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This is the last in a series of ten letters written to our local church, unbundling what we understand our future to be in the Lord. It’s vision, if you like, but more than vision in a way. It’s a way of seeing and thinking about being and doing church.
My prayer is that everyone reading these letters will be provoked in the best sense of the word, and challenged to ask themselves the hard questions around being and doing local church.
Jesus said of Himself, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13). All things begin and end in Him.
Which in turn means that nothing begins or ends in His church, let alone the local church. She is a means to an end, and never an end in herself. She finds herself between Heaven and earth, best serving earth by stewarding Heaven’s plans and purposes, and doing so using heaven’s means and methods.
The implications are enormous. Any message we proclaim must be His word, and not our own. Any vision we pursue must be His vision, and not our own. We being His hands and feet in this world is not some religious platitude. We are His body – hands and feet and everything else in between. My increasing suspicion is that we’ve become a little self-absorbed, focusing so on our respective roles in the body as to have lost sight of the role the body as a whole has to play in the purposes of God.
That role is ambassadorial. We are who we are and do what we do in His name, and not our own. Best we aspire to represent Him well. The flip side of the ambassadorial coin is an intercessory one. We’re not on God’s side against His world, but on God’s side for His world, no longer of it, but in it for good reason. We remain in His world for His purpose and for its sake. His agenda is salvation, the One Mediator having performed His perfect propitiatory work once for all. The Scriptures are emphatic about that. God has already reconciled His world to Himself through the cross of Christ. Our ambassadorial role announces the goodwill of Good God, and our intercession works with Him in drawing men and women into putting their trust in all that He has done. There’s no place for personal agendas or petty fiefdoms in all of this. The work of the cross is finished, but the work of the Gospel is ongoing, bringing the Kingdom, until all of Christ’s enemies are under His feet.
This all sounds so obvious as to be self-evident, but think it through with me for a moment. What of one of modern Christianity’s ubiquitous maladies – spiritual dryness. More often than not it besets the faithful who are fully involved in their local churches, bearing its burdens and carrying its loads. Jeremiah makes poignant comment on the dynamics at work: “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer 2:13). No local church has life in and of itself, and when it becomes an end in itself, it can become one of the most desolate places imaginable. Many a congregation has fished all night but caught nothing, labouring with the best of intentions, but to its own ends and in its own strength.
The God-factor is a not negotiable. The word of the Lord to Zerubbabel in the days of old is as much a word to us today: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zech 4:6b). That flow of Spirit and life is easily tapped into; abandon the cistern of human ambition, agenda and endeavour, and remain embedded in the Fountain of Life Himself. The lesson to be learned is to live from rest; from union with God; from victory; from Life. This truth has application individually and corporately. We’re always the bride on the dance-floor of life, allowing our groom to lead. He is the initiator, we are the responders. In this dynamic vision is revelation that empowers, rather than a goal-orientation that drives. When our mind-sets correctly position us between Heaven and earth, placing us squarely on God’s redemptive team, much is clear. We know who we are, and we know why we are. From there the what and how unfurl with ease as we recognise what God is doing, and having availed ourselves to Him, simply join in.
The question then is what it is we are seeing and hearing? What is the Lord doing, and how do we join in? So explicit has the Lord been, that there can be ne‘er a doubt. The time of the Lord gathering His people is upon us. It is time to build the house. Highway Christian Church is to rise up. We are a city on a hill, and it is our time to shine.
In writing I’m rolling
up my sleeves and rounding up the troops. It’s a new day. Let Highway arise.
Promise is over her and destiny awaits her. Everyone’s invited to join in. To
reiterate what I said in my first letter: Let’s gather – in Him, to Him, with
Him and for Him. I’m asking for you to show up on Sunday mornings more often
than not, and on time at that. I’m asking you to come to the gatherings with
intent to engage. Come to lift your voice, to raise your hands, and to hug a
neighbour. Bring a friend. Drop something in the offering plate. Come to find
someone to encourage. Pray a prayer; break bread; help someone, somewhere, with
something. Do whatever your hand finds to do, and obey the Spirit as He
prompts. This is not rocket-science. And on your bad days? Come anyway!
As we do, Jesus will build His church. He will reveal what we are yet to see, teach us what we need to learn, and lead us into being a far more substantial expression of what He has in heart and mind for the local church. We’ve only just begun! It’s not our ability He seeks, but our availability. May we be numbered amongst those who fulfil the prophetic mandate of Psalm 110:3a: “Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power”.
So be it. Amen!
In my previous letter, I included a draft list of ministries of the church, some twenty of them. We’ll be exploring each of these in greater detail moving forward, but before we do, there are a handful of vital observations to be made that will set us up for the paradigm shift I’m appealing for.
