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The New Church Members: The Harvest or the Seeds? – Part 3

The Entry into Jerusalem

(Photo credit: Fergal of Claddagh)

The New Church Members:  The Harvest or the Seeds? – Part 3

Luke 10:23-24 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)23 He turned to his disciples in private and said to them, “How blessed you are to see what you’ve seen. 24 I can guarantee that many prophets and kings wanted to see and hear what you’ve seen and heard, but they didn’t.”

What did these people do to hear this?  What had these disciples seen that would have been something that everyone had wanted t see and were not able.  The obvious answer is Jesus and while that is absolutely true, that is not the context of this verse.

Luke 10:17-21 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  17 The 70 disciples came back very happy. They said, “Lord, even demons obey us when we use the power and authority of your name!”  18 Jesus said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like lightning. 19 I have given you the authority to trample snakes and scorpions and to destroy the enemy’s power. Nothing will hurt you. 20 However, don’t be happy that evil spirits obey you. Be happy that your names are written in heaven.”  21 In that hour the Holy Spirit filled Jesus with joy. Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from wise and intelligent people and revealing them to little children. Yes, Father, this is what pleased you.

The disciples had returned from ministry with an amazing testimony of the power that had been unleashed through the ministry work that Jesus ha sent them to do.  The ministry they had all been engaged in was so powerful and amazing that that Jesus goes on to tell them that even prophets and kings wished they could see what they saw in ministry.

Whatever these missionaries and evangelists did, I want to try and do because it obviously worked at least for them.

Why am I talking about this and what does it have to do with the starting of this new church?  It has to do with a couple of verses the speaker referenced during the first service.  These passages happen to be passages that had been used repeatedly in trainings and discussions I have had over the past ten years about how the New Testament church planters did ministry.  These passages happen to be the ministry instructions of Jesus to these disciples that led to such a powerful outcome.  These passages also give us a completely different idea of what it means to go into a city, area or culture to do ministry.

Luke 9:1-5 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) –  1 Jesus called the twelve apostles together and gave them power and authority over every demon and power and authority to cure diseases. He sent them to spread the message about the kingdom of God and to cure the sick.  He told them, “Don’t take anything along on the trip. Don’t take a walking stick, traveling bag, any food, money, or a change of clothes. When you go into a home, stay there until you’re ready to leave. If people don’t welcome you, leave that city, and shake its dust off your feet as a warning to them.”

Luke 10:1-11 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  After this, the Lord appointed 70[a] other disciples to go ahead of him to every city and place that he intended to go. They were to travel in pairs.  He told them, “The harvest is large, but the workers are few. So ask the Lord who gives this harvest to send workers to harvest his crops. Go! I’m sending you out like lambs among wolves. Don’t carry a wallet, a traveling bag, or sandals, and don’t stop to greet anyone on the way. Whenever you go into a house, greet the family right away with the words, ‘May there be peace in this house.’ If a peaceful person lives there, your greeting will be accepted. But if that’s not the case, your greeting will be rejected. Stay with the family that accepts you. Eat and drink whatever they offer you. After all, the worker deserves his pay. Do not move around from one house to another. Whenever you go into a city and the people welcome you, eat whatever they serve you. Heal the sick that are there, and tell the people, ‘The kingdom of God is near you!’  10 “But whenever you go into a city and people don’t welcome you, leave. Announce in its streets, 11 ‘We are wiping your city’s dust from our feet in protest against you! But realize that the kingdom of God is near you!’

These are key verses for many of the things God has been showing me as the “new wineskin” that he is going to reach the next generation that repeatedly come up in completely unrelated contexts.  This context included.

As I thought of the fundamental concepts that underlie the way Jesus sent these first missionaries and evangelists out every thought seemed to confirm the idea that the format I was sitting in was structured in a way that had to be at least one generation away from the ministry that they wanted to do.

The church I was in is the model seen in the book of Luke all the way up to this point.  The basic model for reaching a new area up to chapter nine was that Jesus would go to a place and all of the disciples would congregate together in a crowd around Him.

In chapters nine and ten the equation is changed by Jesus.  Jesus sends out the people that had been congregating around Him “…to every city and place that he intended to go.”  The follows of Christ precede Him into the area looking for the people who were already prepared for Jesus to come.

The people who were prepared for Jesus’ arrival were described as incredibly hospitable people who would go so far as to support the ministry and provide the center for the ministry (in a literal sense, their homes).

If such people were found, then the town would experience God to the level of the miraculous.  If such a person was found then not only were they not going to experience the miraculous, but the arrival of Jesus (or the arrival of the kingdom of God) would be an evidence of their unbelief resulting in miraculously bad consequences.  The kind of consequences that the ones being sent were sent to these places to help the people avoid.  The kind of consequences that Jesus was going to these places to help the people there avoid.

The implication is that in every place that Jesus was getting ready to go that there was a person who was already being prepared for the arrival of those Jesus was sending.  For there to be the expectation of that level of hospitality, God would have offered that person in each place opportunity to know it needed to be done.  The expectation that refusal to be hospitable (by a nonbeliever) was a turning of ones back on God implies that somehow that person had a more than reasonable call from God to be hospitable, yet that person’s heart was so cold that it could not be done.  That person also apparently had a call from God to represent the entire area and somehow must have been given more than the normal opportunity to respond in a receptive way, yet refused.  In other words, this was the person God had picked and called to represent the area and this person’s response to God’s tug on his/her heart was representative of the receptiveness of the entire area.

He new church that I was standing in was made up of more mature Christians, who saw where Jesus was going, pooled their resources and congregated around Him.  This is how church has been done in the western world for a few centuries now.  The challenge is that it is reactive and not proactive.  The focus is on starting with a group where He is already glorified and doing things and not on going to places where He is not glorified to prepare the way.

Here is what I am getting at.  This church apparently is part of a larger organization that is an offshoot of an even larger organization.  These organizations have been sending people regularly for years to this metropolis to minister (apparently to the poor and needy of the city in its more impoverished areas) yet the people that they have been ministering to were not present in the service.  They were either not present, or had been completely changed to look and sound like the Christianese culture they were in to the point where they were no longer anything like the people they were from.  (Sort of like teaching a church in China to have a complete service in English because that is the way we do it – that’s great, but they are highly unlikely to reach many people in china by building and English speaking church)

They had imported an entirely different culture than the culture they had felt that Christ was leading them to.  It is as if they had been to the town where this person let them stay and took care of them was, but went and did ministry in the town next door instead.

That means that instead of being in the place where Jesus intends to go like the twelve and the seventy that Jesus sent out, they are clustered together in a place where Jesus is hoping that someone else who Jesus has sent out will bring those people to where they are at in a way that they are comfortable with.  The Way Jesus traveled with crowds who watched various people com to him for miracles.

Please do not understand me to be saying that this new church was doing some great evil.  As a matter of fact, from what I saw in the two weeks the church has existed, they are leaps and bounds ahead of just about every church I have encountered.  The challenges I am describing that I was observing are more of a global, church-wide problem that I am processing that in fact they have been able to break much of the bondage of.

This is a cutting edge group and I honestly think that a study of the things that remain of the old wineskin that a group like this could not seem to get rid of or notice is an incredibly important study as it shows how strong of a grip on us these things really have.

I am left wondering why there are not more seekers and new converts instead of a new congregation of old believers.  I suppose if this is just a training ground for those that will be sent to the unreached places that Jesus is about to go to, then it is exactly what it is supposed to be.  The problem is that what the are doing now will either have to change completely at some point or the harvest will have to come from another entirely new church in the same city that is more of a new wineskin.  At some point this training church would have to decrease to allow for the less nineteenth century modeled church to begin flourishing.

A key question that I have yet to ask is how the vision of the new wineskin looks in the end to the people who carry the vision.  I wonder if it is based on a large building with the same Christianese cultural context or if it is one or more churches in that metropolis that express how God is working through and communicating with the various groups in that city.

Are they looking for the people that God has been calling and preparing in that city in its various groups or are they importing culturally Christianese trainees to communicate the old wineskin.

I am a big fan of the passages the speaker quoted from Luke 9 and 10.  These are the first missionaries, evangelists and church planters that Jesus sent and this is the way He did it.  This is also reflected in Paul’s ministry of going to places, training the people in a download of as much as he had time to (which could range from days to years) and then left them to figure it out by coming together and seeking God.

