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.