The first two chapters of the book of Ezra are instructive. They document the decree of Cyrus of Persia, the then world-ruler, who exhorted Israelite exiles everywhere to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. In the end some fifty thousand responded and returned to their homeland bearing enabling gifts from Cyrus himself, as well as from friends and countrymen still scattered abroad.
There were many reason for the exiles of the day to not join the returning remnant. Most had been born in exile, and knew no other life. The journey back home promised to be arduous and dangerous, lasting months. The waiting task of rebuilding a temple in a city now destroyed was overwhelming, and in the face of considerable opposition at that. All considered, there was absolutely nothing about Cyrus’ proposition to attract the faint-hearted.
On the positive side of the balance sheet were three positive motivators. Firstly, thanks to their cultural make-up, Israelite exiles tended to have a strong sense of national identity, making the vision of rebuilding the temple a compelling one. The temple was at the heart of their city, and their city at the heart of their nation’s heritage. Which was why those who declined Cyrus’ offer were nevertheless generous to those who embraced the challenge. Secondly, the likes of Ezra provided inspiring and skillful leadership. Ezra was not alone in this, with Nehemiah and Zerubbabel also noteworthy amongst a plethora of key individuals who committed their lives to the cause. And thirdly, an action of the Lord.
The first two motivators – compelling vision and inspiring leadership – are well known to the church of our day. In fact, if anything, overly so. Together, they form the foundation of most exploits local churches undertake. Both have great short-term appeal, but have proved inadequate for long-term success. The reasons for that are painfully obvious: Leaders are as susceptible to failure as anyone else, and when foundational to the local church, ensure that the church suffers great loss should they experience demise for any reason. The same is true of the most compelling a vision. Far more challenging in the execution than is the conception, significant obstacles and/or sustained opposition easily neutralise vision’s power over time. The aftermath is marked by discouragement and disillusionment whenever leaders and vision over-promise and under-deliver in this way.
For these reasons, the third motivator is by far the most important. Ezra documented it this way: “Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:5). This is the God-factor. This is He working in the hearts of the saints, making the local church and her exploits a calling. When this third all-important motivator is in place, God ideas replace good ideas, the Spirit’s leadership is what prevails, and vision takes on destiny’s dimensions.
Think with me for a moment. Why do so many of our teenagers, once members of vibey youth groups, only recover a walk with the Lord in their thirties and forties? Is it not because their teenage Christianity, while experiential, was without foundation? And what is it that we are hoping to achieve with our new member classes? Are they not in pursuit of that heart for the house that only God can give! Perhaps it’s time to admit that building around leaders and vision is inadequate, and that we need to discover how to use leadership and vision to facilitate the call of God in the hearts of the saints, rather than supplant it. May we learn what it means to so lead and so articulate vision that those who journey with us do so in response to the profound sense of call God has instilled in them. May we lead in ways that don’t manipulate at all, but that serve a far higher purpose than the house itself.
Every local church has many a ministry to perform. Of course compelling vision is necessary. So is inspirational and skillful leadership. But only God-factor buy-in from the broad sweep of the congregation will get us where we need to go. Being and doing local church requires everyone on board, being and doing who they are. Only a profound sense of call, urging from within, can accomplish that.
Let those who have ears hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
This is the eighth in a series of letters written to our local church. Enjoy!
The local church is heaven and earth in collaboration. The agenda is Heaven’s – His Kingdom come; His will be done. Our motivation is Jesus and His Gospel. Paul gave us a microcosmic glimpse of the dynamics when he tells the Corinthians that “I (Paul) planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (I Cor 3:6).
When we gather, it is on the one hand very natural – of pews and pulpits, songs and serving. On the other, it is profoundly spiritual. As we gather, diverse parts merge and a body manifests, and functions as such. Individual lights and lamps fuse into a city on a hill emitting glorious blaze. Individual living stones coalesce and a God-inhabited temple arises. Soldiers reporting for duty fall into battle formation and Christ’s victories are enforced and plunderers dispossessed. As we gather, it is God’s family that gathers, and the stranger, the alien, the wanderer, and the otherwise disenfranchised, all find welcome at Heaven’s table.
None of this is rocket science. Even little children can understand it. Holy Spirit’s wisdom and power meets our willingness and availability, and the diverse and disparate coheres into something far greater than the sum of its parts. This is church! The better we understand it all, and the more intentional we are about it all, the greater the heights we’ll ascend to together.
Think of each of these metaphors as a role the church plays, or as a mode in which she functions. Take my wife Estelle as an example: She is a daughter, a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, a branch manager (The Clothing Bank), a deaconess in the church, and a friend to many. One woman, but multiple roles and responsibilities. Many different hats to wear. Sometimes they overlap, but at other times she is focused on and totally absorbed by one or the other. There’s nothing confusing, duplicitous or pretentious about any of it. No matter the role or mode, she remains authentic Estelle. In the same way, as we gather, on one day the Spirit might take us into a place of militancy. The King’s army has gathered, and there is authority to be exercised and victories to be won. On another day, He might lead us into intimacy. The King is in His chambers, and He’s calling for His bride. One church, but distinctly different roles, with different tones, different vocabulary, different cadence and intensity, different emotions, different atmospheres, and different outcomes.