Paul trusted God so much that he would leave them the opportunity to mess the whole thing up completely and listen to God for correction.  Then if they really got way, way out there, he merely sent them a letter outlining the problem.  These letter are available for you reference if you would like:  They are a large chunk of what we call the New Testament.

I wonder if we are so worried about doing things right and not allowing for error to slip in that we have stopped trusting God and began leaning on the crutch of systems and legalism.

What will it take for this church or any “new wineskin” church to really be able to be all things to all people?

This church, as it has been is clearly the seed planting phase of a much bigger picture.  The question then becomes, do they understand it to be that way.

Do they realize that to go from being the seed to being the harvesters means being sent away from the Jesus environment to prepare new places and groups of people to become new Jesus environments that may not look anything like their current Jesus environment (all the churches Paul planted, for example, did not look and act the same way).

Overall this is an awesome group of people doing an awesome thing that is a step beyond most of the church planting I have seen in an American context.  They have done such a great job of following the new direction that God seems to be calling so many people in, I could not help but look at the few things that they still have as things that even the best of us will have deep struggles breaking free of.

Thanks for patiently walking along this road with me as I process through the details what I feel God is revealing to me and my thinking out loud.  I hope and pray that this sparks deep introspective thought, deep prayerful conversation with God, deep conversation with others, and even heated debate all in a passionate desire to do the will of God.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  19 Although I’m free from all people, I have made myself a slave for all people to win more of them. 20 I became Jewish for Jewish people. I became subject to Moses’ Teachings for those who are subject to those laws. I did this to win them even though I’m not subject to Moses’ Teachings. 21 I became like a person who does not have Moses’ Teachings for those who don’t have those teachings. I did this to win them even though I have God’s teachings. I’m really subject to Christ’s teachings. 22 I became like a person weak in faith to win those who are weak in faith. I have become everything to everyone in order to save at least some of them. 23 I do all this for the sake of the Good News in order to share what it offers.

I hope and I ask God to make your life really cool all the time (non-Christianese for “May God bless you”);

W. Lawrence Hess

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The New Church Members: The Harvest or the Seeds? – Part 2

These oranges have seeds

These oranges have seeds (Photo credit: toastforbrekkie)

Matthew 9:14-17 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  14 Then John’s disciples came to Jesus. They said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often but your disciples never do?”  15 Jesus replied, “Can wedding guests be sad while the groom is still with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them. Then they will fast.  16 “No one patches an old coat with a new piece of cloth that will shrink. When the patch shrinks, it will rip away from the coat, and the tear will become worse. 17 Nor do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins burst, the wine runs out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, people pour new wine into fresh skins, and both are saved.”

As I really listened to the vision of the speaker at this new and fresh church, I realized that I was not wrong to like what was occurring at this church as it was in fact awesome, was well planned and was definitely God blessed, but as it is it is at least one generation removed from the desired outcome.  As it is, it is an excellent preparation ground for those that will be sent out to do the truly different church. They like myself feel that God is calling the American Church to change. The new wineskin kind of change.

The obstacle for the church is that it is still noticeably specific to one specific style of Christian culture.  It may be a newer version of Christian culture, but it is still an extremely noticeable version of Christian culture.  It is in effect not all things to all people.  It is one thing that all people must change to or at least learn to be comfortable with.

The current oranges are from the neighbors garden and there has really not been any crops grown in that soil yet.  The question is not if crops can grow, the big questions are:

  1. What is the best way to grow crops in that ground that do not require using the neighbors fruit to call it a harvest
  2. How will the people doing the farming learn how to farm in that ground if their experience is taking fruit from the neighbors and calling it a harvest

The next generation, the one that this model will be a wonderful training ground for, will still be tasked with the challenge of learning to deculturalize all of the habits and tendencies that will become a part of who they are from being in that environment.

It is quite possible; the big question for them is where will this next generation learn this skill if the environment they learn in is not conducive to it?

The reality is, that the church has only been there two weeks and I have been to both services, yet I am quite sure that nobody could really know how God is going to change that church over the next few weeks, next few months, next few years etc. nor what role that church will play in the bigger picture of transforming that major metropolis.  It does seem that God has been pushing me as an individual to look at what He is moving us to as something completely different so I am a bit hypersensitive to things that are the same.  The old wineskin verses the new wineskin thing.

The real conflict is not even what this particular church is doing.  In fact, as I have stated repeatedly, what they are doing is incredible and is just emanating newness and fresh vision.  The real conflict for me is with myself.  I know that God is talking to me about this next deculturalized church He wishes to build, but I am still deeply drawn to the more Christianese models that sound like Christians I have been around speak and that does things the way Christians I have been around do things.  “This is not being all things to all people” I hear God telling me, but this model still has a powerful pull on me.

Lots of clichés and quotes come to mind:

“Sometimes the good is not good enough to God”,

“The good is often the enemy of the great”,

“What we consider good and what is actually God are not always the same thing and even though good has more letters than God the good is not greater”,

“On the road to greatness there are many good places you could stop, but on the road to greatness the good spots are not the destination; the good is a distraction.”

“Those who settle for the good can never know the great”

It may be that the people of this new and exciting church are suffering from what I am hindered by or it may in fact be just something God is showing me for my next level; to that end I am not clear.  What I do know however is that God is showing me the struggles that I have in breaking the old Church culture I have been nurtured into adopting so I can process the struggle and start conversation about that aspect of the change I feel God is making.

My struggle to get rid of my old, favorite wineskin, and accept that God is giving me a brand new one (really He has been giving it to the whole world).  The key is that I have to let go of the old one to take hold of the new one.

Part 3 to follow –

Blessings…

Related articles

The New Church Members: The Harvest or the Seeds? – Part 1

These oranges have seeds

These oranges have seeds (Photo credit: toastforbrekkie)

The New Church Members:  The Harvest or the Seeds? – Part 1

Matthew 9:14-17 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  14 Then John’s disciples came to Jesus. They said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often but your disciples never do?”  15 Jesus replied, “Can wedding guests be sad while the groom is still with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them. Then they will fast.  16 “No one patches an old coat with a new piece of cloth that will shrink. When the patch shrinks, it will rip away from the coat, and the tear will become worse. 17 Nor do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins burst, the wine runs out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, people pour new wine into fresh skins, and both are saved.”

I recently went to the birth of a new church in a major metropolis and found what I encountered quite interesting.  The church is a plant from an organization that shares some of the same ideas about the challenges of the American church that many of us do and they are looking at following God in new ways.

The environment of the church was exciting, incredibly friendly and incredibly inviting.  Each person there; which I think was about a hundred people the first week, was interacting with each other in deeply real and personal ways.  It was as if every greeter from every church in San Francisco had come together to start a church.

There was worship and prayer from the outset and the environment was electric.  The room that the service was held in was beautiful to the point of even having a large fireplace that made the environment warm in comfort as well as being part of the heating of the room.

As I settled in, I was astonished at the feel of the worship and how God was being glorified.  Then, suddenly it hit me, these are clearly mature believers doing a wonderful thing, but not a soul in the place was new to an atmosphere of worship.

The feeling of spirituality and the sense of God being there with us was unimaginable yet I have had trainings, read books, had debates and conversations on the topic of cross-pollination verses seeking the lost and found myself conflicted.

If you are not familiar with the term cross-pollination, lets start with the dictionary definition (the botanical definition):

cross-pollination  = Botany the transfer of pollen from the flower of one plant to the flower of a plant having a different genetic constitution. Compare self-pollination.

So in this definition the term is used to describe taking the pollen from one plant to another different plant for that plant’s betterment.  In a church context it means the taking of the people from one church to another different church for that churches betterment.  The church is growing but it is growing because of believers that are coming from other churches and not because the lost are being led to Christ.

We will get back to that concept, but lets get back to that church:

Everyone there was awesome and the service was going awesome and I was experiencing a sense of God in the place, why even consider changing anything when God was being glorified so amazingly in the place exactly as it was.  I remained conflicted through the worship and looking to God for clarity throughout the service.

As the worship drew to a close there were a series of people who apparently are in training to do ministry that came and spoke with exhortation and excitement.  Every word that was spoken was powerful and uplifting for each individual in attendance, for the group as a whole, for this new church and for those having the faith to step out and walk out the vision of God that is that church.

There were the usual responses of praise to God in “halleluiahs”, and “amen’s” etc.  It was a mighty thing to experience.

