Tag Archives: Church

The Gospel redeems

The Gospel is the continuous application of God’s once-for-all solution in Christ Jesus. There is nowhere it cannot go, no one it cannot save, and no situation that it cannot redeem. It is the yeast in the dough; the smallest of seeds that becomes the biggest of trees; literally Heaven invading earth.

This sweet Pauline one-liner – “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:22) – is a concluding comment in his letter to the church in Philippi. What gets it jumping off the page is realising that Paul was writing from prison in Rome. Rome, epicentre of the mighty Roman Empire. Rome, which in the person of Pontius Pilate had literally issued Jesus’ death warrant. Rome, home to the Empire’s supreme commander, Caesar. Caesar, whose household had been infiltrated by the Gospel. Those of Caesar’s household greet you!

This Gospel is God’s strategy for the redemption of rebel planet earth. The way it all works is quite sublime. It is God who makes Christians. Each and every one is His workmanship, and so inherently witness to Him. This is self-evident. The newborn are testimony to the new birth. As trophies of the cross, we testify by our very existence, even if we never do a single thing for the fame of His Name. Yet we are not just static trophies of grace on the mantelpiece of heaven. Rather, we are living trophies, the workmanship of God, and engineered to partner with Him. In an action of extraordinary condescension, the Lord invites us to co-labour with Him in the very Gospel that is our salvation. We, witnesses to His work, get to testify in addition to His grace in words, works, ways and wonders. And, rather unsurprisingly, the effectiveness of our witness is dependent on His efforts and not ours.

Good works have been prepared in advance for us to do. Works that are perfectly suited to our unique blend of abilities and circumstances. In Christ, living in God and living for God are one and the same thing. There is absolute congruence between who God has made us to be and what He has called us to do. The enabling baptism in the Holy Spirit empowers our witness significantly, but does not create it. The new birth does that. John the baptiser, under the Old Covenant, declared that he needed to decrease in order for Christ to increase. Jesus later stated emphatically that the least in the kingdom (born again) was greater than John. That is so because those who are in Christ have been co-crucified with Christ; His story is our story. We do not decrease for Him to increase. On the contrary, He increases as we grow into all that He has made and called us to be. He must increase, therefore we must increase also! Any theology that insists that true piety is achieved by dying to self denies that those in Christ are new creations. Acknowledging that the new has come is what frees us to live in freedom and fullness, veritable oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord.

The Gospel gifts us comfort in our own skins, and in Christ “authentic us” will always be infinitely more fruitful than “imitation someone else”. Learn of others, but be yourself. World evangelism is the job description of every believer. Many are the good works prepared in advance for each of us to do. The parameters of our daily lives are what describe the scope of our respective mission-fields. Our world is our parish, literally, even if not exclusive to us. The parishes of those around us overlap with ours, but in the great condescension of God, we are each invited to play our part. Accepting that invitation is our privilege, knowing full well that only one part really matters, and that’s His part. We are no one’s saviour; He is everyone’s Saviour. Our story might seem to have little value, except that in Christ our story is His story, and therefore invaluable. Thinking this way moves our paradigms beyond the restrictive confines of our vision, church or ministry, and encourages us to take our place in His vision, His church and His ministry.

A few will be called to leave their families for the sake of the Gospel; most will be called to love their families for the sake of the Gospel. Understanding this is life changing. The single mom, struggling to survive, learns that surviving and raising her child unto, for and in the Lord, is her ministry. Her life in God is her life for God. As such, she has the comprehensive backing of heaven, not one iota less than the television evangelist reaching multitudes. In Christ, everything we do, everywhere we go, and everyone we know, are all beneficiaries of our witness, if for no other reason than their being in our lives. As the Spirit leads and empowers, they are also likely beneficiaries of our witnessing, be it in words, works, ways or wonders. Think this way and our jobs are vocations (callings), no matter how menial they might seem to others, for we comprehend that we are strategically placed representatives, just because we’re us. It is a small step from there to becoming fully functioning ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven in our thinking, inviting those around us to be reconciled to God, just as we are.

The Gospel knows no great sacred-secular divide. That gulf is of dead religion’s making – a gulf which causes us to have Christian friends and non-Christian friends, sacred spaces and secular spaces. The Gospel corrects our thinking and teaches us that God loves His world; that we have only one life, and it is in Christ, with Christ in it. There we realise that we simply have friends, some of whom are believers, and some of whom are not (yet). There we know that any giving in response to the Spirit’s prompting is worship, whether in a church meeting on Sunday or to a beggar at the roadside on Monday. The Gospel unites our fragmented psyche and brings congruence to the many varied facets of our lives. It teaches us that living in the Lord is living for the Lord, and that the single important point of accountability for all of life is the will of God – His will as expressed in Christ Jesus, and His will in follow-ship of Him.

