Being distributed across e-book platforms as we speak!
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!