In the middle of being moved and touched mightily, I was suddenly struck by the thought that if I was not used to Christian environments and our special insider language (Christianese) I would be lost by all of this.  Then I thought that I might not be put off necessarily, but I would definitely feel like an absolute outsider.

It would be like being at a show where everyone gets the punch line of the joke but you.  They cannot stop laughing and enjoying themselves and you just sit there staring or pretending to get it too.

I began to wonder if the conflict was me being crazy or some evil trying to keep me from simply enjoying the presence of God in this place.

Then came the speaker who at the time I had concluded was the pastor, but turned out to be a guest who had a hand in training some of the people who started this church.  He had a good personality and was an excellent speaker without fitting too neatly into any denominational stereotypes.

Then like a ton of bricks bouncing off of my hard head, God cleared up the question of if I was resisting this mighty move of God or actually hearing something that God was trying to tell me.  The message delivered was about a vision for churches that impact the unchurched and otherwise lost.  He described churches that were not going to be like other churches and represented the new kind of move that God is trying to get the Western Church to make.  He talked about how the church is using a nineteenth century model to reach twenty-first century people.  Basically, he taught all of the same things that were brought to my attention that have been driving my quest for the new things that God is doing.

As I was pondering how universal this message has become (the message that God is looking to do a different kind of church) I realized something:  This looked an awful lot like a next step, but not exactly like the vision.  The heart and the fundamental ideas of the new church that God seems to want to be establishing were there, but a lot of the culture of what we are used to as church was being imported as well.

First of all, there was that cross-pollination thing.  This church is starting based on people from other churches.  I think of it this way:  if my goal is to grow fruit in my back yard.  I plant a tree.  I may be able to get seeds from my neighbors, but if I just get a whole lot of oranges from my neighbors, put them in a basket and show everyone how many oranges I have in my garden in that basket, it is artificial.

The oranges from my neighbors can be a part of the process of growing the tree, but they are really meaningless until I have some fruit of my own.  Everything else is just for show.

I suppose the difference lies in the degree to which one considers the people there now the seed and not the harvest.  If they are the seed, then the only question left is how to best plant them in this environment to produce the most fruit.

If they are the harvest or even evidence of the harvest, then up to this point the harvest is actually from somewhere else and to get more harvests they will all have to come from somewhere else (which statistically is how quite a few churches operate).

Then there is this wineskin thing.  A wineskin is a leather (usually goat skin) bag used to hold wine.  It is a good container for wine when it is new, but they do wear out.  When you get a valuable new wine, you don’t put it in an old wineskin.  One the old, worn out wineskin cannot keep the wine fresh. The old wineskin is no longer soft and loses its elasticity and if you put your valuable new wine in the old wineskin, it is apt to explode because it is in no condition to hold the valuable new wine.  It is past its usefulness and it is time for a new wineskin.

There is a growing feeling amongst, pastors, Christian leaders and believers that the Western Church model (specifically the North American Church model) is an old wineskin and that God is preparing the people of Christ for a new wineskin that is different than the old one.

This church has new vision, new ideas and many new ways of doing things.  There were however, some old wineskin that I noticed and troubled by.  The language, some denomination specific ways of doing things, even the setting, although prettier and more inviting than most was a stage and rows of chairs.

This group is definitely a huge step in the right direction, but I also was observing how hard it is to separate yourself from a culture that you have been programmed with.  They were trying hard, but as an “kinda” outsider I could see how much they still had that was the same.

I suppose what I am saying is that to the normal churchgoer this church would seem vastly different than most things that one would have seen.  On the other hand, to a person who had left the church for some reason (particularly if hurt or angry) this would look about the same as any other church.  To a total outsider, they would feel like a very accepted outsider, but clearly an outsider.

To people who have something against the concept of church I imagine this would have many of the things they suspected accept for the people being considerably nicer than they would have guessed.

Then I put all of this into perspective.  I realized that I have been reading books, going to trainings and classes, having discussions and debates, writing and praying etc. on this idea of doing a deculturalized church and may just be being to legalistic about all of this.

Would a nonbeliever actually be completely repulsed by our Christian insider language and actions?  Some yes and some no.  Wouldn’t things Jesus said and did been really strange to all that encountered Him?  Isn’t that a part of what attracted people to Him?

Then there is the other side of that coin; the fact that at the end of his ministry there were only eleven insiders who were truly clued in.  When those went out (adding Paul to the equation) they began to minister in ways that were all things to all people.  That is what changed the effectiveness of the evangelization.  The inner circle methods of Jesus were to catalyze the movement through the ones he trained.  The Disciples were not the oranges, they were the seeds.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  19 Although I’m free from all people, I have made myself a slave for all people to win more of them. 20 I became Jewish for Jewish people. I became subject to Moses’ Teachings for those who are subject to those laws. I did this to win them even though I’m not subject to Moses’ Teachings. 21 I became like a person who does not have Moses’ Teachings for those who don’t have those teachings. I did this to win them even though I have God’s teachings. I’m really subject to Christ’s teachings. 22 I became like a person weak in faith to win those who are weak in faith. I have become everything to everyone in order to save at least some of them. 23 I do all this for the sake of the Good News in order to share what it offers.

The soil in various places is different and as such the planting and growing methods in various places has to be different too.  Planting oranges in the dessert requires a lot of irrigation and different treatment than planting the oranges at an oasis.  The seeds must be treated differently in different environments to accomplish the same end.  The whole process changes depending on environment based on what will work best in that environment.

The ideas that I take away from this is that the models we have been building are good first generation sending ministries, but in the current American environment will not be transformational to cities until the nineteenth century Western Church model and really all twentieth century Western Church models are left behind for however God will best speak to the community at hand.

That includes knowing how to be like a person who is weak in faith to win others who are weak in faith.  There are many in the metropolis that I am speaking of that are at best weak in faith and to build a church that is centered on the comfort levels of the strong in faith could only tend towards cross-pollenizing from the other churches and denominations, particularly in the metropolis I am speaking of.

Cont. in Part 2

Fixing Our Churches – The Lost Love

Westboro Baptist Church picket in Beverly Hills

Westboro Baptist Church picket in Beverly Hills (Photo credit: k763)

Fixing Our Churches – The Lost Love

Acts 2:44-47 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 44 All the believers kept meeting together, and they shared everything with each other. 45 From time to time, they sold their property and other possessions and distributed the money to anyone who needed it. 46 The believers had a single purpose and went to the temple every day. They were joyful and humble as they ate at each other’s homes and shared their food. 47 At the same time, they praised God and had the good will of all the people. Every day the Lord saved people, and they were added to the group.

I was reading some articles about the problems that churches in the United States have. Things like lack of commitment, not teaching the Word (implies teaching a western university method with references and focused on the western academic mind), keeping the finances up with the perceived needs of the congregation, and on and on.

There actually were several articles with really good and deeply profound ideas, but I noticed that many of these articles missed what it seems to me was the core of the early church.

The early church (no matter how large or small) had at it’s core one key focus – one another. I am intrigued by the American church’s focus on either getting bigger by counting registered members or on staying small at all costs because “it is more personal”.

Both have their merits as a church that is not growing is clearly not focused on living out the great commission. A Christian church that is not reaching the unsaved and not only leading them to Christ but also discipling these new believers is hard-pressed to say it is a Christian church when it is not following the core mission it was given by Christ.

Matthew 28:18-20 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 18 When Jesus came near, he spoke to them. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 So wherever you go, make disciples of all nations: Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach them to do everything I have commanded you. “And remember that I am always with you until the end of time.”

On the other hand a church that is so big that the people don’t know or care about one another is not showing the love that was to be the mark of the church. It simply becomes a ritualistic exercise that assumes that there is some magic power to just being in the building and performing some amount of the ritual that is done there.

John 13:34-35 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 34 “I’m giving you a new commandment: Love each other in the same way that I have loved you. 35 Everyone will know that you are my disciples because of your love for each other.”

Both (very commonly expressed) points are valid, but I am not sure that the size of the worship or celebration service is the problem, as a matter of fact, I am convinced that these are symptoms of a bigger problem. The problem is the focus on anything but the “community of believers”.

I am not saying that there is the absence of this concept, what I am saying is that there seems to always be something else that is more important than this key focus.

In my travels, most churches have an element of discussion on building some kind of deeply interpersonal community of believers, but it is almost always overshadowed by some other focus.

