A community that follows Jesus is meant to be a place of transformation. We want to see the people who come into our churches experience real change in their lives. I know that personally, I want to see that my life is becoming more and more aligned with life the way Jesus lives it, and I want to see that the same is happening for the others in my community. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Unfortunately, a lot of times that’s not what we see when we look around us. How familiar does this sound? “My husband says that he’s a Christian, but he is still addicted to pornography,” or “he still expresses uncontrollable anger towards me and the kids.” Or maybe, “I’m doing business with someone I know from church, but they never delivered on their contract and now they won’t return any of my calls.” Or even, “I’ve been going to church with my family my whole life, but I can’t seem to stop my struggle with my body image and with food and eating disorders.”
It seems like so often we see people professing to be followers of Jesus, but their lives just don’t seem to change much as a result. And if we’re really honest, many of us are in the same boat. We don’t change the way we wish we would. We see ourselves and others around us still stuck in the same patterns of brokenness and addiction, and eventually we can get discouraged and cynical about it. We stop expecting change. We may even question whether it’s really possible. We’re all sinners, right? Maybe addictive behavior, gossip, anxiety, hopelessness, and other effects of sin are really all we can expect from life and from each other.
But as easy as it is to let this kind of thinking take over, the gospel is pretty clear that we are supposed to expect transformation. When a person becomes a Christian, we can look for and hope for them to become the kind of person that you don’t have to protect yourself from; a person who isn’t ruthless in romance, or dishonest in business, or indiscreet with personal information. We can expect that someone who becomes a follower of Christ will live a better life. We can expect that a community of people following Jesus will be a community of transformation.
Just look at 2 Corinthians 3:18:
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit [italics added].
The apostle Paul is highlighting how we, as followers of Christ, are brought into this transforming relationship with God through the new covenant Jesus bought for us on the cross. As a result, our essential natures are being transformed into the image of Christ. The deepest core of who we are is being changed to be more like Jesus.
So how does this take place? If we expect transformation as a result of following Jesus, why don’t we always see it materialize? Here are three simple and biblical ways that we can keep ourselves and our communities on track to experience real, lasting change.
1. Stay Focused on Jesus
The whole purpose of Christianity is to focus on Christ. Throughout Jesus’ life, and in the gospel records, we find Jesus putting the focus clearly on himself over and over again. Here’s an example. In Luke 4, we have an account of Jesus visiting Nazareth, his hometown, at the beginning of his ministry. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as usual, and stands up to read. Someone hands him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he unrolls it and reads from chapter 61:1-2: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” At this point, everyone is staring at him, and his response is to say, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Essentially, that he is the point and the fulfillment of this well-known prophecy. Talk about putting yourself in the spotlight.
And this is just one of many many times he does this. He consistently takes the Jewish traditions and celebrations and puts himself right in the middle of them. On the Sabbath, the day of rest, Jesus says that he is the one who can give us rest. At the Festival of Lights (Hanukkah), Jesus calls himself the light of the world. At the Festival of Unleavened Bread, Jesus calls himself the bread of life. At the Feast of Tabernacles, as they pray for rain, Jesus calls anyone who is thirsty to come to him to drink. At Passover, Jesus offers himself up as the sacrificial lamb. And on the Festival of First-Fruits, Jesus comes back to life in his resurrected body: the first fruit of the resurrection harvest that God is reaping.
When we worship, we are acknowledging this truth, that Jesus really is the center of everything. Worship accomplishes something no other feature of human existence can. It renews us, orients us to God, increases our receptivity to God’s work in us, strengthens us, unites us, and helps us forget about ourselves and focus on God. This is what being a Christian is all about. Beyond adopting a new belief system or philosophy, it’s about orienting ourselves around Jesus Christ. We have come to the end of ourselves, and are trusting utterly on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to make us acceptable before God. And, trusting and depending on him in that way, we have the Holy Spirit inside us changing us into people who are kinder, more loving, more patient, more faithful, and more full of self-control.
Centering on Jesus and worshiping him leads to us putting him in charge; submitting to him as Lord. In a wonderful older book, The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman writes:
“Following Jesus seemed easy enough at first, but that was because they had not followed him very far. It soon became apparent that being a disciple of Christ involved far more than a joyful acceptance of the Messianic promise: it meant surrender of one’s whole life to the Master in absolute submission to his sovereignty.”
