Much has been said and written (including by me!) about the ways churches need to change in order to be the church we are called to be in the world as it is today. Over the past several decades, we’ve used all kinds of adjectives to describe what the church should be like:
- Etc., etc., etc.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these. And I admit I have a couple of favorites in this list.
But here’s the danger. When we put all our focus on the kind of church we should be, we run the risk of focusing only on externals. We end up focusing on the things we should do in order to be a “missional church” or “incarnational church” or “house church” or whatever.
And when we focus only (or primarily) on the externals we end up losing sight of the thing that God longs for most—people. I think more than anything else, God wants people to experience the depth of his love. And for us to experience God’s incredible love for us, we need a deep inner life transformation.
Out of Exile
When the Israelites were in exile in Babylon (about 500 years before Jesus), there was a great desire for change. They wanted to go home. They wanted to be who they were created to be—they knew they were not meant to be captives in Babylon. Into this context, God said this through the prophet Ezekiel:
For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. (Ezekiel 36:24-25)
For a people living in exile—people who desperately wanted to go home—this was great news! God was apparently planning to implement a lot of the outward changes they were looking for. He’s was going to bring them home. He’s was going to sprinkle some water on them to cleanse and restore them (a reference to ritual cleansing). He was going to get rid of their idols.
But the kind of change God was promising was much, much deeper than that. Here’s what God says in the next verse:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)
The change God had in store for Israel was far from a merely outward change. The change that was coming was so radical that the best way for God to describe it was to say that he would give them “a new heart”!
God would take away from them their old heart. Their old heart was a heart of stone. A heart that was hard. A heart that was resistant to God’s love for them. A heart that focused on their own appetites and desires. A heart whose priorities didn’t include loving God or loving their neighbor.
And in exchange for this heart of stone, God would give them a new heart. A heart of flesh. A heart that would be soft toward God’s love for them. A heart beating with the heartbeat of God. A heart surrendered to God. A heart longing to see God’s will done and willing to let go of its own desires.
God essentially said to the people of Israel:
“Yes, you need something new. But the newness that I want for you involves a lot more than a few sacrifices and rituals. It involves more than implementing some new religious practices. It’s about more than simply obeying my laws.
The new thing you need is so drastic that the only way to truly capture the depth of that newness is to say I’m taking your old heart and giving you a new one.”
A New Heart Today
Does God want our churches to make external changes? Maybe. I’m sure God is not opposed to churches who adapt their worship style in order to fit the context they are in. God probably doesn’t mind when we change the name of our church or get a new sign. God is probably ok with us trying to be more “missional” or “incarnational” or whatever we think would be best.
But I think the thing God wants more than anything else is a people with a “heart of flesh.” A people who are fully surrendered to him. A people who are receiving and giving the love of God in every sphere of their lives.
Is church transformation important? Absolutely.
But it starts with heart transformation. It starts with a new heart.