In research, discussion, debate, study and so on, I can usually find reasons for various focuses that each church model or denomination had for their focuses. These were not bad things even in the models of church that seemed to be miserably failing. To be honest, many of the models that seemed to be miserably failing seemed to have a focus that was for a particular season. The season merely seemed to change and the church simply didn’t change with it. God moved and the church decided to stay.

I know I have written a lot in the past about church models and those that know me have probably had a few conversations about church models, but I do not think that even that is the real issue and I am not convinced that simply changes models will fix the struggles of the western church in the long term.

THE PROBLEM IS NOT STRICTLY ONE OF MODEL, STRUCTURE OR CONTENT, THE PROBLEM IS PUTTING FIRST THINGS FIRST!!! Look at this verse:

Revelation 2:2-4 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 2 I know what you have done—how hard you have worked and how you have endured. I also know that you cannot tolerate wicked people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not apostles. You have discovered that they are liars. 3 You have endured, suffered trouble because of my name, and have not grown weary. 4 However, I have this against you: The love you had at first is gone.

This message to the church in Ephesus has some interesting points:

  1. They work and endure
  2. They do not tolerate wicked people
  3. They test those who claim to be called of God and weed them out
  4. They stand up for their faith even in the face of great adversity
  5. THE LOVE THEY HAD AT FIRST IS GONE!!!

I have been taught in the past that the first love they had forgotten was the Word of God. Of course this was taught as a logical progression from the idea that the first love was Jesus, by extension that means that the first love was what Jesus told them to do and so that means the fist love is the Word of God where what Jesus wants believers to do is explained. I do believe that idea to be a part of the truth, but there is a more obvious idea expressed in the context of the time.

That period of history where the New Testament was not assembled yet, Old Testament texts were rooms full of scrolls in temples and there was little chance in Ephesus of doing things the way we do them in our modern contexts so although many of these sort of interpretations fit into our context and quality exegesis of the scripture they may not fit into their context.

So although our modern interpretations are okay, what did the text mean at the time. I wasn’t there and have limited insight into the deeper details of their context, but there is something I have been pondering: The key is what the Church in Ephesus’ first love was and how that plays out in our modern lives.

I started with the obvious question of what role love is supposed to play in the Church and in the lives of Christians. The most obvious place to start:

Matthew 22:37-40 New International Version (NIV) 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I would have to say that the first love we were all told to have is in fact God with all of our hearts. In this passage, Jesus himself describes what the “by extensions” are. Loving others a part of loving God. Anything we do that is supposed to be about loving God has to be completely tied to loving others.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) –  I may speak in the languages of humans and of angels. But if I don’t have love, I am a loud gong or a clashing cymbal. 2 I may have the gift to speak what God has revealed, and I may understand all mysteries and have all knowledge. I may even have enough faith to move mountains. But if I don’t have love, I am nothing. 3 I may even give away all that I have and give up my body to be burned. But if I don’t have love, none of these things will help me.

Anything that is done without love (particularly expressions of God to other people as noted in this passage) is nothing and is definitely not truly expressing God. Now think about the church in Ephesus:

  1. They work and endure
  2. They do not tolerate wicked people
  3. They test those who claim to be called of God and weed them out
  4. They stand up for their faith even in the face of great adversity

But, some kind of “love” was not involved that was supposed to be. I think it is obvious that love of God is supposed to be everyone’s first love and is what is being directly expressed here. It is the details of what they were or were not doing that is still a bit unclear. According to Jesus Love for God and expressing love for others are tied together. It is possible to work, endure, not tolerate wicked people, test what people teach and stand up for faith while not expressing love for others.

I have been around people who seem to be like this. They do lots of Christian stuff, they can tell you whats wrong with how others live out a relationship with or talk about God. They can boldly defend their theology yat they do all of this with no real expressing of love in a way that the people they encounter can experience the love of God through them.

There is that idea that showing love is trying to force people to believe as their theology dictates and to argue with them if they do not is a great showing of love. The mere idea of loving someone by force is a strange concept in and of itself, but this idea of what the passage is describing is something we commonly see even now. Was the church at Ephesus a church of doers but not lovers?

This possible translation in mind, it would seem that the most important things that a church should be about are:

  1. Loving God
  2. Loving others (starting with each other which is the way others would know that we are God’s people)

If this does not permeate everything that a church does, the things that the church is doing is just a loud gong or clashing cymbal to God and to the world around them.

Most mainline churches have plans and programs to involve elements of loving the community or people in “missions fields” somewhere remote and poor, but are these really the love we are to show one another. That love for one another is a key outward expression of the the church that is supposed to be evident to all. Every church is supposed to exude this kind of love in a way that love for God, love for all people and definitely love for one another is what any outsider should be able to see and experience at any church.

This kind of love is something I have serious doubts about creating via a program or a six week sermon series. First off, this is a key ingredient and not some afterthought that we add later. This is even more than mindsets and theological thoughts; this is a lifestyle that should permeate the congregation create a sustained atmosphere within the church.

The question is how do we get this lifestyle throughout our churches? One thought is asking ourselves if the model we are using is the most likely model to produce this kind of love for God, one another, and the people around us or not. I may be generalizing a bit, but just finding some building and sitting through a sermon most Sundays and maybe going to a midweek service.

Many people do more like join ministry teams or groups within the church, but instead of being a portion of the church that has deeper relationships with each other and spends time together, shouldn’t it be the norm and those that don’t the exception? Shouldn’t everyone be deeply interconnected with the other people in the church? Shouldn’t everyone there quite naturally care for and about one another.

I am amazed at how many times one or two isolate incidents of members of the church caring for one another are paraded around by church members. Doesn’t the fact these are such big news imply that these sorts of things are incredibly rare.

I know I am partial to churches either having a small group component or consisting entirely of small groups, but that is because that seems to be the only way that these things can happen on a deeper level.

We have to use models that best facilitate the growth of this kind of love for God, for each other and for the people of earth on the deepest levels.

Many of the models we western churchgoers and western churches are comfortable in wouldn’t even have room to discuss but the deepest issues of an incredibly small segment of the congregation. As a matter of fact, if we tried to discuss the problems and needs of every person in the church each week, there would not only be too little time in the service to get through them all, I doubt if there would be enough time in the week. Our services are not structured for this information, so how could it be possible for the people in the church to respond to these problems and needs if they have no way of knowing them?

So yes, my suggestions on this key issue does include small groups. I simply do not see how you can get this personal and involved in every person’s life without breaking it into smaller more personal settings. Having small groups and studies/discussions designed to lead to community is still artificial, but it also much more likely to develop in these environments and the tools are just to aid something that could probably happen on it’s own.

The church described in Acts met together everywhere and did all kinds of things together as well of taking care of one another. It wasn’t some program the Apostles came up with, it was simply the lifestyle ans those that joined were really likely to do the same.

It is very common in years past to hear great speakers saying the church is the people and not the building. There is more to that. The churches job is to love God and to love the people and there is nothing stated in the New Testament about loving the building or the address.

I guess what I am proposing is a question more than an answer. Have we as the American church lost the love? I am not asking about one church or the group of deeply spiritual people at every church that do more than the general membership of the church. I am asking if the general state of the church in America is one that exudes an atmosphere of love for God, each other and people in general that it is most likely what each person experiences most with any contact with us?

It is funny that most people I know that do not believe see us as angry at the world, complaining about politics (especially complaining about democrats), we hate homosexuals, we don’t accept those who don’t believe, we hate anyone who thinks abortions are okay and on and on.

I know these things are not true and is totally the opposite of many American Christians and so on, But what all of that does not reflect is that people know us for our love. The American church is most known in my area as the people who hate this and hate that and hate these people etc. I am not saying not to have political views or to take stands on morality etc., but no matter what we are doing love has to be broadcast as the message or we are misrepresenting Christ.

As I said before, it’s not about a program or just adding small groups, this is about a complete change of focus for the American church and many churchgoers.

If you want to fix your church experience, your church, or the American church as a whole this must be the starting point. Have we lost the love we are supposed to have? Do we love God and one another in such a way that love the core of who we are and everybody can see it? Do we love others so much that everyone knows us for our love? If we cannot answer yes to all of that we cannot answer yes to any of it and definitely cannot say we are loving God without a deep level of loving others.

The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom pt. 2

First Church Nerd Party

(Photo credit: Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious)

The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom pt. 2

 

Mark 10:15 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 15 I can guarantee this truth: Whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God as a little child receives it will never enter it.”

