September 28, 2020

The Deconstruction Project: My emerging church talk

write.jpgI am speaking at an emerging worship service this weekend. I’m pretty excited. I figured out the other day that in the last 15 years, I have spoken to the same audience (different people) over 2,000 times. So any opportunity to speak to a new audience is exciting for me.

In preparing, I try to develop original illustrations. This is difficult work because I am not particularly imaginative or creative, even when I want to be and have the freedom to try out new ways of presenting the Gospel.

So here is something of what I am going to use in my talk Sunday night. It’s a good bit of the first part of the message (which is actually going to be a talk on “Love and Sacrifice.”)

A lot of people have a “mission statement” for life. I have something I call a “Life project.” I’m more of a project-oriented person. It helps me think in very practical terms. My current life project can be described like this:

I am deconstructing everything in my life that is not vitally connected to Jesus as King and Messiah.

Why “deconstruction?” Am I just trying to sound postmodern? No…I really am better at tearing things down than at building things up. Like Graham Greene said in The Destructors, “Destruction is a form of creation.” That’s very true for me.

The issue for me is not relating to Jesus. All kinds of people relate to Jesus in some way. The issue is for everything in my life to relate to Jesus. The issue is how does Jesus relate to the total package that is Michael’s world?

When I approach that question, I find that I have to tear down all kinds of things. It’s like discovering a wonderful, valuable painting on a wall, but it’s under coats and layers of other paintings. Those layers have to be removed and then the original painting, once it’s revealed, can be restored to what it should look like.

In the chapel where I preach, we have one of those classic Jesus-as-a-white-American-hippie pictures of Jesus. On the same walls, we have pictures of previous presidents of our school, teachers and athletes. Jesus does have a good spot, but he is one more face in a world of other faces.

The picture is surrounded by trophies from athletics and various competitions. It presents a picture of Jesus being one “hero” and one “interest” among lots of others. It’s very much like the way I was taught to relate to Jesus growing up in church, and the way many people relate to Jesus now.

Early on, I learned a lot of Jesus stories and Jesus facts, but most of what I heard was summed up in “You need to accept Jesus as your personal Savior.”

Listening to that phrase over and over before I made a profession of personal faith in Jesus at 15, I felt the urgency of making this decision (I actually felt other people’s urgency), but I really had almost no idea what anyone was talking about. The longer I refrained from walking the aisle, the more I received urgent appeals that I accept Jesus before I died. While the rudiments of the Christian outline of truth came through, the main thing that came through was the importance of doing this thing, and of crossing the line into “the church” and “being a Christian.”

It was about joining something that had to do with Jesus. He was a picture on the wall.

After I made a profession of faith, the urgency was for “being a good witness,” which involved living according to the rules of the Bible and the expectations of the church. Even as a young man, I was already comparing Jesus to many of the rules our church promoted, and not seeing much of a connection. (Short hair? Skirts, not pants, on girls? No rock music?)

I know a lot of you have been on that journey. Jesus was a picture on the wall, and people kept coming up with things that just didn’t seem to relate to Jesus. I believe that a disciple of Jesus in our culture will be called to removing those layers of paint, and getting Jesus off the wall.

I’m desconstructing my version of Jesus so that he can be, not a role model or a hero, but be the light that enlightens every person. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:9) He’s the light that enlightens everyone. I am deconstructing Jesus so that his love will take control of every relationship.

2 Corinthians 5:14-17 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

It’s a whole new creation….a whole new story, where Jesus relates to everything, and isn’t just the picture on the wall of a club we belong to where people try to be decent and good so other people will want to be like us.

Deconstruction means taking apart the CULTURAL misappropriation of Jesus that goes on all around us. Jesus is used as a symbol by everyone for everything. This is just as much a problem for Christians as it is for the secular world. We have to cut through that, peel off that paint and find Jesus in the Gospels.