Of course there are many other frameworks within which we could consider the ministry of the church. Her purpose. Her reason d’etre as it were. A common approach is to think of the church in terms of her ministry upwards (to the Lord), inwards (to one another), and outwards (to the world). Others build their understanding around a proof texts like Acts 2:42-47 or Ephesians 4:11. The metaphors we’ve been using have the advantage of embracing wide diversity in a cohesive way, of keeping our thinking Biblical, and of underscoring the inseparable link between identity and purpose. That said, they are certainly not the only map with which to chart this territory.
Herewith, then, a first stab at a list of the ministries of the church, as opposed to ministries in the church (worship leading or preaching et al) or ministries to the church (apostles, prophets, etc.). These ministries are the things we the church have been tasked with in the Lord, and which should find expression in significant measure when we gather. This list is a draft, and drafts are never complete or tidy, but serve as useful points of departure. You’ll notice that I’ve listed nouns, and done so in random order. Our challenge is to enfold these things into our assembly as verbs, and work out how to do them together. In random order, we the local church, have a ministry of …
- Hospitality – the stewardship of the Presence of God.
- Adoration – worship, magnification, captivation.
- Association – identification with the one, eternal, alternative society.
- Edification – mutual encouragement and care.
- Reconciliation – vertical and horizontal; ambassadorial.
- Demonstration – of the Kingdom, in miracles, signs and wonders.
- Facilitation – diverse gifts and contributions; all these must be done.
- Inclusion – the foreigner and alien, widow and orphan; the pilgrim.
- Embrace – love one another; our most important characteristic.
- Discipleship – the nurture of maturity and equipping for good works.
- Intercession – with Christ in His intercession; access to the throne.
- Dominion – the exercise of authority; binding and loosing.
- Occupation – the salt being salty; influence; permeation.
- Proclamation – the Good News, the Gospel.
- Declaration/Decree – release of the proceeding word.
- Custodianship – keeping the faith; the stewardship of sound doctrine.
- Administration – of life (hatch, match and dispatch), of life together (organization); the stewardship of our joint resources.
- Mercy – compassion to the suffering and the care of the poor.
- Testimony – witness; showcasing of His manifold wisdom.
- Celebration – rejoicing in God and His works. Praise!
Multiple proof-texts could easily be listed alongside each bullet point, but we’re more concerned with developing the big picture here. The over-riding point is that we don’t gather to just sing a bit, serve a bit, and listen to the sermon. The bits and bobs that make up any given meeting are scaffolding to the main event, which stems from who we are in the Lord, and unfolds in collaboration with the Holy Spirit, in the spirit-realm first, and in the natural second.
Having belabored the underlying fundamentals in earlier letters – the necessity for gathering, and the leadership of the Spirit – herewith seven practical tips and hints to get us off to a good start on any given Sunday.
- Let’s be intentional. Let’s embrace our calling, and respond accordingly. Let’s gather to contribute. Let’s take ownership.
- Let’s be inclusive. Let’s consciously and actively include everyone. Invite others; greet others; be mindful of others; involve others; make place for others.
- Let’s believe. Everything is by grace, and everything is through faith. As believers, let’s gather to believe together. Let’s stir up our faith.
- Let’s love one another. This is not-negotiable. Christ’s essential nature must permeate everything, and He is love. When unsure, do the loving thing.
- Let’s build agreement. Building in the Spirit is in agreement and by agreement. Agree with God, His Word, and one another. This is largely vocal, and takes active engagement and the expenditure of energy. Get spiritually fit. Engage each moment as the gathering moves along.
- Let’s be authentic. No posturing or pretending. Be yourself. But bring yourself to the party. Ameliorate your idiosyncrasies. Be a team player.
- Let’s use everything at our disposal. Let’s throw the kitchen sink at it. Every gift and every calling. Every means of grace. When it’s time to make a noise, if you can’t shout, whistle, and if you can’t whistle, pinch a baby!
And with that to make you smile, have a great week. See you Sunday!
Paul writes: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that He had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:1–16).
From a human perspective, it’s but a bunch of religious folk doing life together. It’s about gathering; about music; about children’s ministry. There’s preaching, and singing, and the breaking of bread, and prayer. All good things, but nothing exceptional. But look at her from a spiritual perspective, and a very different picture emerges. She is a heaven-and-earth collaborative, with heaven unsurprisingly weighing in as dominant partner. In the passage above Paul describes that collaborative as the body of Christ – Jesus the head, us His body. He could have used any number of metaphors, and still made the same point. The local church is primarily spiritual, with the Lord Himself the jewel in the setting, whatever the word-picture in play.