Today was an interesting day which gave me an interesting follow up opportunity on my discussion with my son about his perception of what it would take for him to have the perfect church experience.  (The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom pt. 1)  Some of what transpired today and a new conversation on the issue have come together to shed more light on his vision of the perfect church.

When he and I had this conversation about a week ago he had some surprisingly well though out answers which led me to believe that he had thought about some aspects of this before. I also had some questions about his theories and answers that could also be answered through some experimentation on his part with a few different church models.

Lets back up and look at some of the circumstances surrounding this conversation as I believe these tidbits of fact are relevant.

My son is thirteen going on fourteen later this year.  The mega-church my family attends has several different children’s and youth ministries that group age groups together.  There is a junior high school ministry which is where he is usually put because of his age and grade on school.  He did start going to that age group a year and a half early because he is simply a big kid and was kinda bored with the younger group.

In the junior high school group there is a set service with worship, announcements, a sermon which all of the participants are required to sit in.  Then after the service the preteens/tweens are unleashed as a loud, screaming stampeded of energy to play various videogames, board games, billiards etc. or to lounge on couches and chairs to while gobbling their favorite snacks from the snack stand.

For a long time, my son loved this service then came the day when he simply decided that he didn’t want to go to that service, saying it was boring.  He started insisting that he come with us to the main sanctuary for the regular service.  He seemed to be a little bored at the main service, but tried his best to remain attentive.  He has repeatedly stated that he prefers the main service to the youth service.

Then, in the discussion he and I had last week, I got a glimpse as to why he did’t enjoy that service any more.  To sum it up before giving any detail, I would have to say that he flat-out outgrew the service both in regular maturity and in spiritual maturity.  Their goal was to build a deeper desire for the things of God and he grew that desire and ended up noticing the limitations of or holes in the service that would not build his next level of growth.  In seeing the holes in the junior high school ministry and not being old enough for the high school service he decided the youth ministry was just no longer for him.

Then when we had the whole “The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom pt. 1” conversation as well as a couple of conversations that followed, I caught a glimpse of some of the challenges he was having.

A key was that he was not a fan of the fact that a lot of what happened was things that people were forced to do (or at least felt forced to do) and was truly disingenuous and much of the interaction with God was manufactured and artificial.  Well with the middle school kids they are forced to sit through all of the service components before having the fun part (which is what many of them were apparently looking forward to as the good part). In further discussion with him and thought I would have to say, that I might find I hard to seek the deeper presence of God if I were surrounded by people who didn’t want to be there, but that wanted all of this God stuff to be done so we can all go and have fun.

He had mentioned something I was curious about, but was still pondering and so I had not included it in the previous post.  He had stated that his service would not have video games or other distractions of that sort as it takes the focus off of God and seems to make (at least the middle school kids) less likely to seek God.

Then a lot of the observations that

He made several observations that apply to the main service also that all seem to be shaped by his newfound understanding that artificial worship is not worship at all and is thus a waste of time.  The only real benefit a person gets from attending a worship service if everything that is done there is artificially done is whatever benefit a person gets because he/she sacrificed and hour or two of their time to be where he or she thinks God would like him/her to be once a week. 

Today, while we were on our way to church a couple of our relatives called him to inform him that they were going to be in the high school service and wanted him to come.  He was excited to see them and wanted to go so I told hi he should.  He didn’t know if he could get in, but he is a pretty big kid and easily looks old enough (he is still a year younger than their usual lower age limit).

One of the suspicions I had in our previous discussions was that he had “perfect world” theories (probably mixed with a wee bit of what he thought I wanted to hear) about what a church that was perfect in his view was, but had not considered if he would actually be as drawn to that as he was thinking he would be.

By the time the service was over today I cold hardly wait to ask the question again relative to the high school service.  I was also curious what technique they use to get and keep Silicon Valley high school kids in church.

I asked about the service and the structure they used and my son happily answered.

He said they had two or three worship songs, one announcement and a sermon done by the youth pastor (who I went to bible college with and have a deep respect for).  He said this so happily so I thought through what we had discussed previously and remembered that he had specifically wanted a shorter service, with few if any announcements and basically just the worship and the sermon. 

I loved that the service structure was what he had basically wanted from God, but was puzzled by one thing:  Isn’t this similar to the structure that the younger group had that was so artificial.

When I asked him if people were forced to participate etc. he answered with a very excited “No!”  He stated that participation in the worship and sermon etc. was purely voluntary and if you did not want to participate you could just go and play video games etc.

This was interesting to me because it is probably that most of these teens that were there were forced to go to church by their parents, but once they arrived at the service they were given an option to ignore the “God thing” altogether.  In my mind, high school teens when offered a choice between listening to a bunch of this “God stuff” and singing mushy Jesus songs would almost unanimously choose video games and “kickin-it” with their friends.

So I asked, “Did a lot of people choose not to participate?”  He said an emphatic; “No!  Almost everybody sat in the service.”  I was intrigued by this.  The fact is they were not forced at all seemed to have the opposite effect on the high school age kids.  They seemed to be more involved because they didn’t really have to be.

I wondered if they took an offering.  My son said they did, but it was different.  Instead of the passing the bucket, which he said put inordinate pressure on people, during the service they matter-of-factly said that if anyone had an offering they wanted to make they should come up front and drop it in the bucket. 

I immediately thought back to our previous conversation about the pressures of the bucket passing and though everyone going up front but me would be way more pressure then sitting in my seat and just passing the bucket past me.  So I specifically asked my son if he felt pressured by the offering and he answered, “Not really.”  So there was a level of pressure applied, but it was done in a way that didn’t force you to experience much guilt if you didn’t give, didn’t want to give or couldn’t give.

I asked him if people brought Bibles.  He stated that a few people did but most people didn’t; “But, they projected the verses on screens for everyone and they used way shorter verses than in the main service.”

All and all he seemed very happy with this service which did at least somewhat satisfy much of what he thought a service should be like to be relevant to him.

So then I started to wonder about the things I have been pondering over the past couple of years like:

  • Do people even remember what is taught when in a traditional service (my personal asking of people and discussions in the days following a service has demonstrated that they usually remember little tidbits but not the large majority of what is said)
  • How deep of a personal experience with God each individual gets at a traditional service as opposed to smaller settings where you are kinda forced to connect with God and each other.
  • Do people think about how they should change because of what they have learned and make plans/goals to make those changes (another area where my own discussions with various people indicates there is some level of this normally, but it is very limited)

So I asked the questions:

Do you remember what the message was?  “He said yes and was able to regurgitate with some detail and even summarize the point of the message which was that “…even when there seems to be no hope God is there.”

Then I asked him:  “Do you feel like you felt or experienced God in the service?” 

He stopped with a puzzled look and then responded with a slightly less excited “No.”  He did explain that a few people seemed to experience God, he just didn’t.  I was intrigued with the tone of his response.  He seemed slightly troubled by the idea that this might be the wrong answer, but the tone also suggested that since it was such a good service experiencing God personally might not be as important.

I suppose he did encounter God in the fact that he worshipped him and learned from his word, but there are two things that are worth more consideration and possibly concern.

  1. If he does not know if he encountered God or not how can a gathering where we seek God be considered a success.  I do not say this as any attack on my son or his spirituality; I say this because it is a common mindset that I am constantly puzzled by.  The question in my mind is:  “If we are gathering in God’s name and we do not encounter him at that gathering, what exactly are we doing?”
  2. The similar idea that we do all of that stuff (sing, listen to the scripture etc.) and there is not further need to connect with God in that context.  If that is the case the amount of “God” in that context is limited at best.  The context is one of getting stuff about God without really getting God.  I guess this mindset (which is one I encounter pretty regularly) is one that has dominated our information driven American culture where information is king.  (The problem is that the people who had the most information about how God does things and about Jesus when Jesus actually came were the same people always fighting with Him and who ended up killing Him – Information about God is not the same as knowing God)

Then I asked him if there was something that he was going to do differently because of what he heard and experienced in the service.  He thought for a minute and said:  “No.  not really.”

This is another norm that I am always troubled by:  The idea that learning about what God wants is key and that doing anything about what is revealed to you is optional or something you just put off until it comes up as some major problem.