How we’ve diluted and domesticated the church by holding believers accountable to her vision and values. Christianity has become a diminished churchianity as accountability has centered on church – attendance, involvement, giving and service. This is small thinking, and will at best produce seemingly impressive local churches. The Gospel’s point of accountability is towards something far greater – global redemption. It is found in the glorious invitation that comes to us from Christ Himself. Having done all for us, “Come follow me”, He invites. If we’re going to ask each other anything by means of accountability, let’s ask each other whether we’re doing what God wants us to do. That question might harness fewer resources for the local church, but will unleash much more for the kingdom of heaven.

Local churches are wonderful things. It is my strong conviction that every believer should be a contributing member of one. But I also regard local churches to be the products of the Gospel, as well as essential conduits of the Gospel to those around them. Each local church will inevitably have its own distinctives, these in both strengths and weaknesses, but no matter what, the local church’s core business remains the same – the Gospel. Let’s hear far less about vision, values and ethos – about us and what we’re doing. Let’s keep things about the Gospel – about who He is and what He has done! Thinking this way releases believers and churches into glorious synergy with what the Lord is doing in our day. Local churches need not be controlling or confining. They can be givers rather than takers, and entities that believers live their Christian lives out of and from, rather than towards and into.

The redemption of the planet is in the Gospel. Local churches either tend to facilitate this flow or dam the river. Those who dam it most will produce temporary verdant oases that will inevitably tend towards stagnation over time. The church is not the power of God for salvation; the Gospel is. Myriad are the testimonies of just how much Jesus loves His world. Innumerable others await, and increase and acceleration will be logarithmic as Christians get clear on the Gospel, and are liberated and encouraged to be and to do, twenty-four-seven, anywhere and everywhere, as per the glory of the Good News. On every street in every village, and in every suburb in every city, are soul, situation and circumstance aplenty perfectly poised for redemption. Let it be. Amen!


This is the last in a series of posts adapted from the e-book “Why the Gospel is the Best News Ever!” by Gavin Cox. Go to the first post in the series by clicking here.

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No flags

flagpole-49506_640“No flags.” Another one-liner from the Lord, and this one as pithy as they come. As usual, I knew exactly what He meant. Since gaining numerical significance, the people of God have always carried tribal overtones within their unity. Jacob’s sons became the heads of twelve tribes, each with distinctives in character and calling. Benjamin, Levi, Judah – these are names with a great deal of meaning to anyone who has a handle on Old Testament history.

But problems arise when unity begins to fracture along these tribal lines. It is but a small step in the heart from Benjamin, Levi and Judah to “I’m of Apollos”, “I’m of Cephas”, and “I’m of Paul”. As Paul pointed out to the fragmented community in Corinth, we’re actually all of Christ, and this polarising stuff is counterproductive. The lesson is this: while we cannot avoid having distinctives, these should not define us. Christ alone does that. Some of our distinctives are primal, like skin colour and gender; others are nuanced, like doctrine and calling. No matter which, our carnal tendency is to quantify and categorise, define and delineate, and then associate and/or disassociate accordingly. The result is Christ divided; a house that crumbles. A fundamental error repeated over and over again.

So, no flags! No flags marking our allegiance to any faction of the church above another. And no flag calling for allegiance to this part of the church above another. Autonomous, inter-dependent local church – nothing more; nothing less – under the responsible government of it’s Biblically appointed eldership, and relationally connected to the important trans-local gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher. Nothing could be simpler or clearer.

b9317967944z-1_20150704151929_000_gohb8pva9-1-0Yet walking in this has been challenging in the utmost. The reason is not that other church leaders don’t understand or disagree with the position. Rather, it’s regarded as some sort of lofty idealism. Consequently, the Lord’s church is so divided along the lines of it’s respective distinctives, that it has often become the purveyor of a its respective brand of Christianity, more so than of the Gospel. Just gather with other leaders. The first question typically goes to who you’re “under”. For me this question raises something of a red flag (excuse the pun), because you soon discover that you’re welcome everywhere on a superficial level, but nowhere on a significant level. Unless of course you subscribe to the finer points of the distinctives of the brand in question.

To state this is to state the obvious: The New Testament church was one congregation, many apostles; not one apostle with his many congregations. Again, to state the obvious: Paul’s reference to some who he had raised up as sons was descriptive, not prescriptive. If the shoe fits, wear it, but let’s not insist that everyone dons our preferred brogues. All that does is corrupts and weakens the gene pool by incestuous inbreeding. Why should everyone we invest in undergo some sort of DNA transfusion in order to become just like us?