The local church is truly extraordinary!
Getting to grips with the fact that the church is spiritual, and that she occupies a place and functions in the spiritual realm, is essential. If we don’t, church will be all about us, what we put in, and what we get out. It starts by recognizing that Biblical metaphor often moves beyond mere literary tool. For example: Christians are not like children of God; they literally are His children. He is not just like a father to us; He is Our Heavenly Father. In the same way, the church is not just like a family, a bride, an army, a body or a vine. We are these things. In actual fact, these spiritual realities are far richer than their reflections in the natural, but these reflections enable all of us to grasp in measure that which is infinite and beyond us.
This in turn means that our primary contribution in being and doing church is in the spiritual realm. The natural things – locking and unlocking, music, child care – these facilitate the real work, and as such are part of it. But these are not the main event. The main event is our collaboration with heaven. Together, we build in the spirit-realm. We use our voices, and we use music, and we use the communion table, but the engine room is the exercise is our faith, responding to grace, and worked out in love. Sometimes gatherings are decidedly militant (army); others are tender and intimate (bride). Some involve a great deal of ministry one to another (family); others are almost entirely consumed with ministry to the Lord and His world (priesthood). The Spirit leads; we follow.
Building the house is first and foremost a spiritual endeavor. Doing it well should lead to more people in the gatherings, a greater range of spiritual gifts in operation, fruit of every description in greater abundance, and increasing effectiveness in the work of the Gospel. It all starts in the Spirit, which is why we can so confidently assert that everyone has a contribution to make, and an indispensable contribution at that. The singing, clapping, dancing and giving is but a means to an end. The real issue is what is achieved in the spiritual realm. Ironically, it is the folk in the pews who are best positioned to contribute, because they are not distracted by serving in some way or another.
Revisit the passage and notice what Paul had to say about it: It’s a calling. The grace that we’ve received belongs to that calling. Our gifts belong to that calling. His injunction is that we should walk worthy of that calling. This is so because the church only builds herself up to the degree that each of us walk in that calling, playing our part. For the local church to thrive, the collaboration has to run every which way, between heaven and earth, and between all of us. As we do, what started out as the “unity of the Spirit” (Eph 4:3), a given in the Lord, becomes “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).
Vision will always be the poster-boy of progress, and what a vision we’ve been given – the fullness of Christ in every way! How we respond in our hearts to this great calling is make-or-break for the church. Gathering matters. Even more important is our attitudes when gathering. Apathy, lethargy and unbelief undermine. But so does legalism. Getting everyone jumping through the hoops in obligation will disembowel life. Faithfulness is required, but its the faithfulness of faith that will get the job done, not a faithfulness born of guilt and condemnation. This great safeguard ensures that doing church can never be onerous. Only faith and love will get us where we’re going, and these fuel us, rather than deplete us. Healthy and vibrant local churches will always give as good as they get, and the people who make the greatest sacrifices for her will be the ones who find them the most meaningful.
The fruit of building in the spirit is spiritual first, temporal second. Local church in full flight is the grace of God on display, reconciling the irreconcilable, and triumphing over sin, flesh, devil and grave! These victories spill over into the natural in blessings and breakthroughs of all kinds. Only a small percentage of these ever make it to testimony or praise report, and are but the tip of the iceberg of what the Lord is doing in and through His people.
A thought in conclusion. We’ll never build in the Spirit in any significant way if we cannot get people through the doors when we gather. In fact, getting them through the doors is the very first step in building. Yet so infra dig has church attendance become, that it is being mooted as one of the most important spiritual disciplines to nurtured in the twenty-first century. The Lord is intent on reversing the trend, and will be re-gathering His people once again. Let’s move with Him swiftly and surely, hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches, and respond in joy and faith. The future is upon us, and the best is yet ahead!
Yours in Christ Jesus.
This is the sixth in a series of letters to you, our local church.
We’ve reminded ourselves of the many Biblical metaphors for the church. She is a city on a hill. She is a family, a household, a body, and a fruitful vine. She is an olive tree. She is a temple and a tabernacle, a royal priesthood and a holy nation. She is a bride and a flock, she is a field, and she is an army.
No matter the metaphor, there is an overriding constant: She is His. And as such, she has been granted the greatest gift of all: His Presence!
What is true of the individual believer is true of the church: Christ within!
The texts assuring us of this are many. Let’s quote two of the more familiar. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:20). And to the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “In Him you (Jews and Gentiles) also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:22).