To be a disciple of Jesus means absolute and total surrender of our entire life to Christ’s rule. There can be no compromise in this—absolutely none. Scripture is clear on this. No one can serve two masters (Luke 16:13). Our old way of life gets completely left behind (Matthew 5:29). Love for Christ is expressed in obedience to him (John 14:21-23). The fact is, Jesus has invited us into an exclusive relationship. And strangely enough, the exclusivity is really good for us. So, when I am focused on Christ Jesus my Lord, I am not focused on the largeness of my own problems. I don’t ignore them, but I can see them in the light of the largeness of Christ. My problems take their proper perspective when Christ is really Lord in my life.
If you, if we, are not prepared to completely surrender to Christ this way, you’re probably not going to change, not really. There is a world of difference between a conditional and an unconditional surrender. Don’t try to tell God how your life is going to work. Don’t try to keep any bargaining chips on the table. Do you really want to worship a God who needs you to call the shots? I don’t!
2. Stay Engaged in the Kingdom
God’s kingdom is completely different than yours or mine would be. In another really great older book, The Upside-Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill writes:
“The ‘kingdom of God’ means the dynamic rule or reign of God. The reign of God involves God’s intentions, authority and ruling power. It doesn’t refer to a territory or a particular place. Nor is it static. It’s dynamic—always becoming, spreading, and growing. The kingdom points us not to the place of God but to God’s ruling activities. It is not a kingdom in heaven, but a kingdom from heaven—one that thrives here and now. The kingdom appears whenever women and men submit their lives to God’s will.”
So why do we call it upside-down? From our perspective, everything in it is topsy-turvy: the good guys turn out to be the bad guys. The ones who expected to get rewards are punished. The ones who think they’re headed to heaven find out that the opposite is true. The least are the greatest. The immoral receive forgiveness and blessing. Adults are told to become like children. The religious miss the heavenly banquet. Nothing is the way we expected it to be!
But that’s really ok. In God’s upside-down kingdom we are right at home…in a very uncomfortable kind of way. God welcomes us in with grace and love and forgiveness. What could be more welcoming and inviting? But at the same time, as we enter in, we begin to see the differences between Jesus, who clearly belongs in God’s kingdom, and ourselves. It comes painfully into focus how unlike him we are in almost every way. And then we are invited to line up our stunted, twisted lives with his healthy, perfect life, which makes us even more uncomfortable—sometimes extremely so! But that shouldn’t discourage us. God’s grace is the most powerful force we can encounter to change our lives. It makes us like Jesus, even though we haven’t earned it.
Even after you’ve entered in, continuing to live in the kingdom every single day is not the easiest thing to do. It can be a fight. Nevertheless, there’s something very important about sticking around to the end. In Matthew 10:22, Jesus says, “Everyone will hate you because of me, but those who stand firm to the end will be saved.” We have to stick by Jesus’ side till it’s all over. And as we walk with Jesus, he continues to highlight stuff in our lives that need to be addressed. You will never see the change you hope for if you don’t stay engaged in his kingdom. So don’t stop.
3. Stay Connected in Community
We are meant to be communities of transformation where people can experience God’s love and presence and peace and joy. It’s in the context of community that we learn from one another what following Jesus is all about. It’s where we are called on to love one another, rather than live self-absorbed lives. We learn to serve each other, not try to push each other aside to get what we want.
When you and I come to church, to community, focused on what we can get out of it—on our particular likes, dislikes, and consumerist tendencies—we lose. When we come with this attitude, our needs won’t be met, but even worse, we’ll be ripping off everyone else around us, as well. Serving each other isn’t optional or extra, it’s foundational to being a community of people who follow Jesus. In almost every letter the apostle Paul wrote, he encouraged the church community to serve one another, following Christ’s example. For instance, Ephesians 4:16 says “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Sticking with and serving each other in community is how we become the body of Christ. And the word we wasn’t a coincidence there. Jesus didn’t come just to enable individuals to develop solo relationships with God so they could run around knowing that they, surrounded on earth by a bunch of bunglers, were the only ones getting it right. No! He came to collect us into a community, placing us right in the middle of the action and asking us to live out the reality of his kingdom. Together. That kind of transformational, kingdom community won’t just change us. It’ll change the world.
God’s plan for us is that we see change and growth in our lives. That’s what he’s up to. We just need to allow him to work. If we lean in to Jesus, lean in to his kingdom, and lean in to the community of other believers around us, we will be transformed.