The flag issue ultimately addresses ownership. It is my strong conviction that the church, and by that I mean the local church, belongs to Christ. The Scriptures are clear on local church structures – elders and deacons; with elements of episcopal, presbyterian and congregational approaches, dependent on context. Any structures that emerge between these autonomous local churches and the glorious eternal church are man-engineered. They may facilitate health and mission, but they arise out of pragmatism (us) rather than Perfection (Him). Let’s hold onto them lightly. And when they begin to define us in ways that supersede our identity in Christ, let’s jettison them in haste.

Every local church has distinctives. These is nothing wrong with that. But so strong is our need to define ourselves by association that even a flagless local church runs the risk of becoming part of some no-flag movement, where flaglessness becomes the defining characteristic, and where like good teenagers, we all non-conform together in identical ways. See above, and count us out.

downloadOne last thought, and I include it simply because I encounter it so often. My resistance to defining alignment within the wider body of Christ is not because I’m hurt, bent and buckled. It seems there are those who resist relationships of depth and accountability because they are wounded, and it is true that living rogue doesn’t produce much by the way of good fruit. But I’m not rogue. Neither are many others who share these convictions. And we are walking in, and healthily desirous of, trans-local relationships of depth and accountability. We’re just not prepared to become card-carrying movement members, for doing so would have us perpetuating an exclusivity and elitism that needs to be flushed out from amongst the people of God, and not reinforced and entrenched.

imagesSo it is that the proverbial flagpole rises high above the roof of the building in which our local church gathers on Sunday mornings. Around us, any number of believers, and more commonly leaders, eye its vacant tip with considerable perplexity, and at times more than a little disdain. We know this because they agitate about it, and subtly raise the matter with us again and again; and at times not so subtly. But long may it so remain, and soon may those whom it bothers come to see that it really is OK. For a flagless flagpole does not default to a Jolly Roger (the skull-and-crossbones, and pirates ahoy!), or half-mast (another failed church and perhaps a building for sale). If it defaults anywhere, it’s to a white flag, and this part of the body of Christ unwilling to be at war with the rest of itself.

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Only churches that can’t, will

images (1)The church of our Lord Jesus Christ is that glorious ensemble of all saints from throughout the ages. The party is open-ended, and His invitation to the whosoever will stands. Every day men and women all over the globe join God’s eternal family as they come to faith, for inclusion is by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone.

Our Lord’s church is a transcendent eternal reality that is essentially spiritual in nature. It is superlative to our temporal, finite world, and could never be contained by it. Yet it does manifest in our see-hear-smell-taste-touch world in localised communities we call churches. These local churches can be disturbingly conflicted expressions of life, for our fallen world cannot even begin to contain the glories of God. The Bible tells us that it will take a new heaven and earth to do that. Instead, churches are all too human, and as such are a blend of the glorious (God) and the grotesque (broken humanity).

Implicit in this dilemma is a question, and the harder we try to answer that question, the worse we fare. This is so because loving community cannot be administrated. It is a work of the Spirit and not the product of our own efforts. How often have we been captivated and provoked by the descriptions of the New Testament church – an empowered, praying, devoted, growing, sacrificial and serving community, cloaked in grace and pulsating with life. Yet, try as we might, our efforts can do nought but shipwreck on the rocky shoreline of legalism, control and idealism.
Alongside the Charismatic Renewal of the 1960’s and 70’s was secondary action of the Lord, which birthed Christian communities. He did so in extraordinary ways and in unlikely places. These communities burgeoned all over the globe, independently of one another, but simultaneously, and typically shared a handful of key characteristics, although there were exceptions. They shared a theology (they were Charismatic), a philosophy of church (the people of God should live in community), and a few key practices (most significantly frequent gathering, extended households and a common purse).

images (1)A survey reveals that these communities fell loosely into five categories. Some were expat communities: their people also held nationality and language in common, and so they coagulated on cultural as well as spiritual grounds as these exiles found one another. Others were parish communities: mainline denominations that functioned along strict parish lines lent themselves to a spirit-infused community arising in the midst of the dead institutionalism of the parish church, as the Holy Spirit brought new life in a particular geographical area. Still others were missional communities: these gathered around the vision of evangelising clearly defined segments of society, and some survive to date having evolved into mission organisations. The Seaman’s Mission is an example. Yet others were church communities: believers left existing churches, with which they had become disenchanted, in order to form communities that were new expressions of and alternatives to those existing local churches. The final category were even more idealistic than the others, and formed around a covenant of sorts, legislating their new and superior life together right from the start. Note that in the untidiness of the living, many of these communities could be regarded as being in more than one of the five categories describes above, all depending on how they were perceived.