Imagine for a moment that you are one of those who walked with the incarnate Christ, e.g. Peter, James and John. You personally received His reassurance, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). He promised that He would not leave you as an orphan, but that another who is just like Him, the Holy Spirit, would come. He would not only be with you, but within you, never to depart. You were present on Pentecost when the Spirit fell, and you received. Now imagine gathering post-Pentecost with your brothers and sisters in Christ, and suddenly being overtaken by the notion that God Himself is not present. And I’m not talking about God being present in the sense of His omnipresence, but tangibly so. Such a notion – God’s absence or remoteness – would’ve been absolutely unthinkable! His Presence was a given. A gift, and a defining gift at that.
The Presence of God is fundamental to the New Covenant. When God gave is salvation, He gave us Himself. Jesus closed the gap between holy Heaven and sinful earth, without for a moment relinquishing His holiness. Whosoever believes in Him receives Him, His holiness, and His Heaven. The loss of Presence equates to the loss of salvation!
Every believer knows the awful experience of a disconnection in fellowship with the Lord. We’ve all been so carnal (fleshly) in our focus, for whatever reason, that God feels a million miles away. The same thing happens in marriage – a loss of intimacy; diminished fellowship; reduced communication; remoteness rather than closeness. These feelings are factual, but when it comes to the Lord, they are not founded in the overarching truth of our salvation, but in the experience of the moment. And the way back to intimacy with Him is a return to faith. A return to acknowledging Him, His Person, His Presence, and His rightful place. We call that return to faith repentance; a re-alignment of our hearts and minds with Him.
In the same way, churches might lose the Presence. It’s not that God is absent, but that there has been a disconnection in fellowship. A carnality has crept in, and the Lord has lost His rightful place in the corporate heart. Repentance is necessary. But that repentance does not address separation (even though it might feel like it), but orientation. Under the Old Covenant, the Lord might well have withdrawn to the top of a fenced mountain, or retreated behind heavens turned to brass, but not so under the New Covenant. Christ forever rend the heavens, and the tabernacle of God is now with men.
The irony is that those who most fervently set out to seek the Lord run the risk of steeping themselves in unbelief. The harder we search for Him, the more we can undermine the glorious foundation of our faith, which reveals the God who sought and found us! Let us contend for intimacy by all means, seeking the Lord as a wife might seek her husband and vice-versa, but let us make sure that we never assume separation. The unbeliever is yet to be reconciled to God, but the Christian has been reconciled already.
Let’s return for a moment to the many metaphors describing the church. Let’s be careful in how we apply them. The church is not a house being built so that God can move in; it is a house being built around a God who has already moved in! She is not a bride-to-be awaiting her wedding day; she is a bride enjoying her husband, Jesus. The age to come promises a fullness, now tasted, but not yet fully possessed. Yet Christ has blurred the lines, and the age to come has broken into this age as surely as Heaven has come to earth, leaving us with the perpetual promise of more.
The Presence of God is the jewel, the gathering of the saints the setting. Let’s keep the main thing the main thing. To assume the Presence is not to be presumptuous, but to believe! Let us be careful to welcome Him whenever we gather, but not from afar. He is the ultimate guest of honour who has condescended to be ever-present when we gather, for which we will be ever-grateful.
This is the fifth in a series of letters to our local church. I’ve been mandated by the Lord to gather the congregation in a fresh way, and I write to provide the what and the why. The aim is to see many more of the saints present on Sunday mornings (and on time if possible, please), ready to be and to do in accordance with the Lord – His word, His will and His ways. This letter is effectively His invitation to you to join us on the journey!
Jesus, the Living Word, said that we, His church, are a city on a hill: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14).
Our Bibles, the written Word, provide us with a host of other metaphors that also describe His church. These are given us to enrich our understanding, even while revealing just how gloriously multi-faceted the church that Jesus is building is. Amongst other things, she is a family, a household, a body, and a fruitful vine. She is an olive tree. She is a temple and a tabernacle, a royal priesthood and a holy nation. She is a bride and a flock, she is a field, and she is an army.
What is so clear from Scripture is less evident on the ground. The statistics reflect that in the average local church, ten to twenty percent of the congregation are workers, and the other eighty to ninety percent attendees. In other words, a congregation of two hundred will have somewhere between twenty and forty people on staff and in volunteer teams, doing everything necessary to keep the wheels turning – music, sound, children’s ministry, small group leadership, and the like. Take the church up to two thousand, and the staff and volunteers complement will be up around the two hundred mark. Twenty thousand, and you’ll need two thousand.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. How many preachers can we have on a Sunday, or worship leaders, or ushers? The teams that enable the church to function when gathered are to be lauded and applauded. Their gifts and callings are a blessing, and we value their contributions greatly! But the question remains, what about the rest?
