Snapshots: Day 75

Snapshots: Day 75

The Snapshot: “These are the laws you are to set before them.” (Ex 21:1) Many people don’t like ‘laws’ but the Laws of Moses are a sign of God’s love. They were clues to how He had designed us to live, how a community can live at peace, how things can be put right when we mess up, how to live differently and distinctly from the pagan nations surrounding them, how to live healthily dealing with various health problems that crop up in this fallen world  and, of course, how to relate to Him. They were specifically for Israel (and not us – many people don’t realize this), an agrarian society that was uniquely called to be God’s people. As Christians we have different ‘laws’ in the New Testament, all enhancing the wonder of our relationship with God through Jesus.

Further Consideration: We have been considering the ‘rules’ we find in the New Testament that guide us in our walk with Christ, rules which, I would suggest, reflect the laws of Moses in their purposes. They tell us how He has designed us to live in Christ, (e.g. Eph 2:1-10) forgiven and cleansed by his work on the Cross, now empowered by His Spirit. They show us how to be put right with God when we mess up (1 Jn 1:9, 2:1,2), how we can live differently from our neighbors (Rom 12:2), how to deal with health issues (Jas 5:14-16) and how to relate to Him (e.g. Phil 4:6,7). As you read through your New Testament watch out for these things and you will see many more instances of each of them. But there are two important things to be said.

First, keeping these laws or rules are not what enables us to be a Christian. We do not earn our salvation by rule-keeping; we receive it by believing in Jesus, that he is the Son of God who has died and risen again and is seated at the Father’s right hand, ruling in the midst of his enemies. The ‘rules’ are just ways we live out this new relationship with God that Jesus Has earned for us.

Second, these ‘rules’ distinguish us from our non-Christian neighbour and our call to him or her is not to follow the rules but to believe in Jesus. Our ‘rule-keeping’ is to demonstrate the wisdom and way of God that has been opened up to us through Christ. Don’t expect your unbelieving neighbour to follow and understand these same rules, because they cannot do that except as an outworking of the faith they have come to accept (hopefully) in Christ. The Laws of Moses and the rules of the New Testament reveal the love, goodness and wisdom of God. Some of those laws are strange to us because they reflected the pagan lives and practices around them to be avoided. Another reason why they are not for us. We have our own in Christ.

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34. Led

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 6 – Thinking about Leaders

34. Led

Acts 20:17,28  Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church…. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.

Eph 4:11,12  Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

Taken for Granted: We have been, may I remind us, considering facets of what the church is, if possible by going back to basics and starting from scratch. The difficulty, as I sought to point out a few studies back, is that church has been around for two thousand years and we take certain things for granted, no more so than when we come to the subject of leadership. In this Part, the following will be the studies before us:

  1. Led
  2. Local leaders – overseers
  3. Local leaders – shepherds
  4. Local leaders – elders
  5. Local Leaders – The Nature of the Church (1)
  6. Gifts of Ministries – Introduction
  7. Gifts of Ministries – to plant
  8. Gifts of Ministries – to build up
  9. The Servants – Deacons
  10. The Nature of the Church (2)

Where Angels fear to Tread: To try and consider from scratch the whole area of leadership in the church is potentially a hotbed for hostile responses. The Church changed dramatically from that first century after Christ and so our perspective on church leadership is, in many places, set in the concrete of tradition and passing centuries, a concrete that is staggeringly different from that found in the decades after Christ.

Balance: It is too easy to attack modern structures but we should never attack the leaders for many are the godliest men you can find – not all, but many (you only have to follow the news to see ongoing child-abuse scandals to note that not all are godly). Some of these leaders use their roles in very good ways to demonstrate righteous living. Never write off leaders of a part of the Church that is alien to your way of thinking because at the worst these are men or women considering they are following a vocation, a job with a calling, even if some are not sure of their calling when it comes to it; often, in the middle, are godly men and women trapped in an institution, trying their best, even if that falls short of the New Testament teaching; at the best it is men and women with a godly call on their lives seeking to be God’s servants with whole hearts and blessing those in Jesus’ kingdom.

Madness: Having been a church leader for well over twenty-five years, having known many leaders, and having watched many more, my long-term conclusion is that anyone who wants to be a church leader without a very clear calling from God is mad. Sorry to be blunt but leaders are God’s ‘out-front-people’ and as such they are the first to receive brickbats from the enemy, and I know very few leaders who have not been wounded along the way, and some who have had serious mental or physical breakdowns because of being ‘in the ministry’. One has to be honest and say that often the causes of such breakdowns are the people of God, as tragic as that is, and we will seek to cover how to avoid that in the days ahead, as we consider plurality of leaders.

A Difficulty: The presence of these established institutions, because we take them for granted, makes it very difficult to put aside all our presuppositions and start from scratch. Why, some might immediately ask, do we need to do that anyway? Supposing (and it doesn’t) the world said that child abuse, for example, was acceptable behaviour, that would not mean that it is right, especially when we measure it against New Testament teaching. We who are church leaders are not to measure what we do by way the world does things, but by the way God does things as revealed through the New Testament, and the responsibility for holding on to that sits on the shoulders of God’s leaders at large. It is important that we try, therefore, to truly get to get to grips with this subject which is why this Part will extend to at least ten studies.