I see how in this context those conversations might just seem like a bunch of pressure or hyper-religious stuff, but these things are key.  This is where I have to agree with my son that having some kind of smaller group setting either in conjunction with this kind of service or in place of such a service is the best context for some of the more personal connections with God and with other believers.

In this context a small group discussion over a bagel and an iced tea or soda might be the best place to personally connect with God and to personalize what has just transpired. 

Thos groups would have to be with the people you are already comfortable with or at least the kind of people you can be comfortable with at that level.  After all that seems to be how the larger services are broken up at the church (the age groups and the reason my son connected better with this group that the younger group). 

For the purpose of this discussion we will describe these groups as affinity groups.  The tighter the affinity group (and possibly the smaller up to a point) the more opportunity to get deeper into what the verse means to you, what you will do about it and to get deeper into relating to God.

All-in-all, I think my son’s observations have proven to be correct observations.  The real test is the test of time.  After weeks and weeks of this how does he feel? As he goes through hormonal, mindset and perception of coolness changes does he still find all of this as relevant?

The real questions at hand are: How does any of this apply to his age group as a whole and how does any of this apply to the church as a whole.

These do agree with some of the research that I discussed in my previous post (What is Happening To The Church), but there are some aspects that could not be covered in the large group setting that my son is in now.  There would have to be a smaller context, possibly voluntary (that may exist and I simply don’t know about yet) where these tougher discussions and deeper connections would happen.

I hope these observations and discussions between my son and I are helpful to you and lead to further discussion in your context.  I can say that they have deepened my curiosity about what God is doing next in the church and what I have been doing (or not doing) to facilitate that.

I have been pondering how I receive God and what he reveals in much the same way that my son does.  How much of what he likes and dislikes is the same as what I like and dislike even though for vastly different reasons.  I have spent a lot of time recently wondering if I would grow better in the environments he has described and if I would greatly deepen my personal relationship with God in such a context.  I also wonder how much of what he is observing and thinking applies to much of our culture and possibly the whole world.  How much learning to receive the kingdom in the way that my son does needs to be sought after by me and by others.

I think in all of this I have seen some awesome potential solutions to the challenges the church as a whole is suffering from and have seen some gaping holes that could be paralyzing the church as a whole (or at least the American church).

A key focus that I was given as a new Christian by one of my mentors when I had noticed some contradictions in what I thought should have been going on and what was actually taking place. 

She stated that:  “God doesn’t show you things that are wrong just so you can complain or gossip about it.  God shows you something that is wrong because He intends for you to be a part of the solution.”

That needs to be what I and possibly everyone reading this needs to take away from these conversations.  The question “What part am I supposed to play in solving the problems God reveals to me?”

One more thought to ponder is the focus given to me via fortune cookie the other day:

ENGAGE IN GROUP ACTIVITIES THAT FURTHER TRANSFORMATION!

 

Be blessed in group activities that further your transformation,

 

W. Lawrence Hess

The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom

English: Jesus Christ with children

English: Jesus Christ with children (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom

Mark 10:15 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  15 I can guarantee this truth: Whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God as a little child receives it will never enter it.”

I had a couple of conversations over the last few days where people were explaining why one church is better than this church or that church.  So rather than get caught in trying to compare which mega-church was better than the other or which local church was better than any mega church, I started asking the tough questions about church in general that many of us have found ourselves asking.  Later in these conversations (once the person was curious about some of these same points) I would ask the person what his or her perfect church would look like.

Many of the responses were the same old: expert up front and only big enough for me to be noticed kind of answers.

So I was about to type away at a post when my thirteen year old interrupted me with questions about the algebra he is working on to get ready for back to school.  Suddenly it dawned on me:  As many of these conversations as I have been having lately, I have never really talked about any of this with him.

So I threw out the question without any warning (which, I am sure was a welcome break from algebra review anyway):  “What would your perfect church look like?

He started off pretty basic with:

A small church where everybody knows everybody and everything would be more personal. 

I immediately asked him what he would do if the church grew too big for him?  He responded without much thought that;  “I would have to find another church.”  I really wanted to get into a deep conversation about the Great Commission and how a good church would be drawing in new converts constantly etc. but I knew that this would ruin the complete honesty he was sharing with.

He continued; “Not overly christiany…  you know…” 

So I completed the sentence by saying, “Not too religious and christianeese”

He then said, “Yeah, more modern and normal.”

I was intrigued that a youthful view of what we do in the traditional church (particularly since the traditional church we attend is an ultramodern, high-tech church in the Silicon Valley).  The words that naturally came out of his mouth implied that the model most of us are used to is not modern and definitely not whatever normal is.  In other words primitive and very strange. Which also equates to:  Not very inviting to the generation that is moving their way into adulthood next or in other words:  OUT OF TOUCH. 

God however is not out of touch with that generation as evidenced by the fact that (at least in this case) there is an idea of what it would look like to better reach this generation.  Keep in mind he had no time to ponder the deeper issues or contemplate the right answer etc.  He didn’t even know that I was going to post this online until it dawned on him that I was typing his answers as he spoke and asked why.   He had some very definite ideas about the gatherings that I thought were very interesting and worthy of careful consideration.

A Celebration Service:

He was very clear that there would be worship and that it would have to be contemporary worship.   I was intrigued by this as I was expecting him to say something like a mixture of worship styles that would include contemporary but also R&B, Gospel, Rock and some rap worship etc. but he simply wanted the worship to be “like the music they play on KLOVE

He was clear that there should be no offering just a box at the back.  I asked him why and he responded:  …that way people don’t have to feel uncomfortable.  It’s uncomfortable when people are passing a bucket and you don’t have anything to put in it.  Everyone is just looking at you pass the bucket.”  My mind immediately referred back to being on staff at a church and seeing the numbers.  Facing the painful truth that only when pressured do most people give.  Even those who are on and on about tithing and giving more in the offering tend to be slack unless pressured (with the ever-powerful trip to Malachi 3:8), or unless guilt is present or unless overwhelmed with some amazing project that God has the church undertaking (because of tax law in the Unites States churches have records of who gave what and when).

I really never tripped too much on what others think if I just pass the bucket on, but in thinking about it, that is another tool to apply pressure.  I fear if you take out all of the pressures etc., in our context many of the buildings that house these churches would have to be sold and many of the churches (and some of the pastors) would find themselves homeless.  

He was very specific that he would prefer there be no announcements, but after a moment of thought decided upon only most necessary announcements.  That means the announcements at our church service drive him crazy (as they do me).  I thought it was just me.

I asked him what he thought about communion in the service and he said that it would be done once a month,

He was very clear that, basically there would be worship and preaching by the head pastor and the service would be an hour long (up to an hour and a half at the longest).

He did want there to be video of the service but only taping of the pastor.  No crowd shots or shots of individuals in the crowd so nobody feels obligated to do anything or act in any special way because of the cameras.

He was also clear that there would have to have a kids room or building to separate kids from the service with a youth pastor that would preach, but preach at their level.   

He was also specific that there would be prayer by small groups after service.  So I asked, “How would you break the crowd into groups?”  He responded:  “It would be the small groups that meet during the week” as if that were just a standard assumption and was a stupid question.  Wow, now you’re peaking my interest I thought.  So I asked, where would these groups meet?  He said very matter-of-factly:  “In somebody’s home.” 

So I asked him to explain what would happen in these groups.

The first thing that came out of his mouth was that “…the small groups meeting at houses would be a better place for people to deal with more personal issues that they definitely wouldn’t deal with at the worship service.” 

Then I asked what else they would do at these meetings and he said,  “At the small groups they would review whatever the pastor discussed.” 

So I asked, “what do you mean?” 

He said,  “They would give opinions on what each thinks the pastor said and what it means to them.” 

He added that some Sunday nights, he would like them to have movie nights at the church, where those who wish would watch a movie at the church and receive handouts listing a few key points to discuss that week at the small groups.

I couldn’t hold off my theological question from the very beginning of the conversation any longer, so I sprung it on him:  “You said if the church grows too much, you would just leave and find another one.  If a church is supposed to be seeking new believers constantly and getting them involved in the church would the church by design be growing?  Isn’t growing what they are supposed to do?”  He pondered that for a second and then I added something about if a church is not growing isn’t it not doing what it is supposed to do.

He simply said that once it reached a certain size I would just separate and start another church.

This all opened the door to a deeper discussion on the topic of what church is etc. and we had a great time discussing the concept and reading my previous blog posts, which he had not yet seen. 

