Sometimes, statistics can be mind-numbingly negative—think of the U.S. budget deficit. As best as I can tell, the U.S. federal budget deficit for FY 2019 is projected to be $985 billion. (FY 2019 covers October 1, 2018, through September 30, 2019.) The deficit occurs because the U.S. government spending of $4.407 trillion is higher than its revenue of $3.422 trillion. My head hurts just thinking of it!

Of course, statistics can be positive. Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org) reports that total giving to charitable organizations was $410.02 billion in 2017. (Statistics for 2018 are not available yet.) This charitable giving is an increase of 5.2% from 2016. It also reports that individuals like you made 70% of gifts. There truly are generous people out there!

Lastly, I might add, there are sobering statistics. The most recent we have from the Barna Group (www.barna.com) states, “Millennials are leaving the church. Nearly six in ten (59%) young people who grow up in Christian churches end up walking away, and the unchurched segment among Millennials has increased in the last decade from 44% to 52%, mirroring a larger cultural trend away from churchgoing in America. When asked what has helped their faith grow, ‘church’ does not make even the top 10 factors.” Ironically, multiple Barna surveys have found that people believe they don’t need the Church to have a viable faith. They love Jesus, but they struggle to love the Church or see the necessity of the institution in their lives.

If we are to believe the statistics, and we don’t have a reason not to, isn’t it interesting that people are still interested in Jesus, but it is the institution they are rejecting? Words like “disconnected” and “irrelevant” are often used by people to describe the place that was once the center of the community. Why is this the case?

Rev. Michael Slaughter writes in his book, Christmas Is Not Your Birthday, “I cringe at how we Christians represent Jesus Christ to the rest of the world. We have created in our image this domesticated Jesus who looks like us, thinks like us, believes like us, and votes like us. What we have done is create an idol in our image rather than be transformed into the image of the Lord Jesus Christ.” I agree. In my life, your life, and the Church today, Jesus looks too much like our personal preferences and not enough like the Jesus of Scripture. This exodus from the institutional Church and the domesticated Jesus challenge anyone who claims to follow Christ to take inventory of where we are in our attitude towards Him and the Body of Christ He unites in fellowship by the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, how are we to respond to this cultural shift? Consider this comparison: pioneer vs. settler. What do I mean? Well, most people are not familiar with how the city of Pittsburg came to be; I was not until I lived in NE Ohio and heard the tale.

It was founded by people who thought they were pioneers but ended up discovering they were settlers. When the spirit of “manifest destiny” and the promise of natural wealth (land, gold, game) stirred the hearts of the people of Philadelphia to move west into the Ohio Valley, thousands of city slickers packed up and began the move. But the majority of the early adopters stopped at the convergence of those famous three rivers: the Allegheny, the Monongahela, and the Ohio.

Why? Because it was a beautiful place to stop? No. The pioneers decided it was too hard to continue. Why? Because people were dying! The challenges of illness, weather, supplies, wild animals, and even uneasy relations with native Americans all accounted for the loss of human life. Were the losses high? We don’t know, but here’s my point: The folks who committed to becoming pioneers decided instead to settle. And in settling, gave up a multitude of opportunities, albeit with risk, to have a greater impact on their own life and the lives of others. (Think of those who did move on and the great cities they gave us: Chicago, Cincinnati, St.Louis, etc.) So I would put before us this idea that somewhere along the way the church has settled, becoming a place of complacency, losing its pioneer spirit that requires boldness yet is endlessly optimistic because of who our God is. A church of settlers is a key factor in the exodus of people from the church.

So, what then does all this have to do with Jesus? It means the Holy Spirit is calling us back to that pioneering spirit: a spirit of sacrifice, a spirit of adventure into the unknown. A spirit anchored into the person and work of Jesus and His faithfulness.

Certainly, Jesus first calls us to Himself, but as the Spirit works, He sends us forth—not to build buildings or live moral lives as these are by-products of our faith—but on a campaign to connect people to Him. To go and tell the world around us about this incredible relationship between God and His creation, between the Savior of the World and His people.

Personally, and I think biblically, the pioneering spirit means having Jesus as the first passion in our life. Jesus is our identity, our defining life center. As an example, the problem in the institutional church is that there are a lot of people who believe in Jesus, but their defining life center is not Him. Their center is their occupation, their kids, their sexuality, their politics, their possessions. It’s like saying, “I love Jesus,” but being passionate about something else, say your son’s Sunday morning baseball games. And, what you are passionate about will determine how you live. Have you ever heard the quote attributed to Gandhi where he is said to have asserted, “I’d become a Christian except for you Christians who are so unlike your Christ.” Ouch!

I believe this: you will become as small or as great as your controlling desires. And, if your relationship with Jesus defines your life, then Jesus, His message, and His call on your life will define and control you. But if it does not, something else will fill the vacuum, even something that seems right or good, like your son’s baseball game. I know people in the church who’ve substituted Jesus with Bible knowledge. They participate in multiple bible studies and have tons of knowledge, but they have no passion for the very people Jesus came to save—no heart, no desire to see lives transformed. Things like bible knowledge, and even acts of service, can be idols.

God has an unequivocal call on our lives. We can’t forget this. We are His; and, as the Spirit works in our lives, we respond to that call and seek to live as disciples. Or, we can say, “I believe,” and leave it at that. Hopefully, the difference is clear!

In Mark 8 Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me, whoever wishes to save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it.” And “losing it,” in Jesus’ words, doesn’t mean to lose your passion, but it means to make him the controlling center of all that you are. Jesus isn’t meant to be peripheral or “out there, somewhere” after you die, but alive in you, directing your days for His purposes and plans.

Discipleship is a journey, a process that is for a lifetime. It’s not a “one and done” deal; salvation is, of course, but remember, we are a new creation in Christ Jesus called to do good works. So, as a believer, where are you in all this pioneer vs. settler thing? Do you feel like you’ve settled in your faith, given up on seeing loved ones saved or powerfully experiencing God? Have you become a statistic? Or, does the Spirit of adventure still nip at your heels, spurring you on in joyful expectation that Jesus is up to something? Does the pioneering Spirit live within in you?

In the Strong Name of Jesus,

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Pastor Tom Zucconi
Pastor Tom is a native of Dallas and grew up in Richardson. He is a graduate of Jesuit High School and is a two-time TCU alum. Pastor Tom is married to Jennifer, and they have three daughters, Megan, Allison, and Nina. During his time in ministry, Pastor Tom has served in Metro Detroit, the Akron-Cleveland area, and for the last few years, a missional effort in Atlanta called Sanctus Communities. You can follow Pastor Tom on Twitter at @RevMacaroni where he pursues his interests in theology, the Dallas Cowboys, classic cars, and anything Italian.