As an aside, the equation changes dramatically when the gathering is much smaller. Plant a church of twenty people and everyone is a contributor. A cell group or house church is the same. The caution in these environments is that with everyone indispensable, obligations easily undermine freedoms, to no good end. Also bear in mind that the first congregation in Jerusalem grew to many thousands very quickly, as did the churches in Antioch and Ephesus in the same era. Small is therefore not necessarily the goal when doing church.
But let’s stay with the eighty percent. The so-called “go to church” people. According to Jesus, they are the light of the world. Monday through Saturday, they are lamps on stands, but together they illuminate nations. Obviously we can’t shoe-horn everything that it means to be and do church into ninety minutes on a Sunday morning, but the point remains. From Jesus’ perspective, the eighty percent are bricks, soldiers, branches and body parts. We must therefore grapple with what that looks like when it’s working as He ordained it to.
As we gather, we should reflect what Jesus declared His church to be. For surely when the church gathers a city on a hill gathers, as does an army, a body, a building, a family and a fruitful vine? Surely this should be self-evident? Unable to conceptualize these things, we’ve traded true contribution for mere participation. Sing. Dance. Clap. Give. Do these, under-girded by supportive virtues like faithfulness, generosity and willing service, and you’re everything the average leadership could hope for. But where in that is the sense of being indispensable. Bricks hardly attend a building any more than arms and legs attend a body. Long may we continue to sing, dance, clap and give, but there has to be much more to it all than that!
Herewith a vital key: In our individual lives as Christians, we do who we are (identity fuels life). As we think in our hearts, so are we. We live right because He has made us righteous. We conduct ourselves as children of God because that is who we are. The same principle applies corporately: congregations will only be who they are in their understanding. Think of the people in the seats as extras on the set on Sunday mornings, and they will never step into their actual role so integral to the plot. People will only brick and branch to the degree to which they are bricks and branches in their own hearts and minds.
Bricks and soldiers, arms and legs – all are indispensable. Simply “getting it” is what starts to change everything. Learning to brick and to soldier together is the easy part, because we can’t but figure that out once the penny has dropped. A renewal of our minds beckons and is pivotal to transformation. As we glimpse a better way, we start the change by first recognising that our thinking needs to shift. That recognition is the beginning of the seismic shift the Bible calls repentance. As the revelation intensifies, we receive the fresh truth, embracing it, taking it to ourselves, and making it our own. And as we do that, we begin to respond accordingly, appropriating and applying it to ourselves and to those around us. Almost before we know it, we find ourselves living in what we’ve seen, doing who we are.
Every gathered congregation is already a city on a hill, potentially ablaze. The other metaphors apply in the same way. Destiny calls. The longing for more is already a-stir in the hearts of the saints. Let that which is asleep awaken and that which is sedentary arise!
The fourth is a series of letters to a local church …
These letters are at heart an appeal to a congregation to gather. To get to the Sunday meetings more often than not. To get there on time, and with as open and as expectant a heart as possible. It’s time to build the house! Each letter will speak to why and how we should do so. Please read each one carefully and prayerfully.
“You are the light of the world.
A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14).
Someone described the typical local church as a rugby match – a crowd of people badly in need of exercise urging on a handful of exhausted folk desperately in need of a rest! The analogy always brings a smile as folk recognise the truth of it.
But what if the whole idea is a red herring? Truth is, there’s not much space on the playing field for the crowd. It’s all very well to challenge the folk in the seats to get some skin in the game, but what we’re often aiming for is more bums on more seats more often. And of course we need them to keep chipping in their gate money to fund the whole thing while they’re at it. Preach your heart out on subjects like commitment and involvement, and it might well end up in more people in prayer meetings, mens and womens events, small groups, Bible college, and conferences. But that doesn’t equate to a significant increase in the number of players on the field. The club may seem far more successful, even fielding a second or third team in the league. They might move up in the rankings and put some silverware on display. But when all is said and done, you still have a crowd needing exercise watching the few who could really use a rest, just on a grander scale.
Others shift the debate by viewing the church meetings as opportunities for the specialist few to equip the many in the business of Christian living. For them, the church gathered is somewhere between a hospital for the sick and a boot camp for training the army. To return to the analogy of the rugby game, the real stuff takes place out there in the real world during the week. Sunday is all-important locker-room time. The injured get their cuts and scrapes attended. Fresh kit is thrown onto tired bodies. Everyone gets something to eat and drink. The limited time available is put to good use by the experts giving the players a pep talk. Then it’s back out onto the pitch for real-life match-time once again.
This doesn’t align with what Jesus had to say either. Just as His city on a hill cannot possibly be a star-studded stage with an adoring crowd, neither can it be a behind-the-scenes ops center, working to ensure that individual lamps are kept shining brightly on their individual stands in homes during the week. A quantum leap in thinking is necessary.
