grace. Even the word “disciplines” is under ill repute. How can it be grace if we call it a discipline? Such thinking is evidence that we have grace as a concept, but not really grace as a foundation.
It’s that conceptualization of grace that has led to the slowdown, (the necessary slowdown I might add) of the movement of grace. The message of love, liberation and forgiveness works, it works so well in fact, that people find themselves free in a way they didn’t know was possible. That freedom caused many to quit the local church, some because they weren’t going out of love anyway, and others because they determined they’d rather stay home than sit through the sermons and songs they were hearing. There is great utility in these points of view, but, you guessed it, there is also great risk.
Grace is risky to formulas. The formula of maintenance for the modern model of ministry is financial. More money equals more that can be done in the name of God. Grace liberates people from obligations, and the tithe looms large in that formula. Once liberated from that guideline, some quit giving all together. That was the wrong reaction, but what do we expect if we haven’t taught people to follow the leading of the Spirit? Once the giving stopped, the formula was in trouble, so even rock-solid grace ministries found they needed a little law to keep things going. So they ramped up the tithe message, claimed grace did nothing to change it, and found a way to introduce a little leaven to the lump.
Remember, grace is risky to formulas. The formula of fear, in regards to eternal conscious torment, and “end of the world” eschatology ran into a juggernaut with the message of grace. How can God be what we claim him to be if these other things still drip with so much condemnation, judgment and fear? Liberated by grace to think for themselves, people did their own research, come to conclusions, and again, the rock-solid grace ministries found they might just need a little fear in the message to keep people moving forward, and another dash of leaven found its way into the lump.
This is not a new phenomenon. When Martin Luther posted his 99 theses and sparked what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation, the amount of individual liberty infused into the body was almost overwhelming. Factions set in soon, quasi-denominations grew around disagreements, hatred, marginalization, and even downright Anti-Semitism found its voice in the highest levels of the “movement.” The dust has never really cleared from the movement, and while the multiple denominations, and myriad ideas of theology are long off-shoots of the Reformation, none of us would trade the fact that it happened. Thank God for it, even if it was quickly abused.
The Catholic Church feared as much when the Bible began to be translated from Latin to English. Latin was a dead language, used mainly in scholarly research and in the liturgy. To put the Bible in the common tongue was to make its truths available to the common man. Their fear was this would lead people to their own research, their own conclusions, and ultimately, to heresy. They weren’t entirely wrong. A lot of heresy has come out of the common man having access to the Bible. But would we trade that access, for someone else’s version of orthodoxy?
So trouble comes out of movements. And that’s okay. It was the movement that made a difference, even for a moment. Now, we stand on the other side of the “grace movement,” in my opinion, in a much better world. But we aren’t finished, and that’s because, at its core, I still don’t think grace was an actual movement. It was if movement was what you were looking for, but in reality, I think it was an adjustment. It was an adjustment to the way people saw God, and to the way they saw themselves. We are supposed to adjust things around the grace of God, and filter our topics, our sermons, and our songs, around who He is and how He loves us. The message of grace was meant to restore value to people over institutions, men over ministries, and the Lord Jesus, over all.
The message lives on. It has so transformed ministers, ministries, and laypeople alike, that entire generations of new believers may avoid the pitfalls of performance-mindedness that so many of us came up under. Perhaps they will fall in love with the risen Christ because they see hope in transformation, and power in identity. In this way, we are still seeing a “grace movement,” but fortunately, those being impacted don’t realize they are in anything unusual at all.
In conclusion, the message of grace has changed the landscape. Like it or not, if you are in ministry, or pastoring a local church, you will have to deal with the message of grace. How you handle that encounter could fashion the direction of both your church and your life. Movement or no movement, that’s a reality that knows no end.
Grace to you.