The overwhelming observation to be made, however, is that it is now a generation later, and there is little evidence of their existence. It also appears axiomatic that the more legalistic, zealous and idealistic they were, the less admirable their longer-term fruit. This is the lesson of the day and the point of this post. The harder we try, the worse we do! Christianity is not an endeavour fueled by human effort. On the contrary, it is thanks to the work of God alone. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the history of the church, which has consistently been one of over-promising and under-delivering. The example of community from the 60’s and 70’s is simply a case-study drawn from a wider context that shares its flaws. The history of the church is also a history that seems totally committed to repeating itself. Has your church finally got it all figured out? Run! God gives grace to the humble, but immutably opposes the proud!

churchAgainst this background, the Scriptures that so richly describe Christian community continue to beckon. The opening chapters of Acts read as they always have, no matter how disbelieving or cynical the eyes reading the text. They do so, not in prescription, but in description. They drive us to our knees, and they keep us salivating for a life together that glorifies the Lord and meets our need for communion. We know, in the depth of our being, that the Lord shall have His way. It shall be so by the Spirit, and the local church, at the end, shall be far more glorious than the local church ever was at the beginning. The fullness of the New Covenant guarantees this. But just like everything else that is our inheritance in Christ, it shall be by grace alone, through faith alone, and because of Christ alone. It shall be done to us and for us, and we shall participate and benefit, amazed.

To illustrate, permit me to reduce legalism, control and idealism to the microcosm of the interpersonal. It troubles me deeply (as it should) when saints inform me that they love me because Jesus said they must. Not only do their words declare me unlovely, but in so saying they reveal that they have reduced the commands of our Christ to the law of their living, thereby ensuring that they will not obey Him. Loving one another as Jesus does is only within reach of the heart that admits that it cannot do so. Grasp this and you’ll understand the mystery of grace and its promise of a bright future: only those who can’t can, and only churches that can’t will. When it comes to our life together, this is that. So it is, for so the Lord has engineered it to be.

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Bang for your buck

downloadI recently encountered an intriguing thought process on the subject of church funding, budgets and expenditure. The point made was that the best measure for evaluating where things are at money-wise is cost per head of the Sunday gathering. In other words, if a congregation with an average attendance of one hundred has a monthly budget of forty thousand, and the average month has four Sundays, then the cost per head per service is one hundred (whatever currency applies).

Churches do a heck of a lot more than host a Sunday service – anything from counselling, small groups and youth ministry through church planting and TV ministry – and unless these are separate cost centers, these costs will inflated the cost per person per service number, because they’ll be wrongly included there. That said, the number arrived at is accurate when it comes to giving required per head per service, because that is precisely how much the church needs on the incoming end in order to meet budget.

Once you’ve done the maths for your church, here are some factors worth considering as you think things through. In random order, then, and with the stated intent of provoking thought – 1. Church as we know it is a very expensive endeavour. Spiritual food, it seems, comes at restaurant prices. 2. Staff and facilities are typically the biggest expenses, and when we break our number down into what goes where, we’re likely discover that much more is going into making Sunday mornings happen than what we would’ve initially thought. And 3. The bigger the church gets, the higher the number is likely to be. Large churches seem to attracted a better-heeled membership and can appear awash in money, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to an economy of scale, because bigger demands better in our day and age, and better doesn’t come cheap. Bigger churches being more expensive to run per member than what smaller ones are seems counterintuitive.

These same dynamics are all-the-more evident when we consider how the church spends its human capital, which is far more precious than cash. Innumerable volunteers spend endless hours making Sundays happen. The bigger the ship and the more its sails, the bigger the crew. Except that in this department tiny churches are probably the most demanding, because it’s an all-hands-on-deck affair. Could it be that inordinately high levels of demand are because churches set out to provide a forum for people to come to be baptised and discipled, when what Jesus explicitly commanded us to do was to go out, baptising and discipling as we did so?

Throwing stones is always unhelpful, and running the numbers for the church I love and lead simply exposes me as another noisy fella with a megaphone who is standing in a glass menagerie. The truth is that the measuring any local church’s effectiveness and efficiency is less than straightforward. For me and mine, we are not where we once were on these matters, but neither are we yet where we want to be. There is also no desire whatsoever to entrench any form of poverty mentality; the Bank of Heaven is certainly not cash-strapped. That said, I am convinced that a significant key to taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth is a radical rethink about what we’re doing with what we already have. How much bang for the buck we’re getting is an integral part of that. What do you think?

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