I share all of this because I think I gives a glimpse of what even the teenage mind that is not really all into church growth and what church should and shouldn’t be desires in all of it’s simplicity.  I also share this because it shows a lot of what is putting off a generation including those that love the Lord, like my son.  I hope it is food for thought and blessed conversation.

As far as the verse that I opened with,  I think it is important that we all look at how our children receive Christ and what they are drawn to in their walks and consider if there is a divine impartation of wisdom involved.

 Mark 10:15 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  15 I can guarantee this truth: Whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God as a little child receives it will never enter it.”

Just as an added tidbit.  After that discussion, my wife called and wanted us to meet her for Chinese food, so we happily left behind our pontificating and chugged on down to our favorite place to stuff ourselves to this gills with MSG.  At the end of our meal, I opened my fortune cookie and found a sentence that I think should be the battle cry of every church and how every church determines what it does and does not do.  That fortune cookie wisdom was:

ENGAGE IN GROUP ACTIVITIES THAT FURTHER TRANSFORMATION!

 

Be blessed in group activities that further your transformation,

W. Lawrence Hess

Wrestling With The Real New Testament Church

The wrestle of Jacob, in an original high-reso...

The wrestle of Jacob, in an original high-resolution format. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wrestling With The Real New Testament Church

I was just looking at a website named the Church Task Force and I stumbled across some very interesting observations on the church planting ministry of Paul (see http://churchtaskforce.org/resources/pauls-methods). 

I will go over some key notes from the page for thought but I recommend going to the site to get a deeper look at this information (http://churchtaskforce.org/resources/pauls-methods).  Here is a summary of what caught my attention:

The Galatian Churches

  • Three churches planted in an average of four months each
  • Left largely on their own after that for months—without any leadership in place
  • Local leadership teams emerged from within the startup churches
  • Pastors were appointed within six months of their salvation, on average

The Macedonian Churches

  • Three churches planted in an average of two to four months each
  • The newly planted churches are left on their own for a time without formal leadership
  • They function on their own in a relatively short period of time (months rather than years)
  • Whole households were being converted, not just individuals

The Churches of Achaia

  • Paul is planting multiple churches regionally, this time from a base camp in Corinth
  • In a relatively short period of time, these churches are able to stand on their own
  • The church planters leave the region after the church is planted
  • Whole households were being converted, not just individuals
  • Paul enlists additional workers from among the new churches

The Churches of Asia

  • Paul is planting multiple churches regionally, this time from a base camp in Ephesus
  • In three years, Paul not only plants the church in Ephesus, but the many churches of Asia are birthed
  • Paul was enlisting, training, and sending out additional workers
  • Paul established multiple pastors in Ephesus

In looking at this information I started pondering the concept that seems to be such a huge topic in the North American church culture as of late:  “How do we prevent heresy?”.  I have sat in classes and seminars on the subject of preventing heresy.  I have sat in many sermons that focus on that topic.  I have listened to long radio shows and debates on the topic.  I have listened to the rantings and musings of people who believe it to be the entirety of their ministry to hunt heresy (a ministry that can sometimes make me think that they must sound exactly the same as the people who felt that their ministry was to hunt and burn witches did).  

I have listened people describe how we are to micromanage the growth of the new believer and keep them on the straight and narrow path to theological depth.  Things like; memorizing immense amounts of Bible passages, telling them to force themselves to read the Bible some very substantial amount of time each day no matter what, telling them to throw out all their music and do nothing that is not “church approved” ever again, telling them who to associate with paying close attention not to associate with somebody our church has deemed a heretic, telling them how almost every pastor or preacher they have ever heard of is somehow a heretic (making it look like Christianity is about nitpicking every word a believer speaks and anything deemed wrong will get you excommunicated), and so on. 

The message is one that sounds far more like the message of the Pharisees than the message of Jesus or any of the Apostles.  It also sounds completely different than anything that called itself church in the New Testament.

John 13:34-35 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  34 “I’m giving you a new commandment: Love each other in the same way that I have loved you. 35 Everyone will know that you are my disciples because of your love for each other.”

I suppose that making and enforcing rules can be a part of loving someone but if that is the majority of the way you relate to someone, then I would have to say that calling it loving them is a reach at best.  I sometimes find it similar to the logic of dysfunctional parents who think that by verbally, emotionally or physically abusing their children they are somehow showing them love.

I do have a couple of huge concerns with the rule making, heresy hunting model of church.  The first of which relates to the concepts seen here:

John 10:27-28 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  27 My sheep respond to my voice, and I know who they are. They follow me, 28 and I give them eternal life. They will never be lost, and no one will tear them away from me.

Romans 8:14-17 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  14 Certainly, all who are guided by God’s Spirit are God’s children. 15 You haven’t received the spirit of slaves that leads you into fear again. Instead, you have received the spirit of God’s adopted children by which we call out, “Abba![a] Father!” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 If we are his children, we are also God’s heirs. If we share in Christ’s suffering in order to share his glory, we are heirs together with him.

These models are focused so much on the interpretations of a few educated men that the sheep rarely have time to respond to the voice of Christ directly (they are probably too busy trying to figure out and follow all of the church rules).  Rather than being guided by God’s Spirit, they are more likely to follow someone who they have come to believe is following God’s Spirit and hope for the best.  In the case of church communities that have learned to focus on heresy hunting etc. they are almost entirely driven by the fear of heresy that there seems to be more time looking for errors to point out and piously correct than they are spending time exhorting or loving one another.  It is as if there is no Holy Spirit or voice of God in some experiences I have personally encountered.  

I know that not all churches are like that in the United States and that and I do understand that there are times and places for all of these things.  Sometimes you have to confront people and there is a precedent for such things:

Matthew 18:15-19 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  15 “If a believer does something wrong,[a] go, confront him when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have won back that believer. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you so that every accusation may be verified by two or three witnesses. 17 If he ignores these witnesses, tell it to the community of believers. If he also ignores the community, deal with him as you would a heathen or a tax collector. 18 I can guarantee this truth: Whatever you imprison, God will imprison. And whatever you set free, God will set free.  19 “I can guarantee again that if two of you agree on anything here on earth, my Father in heaven will accept it.

But, I am not convinced that anywhere in this passage there was a mandate for a Christian police force whose duty it is to find errors of any kind in any believers they encounter and nitpick them into submission.  As a matter of fact it seems like the only time something like this is in extreme cases where something egregious is taking place and is sustained without conviction. 

In context the verses before this describe a shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to go get the one lost one, but nothing about telling the other sheep not to talk to that sheep or about the other sheep refusing to have anything to do with that sheep.  Because that is not what sheep do with each other.  They simply do not have enough understanding (they are not smart enough) to handle it.

I also get the responsibility of a pastor/church leader to keep heresy out, but I have to wonder if the flaw is in the model.  I believe in pastors and teachers etc. but I think the current model in which the pastoral staff is the arm of God and the voice of God (exclusively for many church members) is flawed at best.

As I discussed in the previous post “Jesus Based Free-for-All vs. Super Leader/Heresy Hunter” I think this idea is not necessarily unbiblical, but I do feel that there is clear evidence that this has never been the best type of leadership model for God’s endeavors.

In the case of Moses and the Hebrew people that came out of Egypt, God wanted to speak to them directly.  The problem was that when God began to speak they were afraid of Him and decided to run away.  Then they pushed for this style of leadership in spite of the fact that God had wanted each person to individually draw near to Him and hear His voice.

Exodus 20:18-19 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  18 All the people heard the thunder and saw the lightning. They heard the blast of the ram’s horn and saw the mountain covered with smoke. So they shook with fear and stood at a distance. 19 Then they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we’ll listen. But don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die!”

Not to restate my thoughts on the “Jesus Based Free-for-All vs. Super Leader/Heresy Hunter” post, but at the time when they were supposed to be close to God and hearing His divine voice and while their leader was actually up listening to God and talking to God to protect them, they soon became busy in worshiping the calf god they had erected.

Another example of God wanting to deal with the population directly and the people rejecting it for a single leader to go between is:

1 Samuel 8:4-9 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  4 Then all the leaders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They told him, “You’re old, and your sons aren’t following your example. Now appoint a king to judge us so that we will be like all the other nations.”  6 But Samuel considered it wrong for them to request a king to judge them. So Samuel prayed to the Lord. 7 The Lord told Samuel, “Listen to everything the people are saying to you. They haven’t rejected you; they’ve rejected me. 8 They’re doing just what they’ve done since I took them out of Egypt—leaving me and serving other gods. 9 Listen to them now, but be sure to warn them and tell them about the rights of a king.”