Let’s stay with the rugby match analogy. Imagine the same stadium that we started with, match underway, with a significant crowd in attendance. But now, imagine that the really important stuff is emanating from the crowd. What they are doing is the main event, and everything going on down on the pitch is geared towards encouraging their contribution. The actual game is being played in the stands. Animate the bleachers in your mind’s eye. They’re pulsating with life. There’s nothing passive about these people. They’re doing the stuff. They’re not spectators, or fans, or consumers. They’re contributors. They are locked in, fully engaged. They know why they’ve gathered, and they know what they’re doing. On purpose, and in purpose. They know that the important stuff they’re doing is only possible en masse, and the more the merrier. Apart, they are individual lamps on stands. Together, they are a city on a hill, giving light to the nations.
I’d be interested to know what it was you visualised them doing? What is the “stuff”? No metaphor is complete in and of itself, and I’m not trying to stretch things to the point of incredulity, but please take my point. I’m also not minimizing the giving and serving that keeps the wheels turning on a Sunday morning, but these are things we all know intuitively if we’re honest. Something is not quite right with the way we’ve thought about church gatherings. Something is missing!
But what if any gathered congregation is potentially much, much more than we’ve thought? The Scriptures teach that, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). What if some of the most important good works are to be walked in together as a congregation when we gather? What if we’ve been walking right past significant breakthroughs, blinded by our preconditioning?
Ask yourself the question (in the context of the church gathered): What is it that anyone can contribute, and that everyone should contribute, in order for the church to be the city on a hill Jesus is raising up?
Our challenge is to answer that question well. To see, understand, enable and release what is already in the house every Sunday, sitting right there in the pews. If we can do that, then gathering will once again become one of the most important things that any Christian can do!
Every blessing as we discover more together.
See you Sunday!
This was the fourth in a series of letters to our local church. Here are the links to the first three …
The prophet Habakkuk was encouraged by the Lord to billboard the vision. A clever double entendre, say the scholars – make it so plain that he who runs can read it, and so plain that he who reads it will run with it. Great wordplay. Great administration of vision. Let’s take a leaf from Habakkuk’s book and read the words of Jesus yet again.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matt 5:14-15).
No local church will ever perfectly represent the one, glorious, transcendent, eternal church that Jesus is building. But then again, neither does any individual believer perfectly represent Christ. We’re all witnesses to Him, but the treasure will always be in jars of clay, individually and corporately. That’s the way it all works because that’s the way He set things up. It makes His grace the hero, rather than our efforts.
Once we can see that city on a hill in the Spirit, faith for it arises in our hearts. And as with any vision that grip our hearts, the question is “where do we start?”
The answer to that question in terms of our individual witness is self-evident. We do who we are, living for Jesus from the heart. Authenticity is what gives the whole exercise credibility. Our lights then shine through words, works, ways and wonders, as we go about our daily lives, rubbing shoulders with family, friends, neighbors and colleagues. We trust Holy Spirit to lead us, and when He does, we do what He tells us to do. It’s not in the least bit complicated. Even little children understand it.
It’s no less complicated for a local church. We are the “ekklessia”. The called out ones. The Greek carries nuance, and the word is as accurately translated “assembly” as “church”, depending on context. We witness to Christ by doing who we are. We are the church, and as such we gather in His Name. There is perfect congruence here. Christians are those who have taken Christ’s Name, and as the church, we congregate in it.
Of course the local church is a much more profound mystery than just a meeting. It is all at once body, building, army, vine, family, household, and more besides. Each and every local church is all of these things in measure, if none in fullness. Our completeness awaits in the age to come. But it does all start in the simplicity of gathering. In Him, to Him, with Him and for Him. Nothing complicated. No strings attached.
Ever since I can remember there has been talk about recapturing the glories of the early church. These conversations somehow seem to focus on God’s part of the deal – the awe, the great grace, the salvations, the miracles, the sacrificial living. Revisit the text and you’ll discover that our part is really simple. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Really simple Jesus-centered stuff, that requires little beyond showing up with open faith-filled hearts. What was the apostles teaching, if not the Gospel? What was the fellowship, if not those in Christ, gathering in partnership in His Name? The breaking of bread is a celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and prayer is overt dependence on Him in all things. Hardly the makings of elite spirituality. When the early church gathered, it was all about Him!
Is it not amazing how much controversy surrounds church attendance? Could it be that much of the debate and baggage is there to distract and detract from simple fundamentals: I am in Christ. We are the church. Not either/or, but both/and.
It’s that little boy all over again. We show up, five loaves and two fish in hand. None of us has much to offer. Jesus is the one who shows up with the power and the plan. And it’s the Twelve all over again. We get to participate in His plan and benefit from His power. Loaves and fish multiply in our hands, and we get to gather up the leftovers. Through it all, He is glorified, we are edified, and the world is impacted. Along the way bricks become a building, soldiers an army, and bits and bobs of flesh and bone a body. He forges the partnerships, vertical and horizontal. We show up in with intent, hearts full of faith, and He does the rest. “A city on a hill cannot be hidden”.