Deconstruction means taking apart the SOCIAL and PSYCHOLOGICAL versions of Jesus. Many of us grew up in families and churches that gave us almost everything we believe about Jesus. How do you think Jesus views interracial dating? How do you think he views the use of alcohol? How do you think Jesus feels about tattoos? Chances are that many of us were interacting, not with what we know about Jesus, but with what we’ve taken in from well-meaning parents and church members.

It means deconstructing the RELIGIOUS contexts in which we have created our version of Jesus. You may be at Passion, Promise Keepers, Beth Moore and concerts by all your favorite artists. You are still called to follow Jesus into the pages of scripture to see if you are getting the real deal. What’s being left out? What are the blind spots?

The denomination I belong to spent $135 million last year on missions through its two missions agencies. In the same year, its largest churches spent $80 million on new facilities, primarily worship centers.

If we are telling everyone about a Jesus who has “no comment” on that situation, or on Darfur, or on pornography, or on materialism or racism….we are looking at another coat of paint. We need to get down to the truth in Jesus and the truth about Jesus.

So deconstructing everything in my life that is not vitally connected to Jesus as King. That’s my life project. It’s how I am doing discipleship in my life.

And the primary tool I have in this project is, of course, my Bible.

Changing how I think about the Bible has been the most significant thing in my own experience with Jesus. In my formative years, we carried Bibles and quoted the Bible, argued about the Bible and used the Bible to prove we were right.

What we didn’t do was live in its story. In fact, if I use the word “story” around a lot of people, they get very nervous.

Ever hear of Clarence Larkin? He was, apparently, a very talented mechanical artist in the early decades of the twentieth century, and was very good at turning the Bible into a book of charts. My pastor bought me several of his books, and the biggest one, “Dispensational Truth,” has the entire Bible in a collection of very impressive graphs and charts.

Do you remember Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society” having his students tear out the opening essay in the poetry book? The essay where professor J. Evans Pritchard explained how to reduce a poem to a two-dimensional graph? Well…I’d like to do something similar to the Bible “chart” book.

It’s not a dictionary, or an encyclopedia, or a manual of how to do or fix things. It’s God’s story, and our story, and God’s story again. It’s a story you believe and join. It’s not a chart of the future or the past. It’s the truth of life. It’s deep, but not like engineering schematics are deep. It’s deep like the best novels or the best poetry.

I want to give you a way to think about this. This came to me years ago when my pastor preached a sermon called “With Us in the River,” and this image of Jesus has always stayed with me. Jesus is standing in the river Jordan, in a line of people waiting to be baptized by Jesus, and John sees him.

“What are you doing here?” Such a great line.

Here’s why.

God’s story is like a television program. God produced it, developed it, created it, wrote it, and most importantly, cast it with our first parents, Adam and Eve.

The show was great. Perfect. It had everything. Love. Adventure. Great scenery. Adventure. The actors had the greatest of all possible roles on the best of all possible shows.

And then, one day, an actor who occasionally played small roles struck up a conversation with Eve. She knew this actor. They had played scenes together from time to time, but today he seemed…different. Unusual in some way.

He asked Eve if she were happy on the show. Did she believe the producer was writing the best story? Did it ever bother her that she wasn’t the star of her own show? (Which was odd, because she really was a big star, and always got star billing.)

She thought about it. Yes, sometimes she wanted her own show. Sometimes she wondered if the scripts really were the best ones for her. But was their another show? This seemed to be it.

Oh yes, the other actor said. You can start your OWN SHOW. You can be producer, writer AND star. You can know a whole new world of success. You simply walk off this set, and announce that you are starting your own show.

She looked at her husband. He said…..OK. Sounded good to him as well.

And they walked off God’s story into their own story. They ripped themselves out of God’s script and into their own version of the world.

Of course, it was a disaster. It wasn’t that they couldn’t act…it was simply that everything was wrong. Broken. Nothing worked. The stories became tragedies. Comedies. Disasters. The stories all seemed to be the same. Pale imitations of the stories from God’s story.

But the show went on….into history…inherited by Adam and Eve’s ancestors and neighbors. Their own show, without God as producer, and starring themselves in every episode.