The people decide that the church leadership, which really had limited access to all the people, are not doing a good enough job (which is actually true if you look at passages that precede this one).  They decide they want a king to judge and rule as go between for God’s will and the people.  In this passage wanting such a leader was described by God as idolatry and rejecting God, yet He instructed Samuel to “Listen to everything the people are saying to you.” 

Again it is as if the people wanted it so badly that God decided to help mankind (particularly the Hebrew peoples) fully understand that this model does not work through painful experience.  He let that model stay in place for quite a while after that also.

The spiritual leadership had a choice between leading the people to seek and listen to God themselves and the people kept trying to force the leaders to go before God instead and just fill them in.

This is funny to me because it reminds me of responses many of us give when first pondering ideas like this:

  • “Someone has to lead the people and make sure they don’t go nuts.”
  • “If the pastor or leadership doesn’t correct them heresy will slip in. “
  • “If the pastor or leadership doesn’t correct them, who will?”

Here is the interesting part; how well did that work for Moses.  In the first trial run the group completely abandoned God, completely rebelled against the very first thing they did manage to hear from God before they ran off, came close to being wiped out by God and wound up attacking each other.

There is a real mega-problem with the idea that things are so humanly driven by the heresy hunting, church police:

Romans 7:18-23 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  18 I know that nothing good lives in me; that is, nothing good lives in my corrupt nature. Although I have the desire to do what is right, I don’t do it. 19 I don’t do the good I want to do. Instead, I do the evil that I don’t want to do. 20 Now, when I do what I don’t want to do, I am no longer the one who is doing it. Sin that lives in me is doing it.  21 So I’ve discovered this truth: Evil is present with me even when I want to do what God’s standards say is good. 22 I take pleasure in God’s standards in my inner being. 23 However, I see a different standard at work throughout my body. It is at war with the standards my mind sets and tries to take me captive to sin’s standards which still exist throughout my body.

The human driven model assumes the person doing the policing is being somehow perfectly led by God to do all of this correcting (be they a pastor, church leader, radio/television personality etc.).  The person describing himself here is The Apostle Paul.  He is saying himself that it is a huge task keep on the straight and narrow path.

Moses never made it into The Promised Land because of public disobedience stemming from frustration he had form the job of being the person who went to God for the whole group. 

My point is that even divinely inspired leaders are people with a sin nature.  They are only successful if the leadership constantly focuses people on God and points them to dependence upon God DIRECTLY.  Any “go-between” is flawed by nature and is in fact taking God’s place.

The idea of being the only way God communicates to another individual who has direct access to God through Christ’s death burial and resurrection is one that seems to stunt that person’s growth more than it could ever help.  I am not saying that there will not be times where God speaks to an individual through a person so blessed as to hear from God to do so.  What I am saying is that it’s hard to develop a personal relationship with God when you keep sending someone else to do all of the relational things.

ON the other hand; I do have many of those concerns of heresy and other craziness if people are left totally to their own devices.  I suppose for most of this article so far, I have been preaching from a soapbox a bit.  The truth is I am not completely sold on the idea of people completely doing whatever they feel the Holy Spirit has led hem to do with no intervention from people who are more advanced in understanding and may just simply have more common sense.  History has shown that if unchecked, all kinds of crazy can arise in any group of people and lead groups to do just about anything (some doing crazy things while quoting scriptures).

So all of those that read this that were taking notes to write their blog or radio show to blast each detail (possibly heresy hunters), I do not totally disagree with your position except for one glairing issue:  There is no New Testament example for having the kind of legalistic oversight that so many of us would like to see in order to avert potential crazy.

The prime example is Paul.  He went places, taught people as much as he could in a short time, appointed leaders, and pretty much moved on.  The time spent in an area varied from a couple of months to spending three years in a base camp traveling from there or sending out other trained leaders to do the same kind of ministry he had been doing.

The evidence in his ministry is that he empowered young leaders with little training to lead the church.  He left young churches, with little guidance to depend upon the Holy Spirit to guide them. 

Did heretical practices arise?  Absolutely!  Several of the letters he sent in the hope of directing them towards truth are still available as a large part of what we now call the New Testament.  Which brings me to my next point, when they started, they did not even have access to the level of information we have now:  If the letters were sent to and addressed to them later how could they have had them earlier?

So Paul discipled new believers and empowered them to depend upon God completely.  He taught them verbally (and I assume quite well).  They continued to meet and seek God and amazing things would happen.  He would give a little more training to those he was sending out as leaders and leave them in God’s hands also.

The difference between the model we see most often in North America (the one I have been most comfortable with myself) and the model we see as an example in the New Testament could be best summed up as trusting God to lead the church considerably more.  Paul relied on the Holy Spirit to do much of the day to day correction of the whole church at any given place and only seemed to intervene if there was a prolonged and way out there problem/practice that could no longer be ignored.

I am forced to ask myself (and in reality to ask God/the Scriptures) if so much day to day correction of so much detail and doctrine is necessary or if it is a better practice to allow individuals, groups and whole churches to drift a bit under the assumption that the Holy Spirit is in control.  Is it possible that what I perceive to be a group of heretics may be deeply spiritual believers that are growing and hearing from God, but are in the process of learning this or that particular lesson slowly.  In that case would declaring them heretics possibly make the group more likely to be stubborn and dig in slowing the process of their learning.  All of my self-righteous Bible thumping would be reminiscent of satan trying to tempt Jesus by quoting scripture (see Matthew 4:1-11). 

I know I have used the term “heresy hunter” as a negative term and it is intended to be.  The truth is I have been trained to be a politer “heresy hunter” and that is who I have been.  If these posts seem to be on the attack, it is most probably an attack on my own mindsets. 

The truth is I am not saying that the church should abandon all structure and do whatever people think the Holy Spirit is telling them.  It is something somewhat on an opposite note that I am saying:  Us heresy hunters have to stop telling people that the way we structure the church with all these checks and balances and careful heresy hunters posted at every turn, is the way it is supposed to be.  That way is not really spoken directly for or against in the New Testament.  The people who are doing church with less structure and less checks and balances however, are using the actual examples found in the New Testament and have at least a reasonable argument for that model of church (which in some ways is stronger than the argument for our super-structured model).  Especially when the best argument against the less controlled model (as seen in the New Testament) is that there will not be enough people in the right positions to keep it under control. 

IF PEOPLE ARE KEEPING A CHURCH FROM GOING OUT OF CONTROL IT IS DOOMED ANYHOW!  GOD MUST BE THE ONE KEEPING HIS CHURCH FROM GOING OUT OF CONTROL!   People do play a part, but that part must be leading people to the conviction and guidance of God not the guilt of my quoting scripture at them and relying completely on me to tell them what God is trying to tell them.

I named this “Wrestling With The Real New Testament Church” because there seems to be two related Christian currents I repeatedly encounter everywhere I go.

  1. More and more people seem to be unhappy with the North American Church Model (and I keep hearing reports and statistics that describe the same about the “Western Model of Church”) and looking for a more personal relationship with God, less rule oriented model.
  2. There seems to always be some person (often who thinks a lot like the way I think) saying that all of that is somehow evil and watering down how the church is supposed to operate.

On number two the evidence seems to point to one fact:  The Western model may actually water down God a bit by putting the focus too much on the intellect of a few really educated people when God really has always wanted personal relationship with each member of His holy family.  The New Testament, the reasons for and content of some of the Pauline epistles, and history shows that the more open model is at least Biblical, but I also have to wonder how heresy is kept out (sounds a bit like I need more faith actually reading it).

The fact is that although you may wrestle with how to respond to the various movements arising that embrace a more Holy Spirit led model of church with less structure, checks and balances neither you or I can accuse them of being wrong or out of God’s will.  How could relying on God more be unbiblical?  It may be a bit more tricky to figure out and thus a bit more messy, but to demand more people lead is how Israel ended up with kings that ended up dividing and losing the nation, the temple, the ark, the people, and so on.

I clearly have embraced this movement and consider myself to be a part of it, yet I still attend a “traditional” church (those are finger-quotes in case you didn’t know) also.

 

Be Blessed

 

W. Lawrence Hess