Just imagine what yet shall be.
Yours in Christ Jesus.
This is the second in a series of letters written to our local church. They build upon one another, line upon line, precept upon precept. To read the first letter, click here – City on a Hill
I’m so grateful for the power of the pen, which allows me to communicate across the congregation amidst the pressing demands of modern living.
Jesus said of us, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matt 5:14-15).
It is vital for each and every believer to take their place amongst God’s people in a tangible and practical way. Being a city on a hill is not pie in the sky stuff; it’s steak on the plate stuff. Jesus was not describing an ethereal, invisible or conceptual city, but a dynamic reality. The local church is God’s light shining into the darkness of our actual world. We are Him on display. We shine in words, works, ways and wonders. Jesus in our midst imbues our gathering with Presence and glory. People can see it, point to it, visit it, experience it and join it. It turns out, brothers and sisters, that we should all “go to church” after all!
The whole exercise is a multi-dimensional partnership. As we choose to muck our lot into our local church in partnership with other believers, a wonderful thing happens – Heaven partners with earth also. The result is a breathtaking win-win every which way. God is glorified, we are edified, and the world is impacted. We benefit even as we give ourselves away, and find ourselves immeasurably enriched.
I’m not proposing some petty cause-and-effect, self-enhancement formula here. This is not tit-for-tat and give-to-get. Teach it that way and you’ll shipwreck people. The truth is that we don’t usually need our local church in any urgent, day-to-day sort of way. We might serve it with that kind of immediacy, but it serves us in a far more big-picture sort of way. Solomon understood when he wrote, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” (Eccl 11:1). This sowing and reaping is a dynamic which the Lord has embedded in creation. Even those who are not Christians recognise it. They call it karma – what goes around comes around. This is why losing one’s life for Christ and His Gospel ultimately saves it. This immutable principle is plastered across Scripture. Examples abound. “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:38).
The local church is an ecosystem. Relationships are symbiotic, with every organism benefiting as the entire ecosystem thrives. Belonging to it is not an optional extra either, but a facet of our very identity in Christ. We are all temples of the Holy Spirit, but only together are we the church. We are all children of God in our own right, but only together are we His family. There my Father is “our Father in heaven”, as Jesus said.
In making the point, our own children spring to mind. I’m so grateful that Estelle and I have raised our family within the local church. It’s not always been easy, what with leading, and with two church splits in a four year period some while ago. Nonetheless, I rejoice that my children have had the basics of the faith instilled in them. They have a grounding in the Scriptures. All three know the Lord. They’ve been baptised as believers. They’ve been baptised in the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. They’ve been persuaded of His faithfulness through a myriad of testimonies of all imaginable kinds over the years. They know how to pray. They know what it means to lift their hands in worship in the congregation of the saints. They are no strangers to the Lord’s manifest Presence. They’ve witnessed miracles, signs and wonders. Of course we’ve played our part, but the local church has been indispensable in the journey.
Our need for the benefits of this symbiosis intensifies all the more when the days are dark. Jesus said, “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Matt 24:12). We would be hard pressed to better describe our day and age. The imminent threat is not the lawlessness itself, nor a loss of salvation, but the life-extinguishing impact which sustained trouble has on our inner man. Dreams fade and visions die as hope is suffocated. Stretched to the limit, tank empty, the besieged heart unwittingly moves into survival mode. The walls go up as the core temperature goes down, leaving the inner man curled up in a foetal position. The experience is not unique to the Christian, but for those of us who are in Christ, it numbs our faith, sending it into hibernation. Instead of living, we exist, forfeiting the abundantly fruitful “reigning in life” Jesus promised (Rom 5:17).
How exquisite the wisdom of this New Covenant ecosystem is. We keep our eyes glued on Jesus and yield our hearts in service alongside our brothers and sisters. As we do, we are encouraged, nourished, edified, renewed, refreshed and sustained. We who ensure the city on the hill remains ablaze find our own hearts warmed again and again. Our lamps have oil, as it were. Grace abounds, faith grows, the kingdom comes, life flows, and fruit abounds.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that the church should be the center of our Christianity. Jesus is that! But the local church is a God-given means of grace. She facilitates the touch of Heaven on earth in ways we cannot routinely access on our own. She was never designed to tower over our lives in Christ, but to undergird them. As such, she should always be keel-heavy and superstructure-light, with Christ and His Gospel her foundation, and Christ in His glory her crown.
The starting point is in gathering. Nothing complicated or onerous. Just the willingness and expectancy of faith. Me thinking we, and responding accordingly.