Meanwhile, God had a decision to make. He owned the entire studio, and ultimately owned every actor and every show. With one order, he could shut down the entire operation. He seriously thought about it, coming very close on one occasion. But he never did it. Instead, he began making guest appearances in the human story.

God began writing himself into scenes. No matter how much the human race didn’t want their story ruined by God’s presence, he kept showing up. He altered scripts. He made appearances. He discovered actors. Even though the human story was still a mess, God kept tinkering until something became clear:

God was at work, turning the human story back into His story.

He was doing it slowly and was working from inside, not outside, the narrative. He had a lot of trouble, because his actors were generally far from the best.

And then, after years of moving in one direction, it all fell apart. God’s story fell to pieces and the disaster that was the human story kept right on. The kings, the kingdom, the law of God…they all fell apart. God’s attempt at taking over the human story seemed to be an abject failure.

The curtain fell.

When the next episode of the human story came on the air, something very strange happened. John The Baptist–a leftover from one of God’s old episodes–is standing in the river when he spots a man among the crowds.

He looks carefully at this man standing in the crowd, no different in many ways from anyone else, but something–in his ear?–is telling him a message.

“What are you doing here?”

“What do you mean?”

“What are YOU doing here? Its….its…well…it’s unthinkable.”

“Don’t think about it. You’ll just get a headache. Baptize me.”

Me baptize you? You should baptize me!”

“Stay with the script, John.”

What was happening? God was about to transform the human story, by becoming part of it. By becoming one of us. By the incarnation, Jesus.

What happens when you become a Christian? You may invite Christ into your life, and that is a good beginning. But where are we going? Jesus is all about your story once again becoming God’s story. It’s about everything in your world returning to the original script…even if God has to bring it back from the dead.

Anyone who is in Christ: new creation. New story. That’s what Paul says. You aren’t just “a” new creation. You are in a new story, and that story–God’s story–is a wholesale takeover of this world and everything in it.

The kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ. How does that happen? Go back to the Lord’s Prayer: You pray…we pray….Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth–in my earth, my world, my life–as it is in heaven.

I want to invite you not to just accept Christ, but to join what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ. Join a new story, a new creation.

I love Paul’s retelling of this story in Colossians:

Colossians 1:12-27 12 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. 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. 21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. 24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

That’s the story. Rescue. A new King. A new redemption. A mystery the whole world has been waiting for throughout history. He is the one who brings ALL THINGS together. When he is preeminent, then the light comes on for all of us and for everything.

(and so on…)


  1. oooh – you ARE emergent!

  2. This piece is fabulous. I love how you break it all down and strip everything off in order to find the presence of God. Of course, that’s the nature of deconstruction, but you do it so well. More Christians would do well to think as you do.

  3. The other day, after a seminary chapel, my wife turned to me and said, “Could I challenge us both to examine everything we do and say, ‘Why?’? Because in most cases, the answer will probably be either ‘because of Jesus’ or ‘for myself’.” That has haunted me ever since, but your post here helped me to put it in other words: I need to deconstruct my life story until it is the story that is joined with God’s story in Jesus. I get it. Thanks more than I can say, Michael!

  4. Eric Stephens says

    Sounds very C.S. Lewis-esque with looking at the “Mere-ness” of Christianity. Not what has been drummed up and interpolated into the faith over the last 2000 years, but what Christ taught, period. Having grown up a “church brat” I faced some of the same things growing up. However, in the last 3-4 years I really started questioning where my faith was going. Was what I was being taught really based on the Word of God or was it just some leader’s opinion made into doctrine? I suppose I experienced a deconstruction of sorts in my life. It has been very refreshing getting to the core of our Faith, Jesus Christ.

  5. I appreciate your thoughts here. You are not simply deconstructing, but reconstructing as well. Very good!

  6. Very nice. Like Foolish Sage, it makes me think of CS Lewis, but it was (and I believe he was discussing this with Tolkein) on the use of mythology, and how Jesus is the the one “myth” or story that comes true in our existence. So how did it go with the emerging church anyway? I’m sure the rest of the Tavern is dying to know, too.