Who is a Leader? All, whatever shade or hue of ecumenical life they come from, would agree I believe that church leaders, meaning those at the top of the pile, if I may put it so crudely, are to be those called of God; let’s agree on that. It starts with God. But the difficulty is knowing or recognizing such a call. There are, essentially, two different approaches to recognizing calling. The main traditional denominations usually go along with the sense of calling that an individual has, and if other ‘senior’ leaders agree to what they have sensed, they tend to send them off for training and then after a period of education and training, formally release then into a church context. A second approach is to simply watch and observe the life, gifting, and emerging ministry of a member of the church, and give them space to work that out even more and, as the body recognises them, openly accept them as leaders. Training may or may not follow. Both approaches have both pros and cons. But, I suggest, there are two bigger questions to be asked and answered: first, why does the church need leaders (not so obvious as you might think) and then, second, what actually is a leader?

Why do we need leaders?  Put aside my earlier analogy of a desert island where a number of survivors find the truth of the Bible impacts them, and they turn to God through Christ as they find it in the New Testament. Instead take them back to the mainland where they all happen to live in the same area. They decide to continue meeting together and now they are a ‘church’ living in a Western nation, say. Let’s consider various things that they might experience:

(i) They are now in an environment where the world imposes questions on them. They talk among each other about issues raised.  One or two have taken the trouble to dig more deeply into the Bible and come up with suggested answers.

(ii) Life goes up happily until one day some newcomers arrive sowing doubts about the way they are conducting church and life in general. The group now shows signs of confusion that might best be described as that which is seen when a flock of sheep are disturbed and potentially scattered. The ones and two’s who had previously shown signs of leadership step up to the mark and with authority refute the false teaching being brought in from outside. Peace is restored.

(iii) Then one day, two of the members of the group have a disagreement. It could be theological, it could be ethical, it could be over material or practical issues in life. It has the potential for causing division in the group. The ‘leaders’ step in and with wisdom and grace bring about reconciliation, and peace and order are restored.

(iv) A need appears within some in the group and they call on the group to help. The ‘leaders’ preside over that help and ensure it is fair and adequate.

Leaders, we have seen are those who oversee and seek to resolve these various problems or difficulties for the good of the greater body.

So what is a Leader in the Church? Because of the nature of the church and all that we have said about how people become Christians, they are first and foremost believers, Christians who have been born again of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, we would hope in the light of what we have said about ‘life’ and the Holy Spirit, they would clearly be Spirit-filled believers.  Moreover, because we have said our starting place is God, we would hope these are clearly godly people, people who demonstrate a depth of relationship and experience with the Lord, people who put prayer high on their agenda.

Because the church, we have said, is also a place (a body) where lives are founded on the New Testament, we would want these ‘leaders’ to be clear examples of those who understand and keep to that teaching and whose lives are righteous, who are examples to others of right and good and godly living. We would want them to demonstrate maturity, a maturity that is demonstrated by wisdom and the fruit of the Spirit. But as we look at the teaching on loving and caring for one another, we realize that we are looking for people who care about people: first and foremost caring about God, but then second, very clearly putting people as their next highest priority on the agenda.

And So? What have we said in these last two paragraphs? First, problems occur. Problems to do with belief, problems to do with relationships, problems about the way we go about life as Christians, the way we go about the corporate life as church, and the way we fend off heresy, and the way we ensure the church is a place of goodness, righteousness and caring. In other words, these are the needs that arise when any group of Christian people gather together. Second, we find that there are those who rise up to meet these needs but, more than that, they do it out of a living, vibrant, Spirit-filled relationship with God, demonstrating the life He reveals in the New Testament, an example for others to follow. Now that is clearly our starting point and there is much more to be added which we will go on to consider shortly. What I have sought to do, is put aside all we know of ‘what is’ and reflect on why there are ‘leaders’ in church, the needs for leaders and the type of people who will meet those needs.

To finish with, let’s move into Scripture next and note Paul’s instruction to Titus and highlight the things we’ve just seen: “An elder must be blameless, …  Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it,” (Titus 1:6-9) and tomorrow we’ll reflect more on some of the names given to leaders. This is just the starting place.

32. Being Together

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

32. Being Together

Acts 2:44,46  All the believers were together and had everything in common…. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.

A change around: Back in Study 26 “Building People” we focused on the subject of people in the church in the context of vision. Here I want to expand on that and focus ‘church’ in the context of people. We have previously considered this verse near the end of Acts 2 but I just want to emphasize this word ‘together’ and what is implied by it, noting also the fact that they were together every day. Now I know this was the embryonic church and it was full of excitement, no doubt at the wonder of the new thing that was happening and, indeed, I have been around and been part of the birth of a new local church – and it is exciting – but the sense that comes over in these verses just seems to highlight and emphasize the different culture of which we are part today. I know that the experience of church for some is simply an hour on a Sunday morning each week – and that’s it!   It is possible that there is an hour prayer meeting or maybe a fellowship group once a week or once every two weeks, but it seems our ‘church experience’ is so often far from what we find here in Acts.

Modern Culture: Now I can almost sense the angst rising up in some as they want to scream out, “But we’re so busy!”  Now I assume this is a purely Western experience that comes out of affluence, the ability to travel and the amazing provision that is here within modern culture. Last year we visited a couple of friends who had moved out of our district several years ago and we were doing a catch-up visit. “So what do you do with yourselves up here, John?” I asked with a slightly foolish condescending attitude, that now they were living in this rural area they probably found it hard to fill their time. For the next half hour John listed off and explained the ten activities that they were now involved with each week, things outside their church experience (which they still maintained). I sat dumbstruck and chastened. They had fuller and more interesting lives than we had – but their life WAS FULL.

I watch the families of our three children and observe the many things the grandchildren get involved with. I watch other young families and see how one or other of the parents is constantly taxiing the children from one football practice to an art group to a ballet class to tennis lesson, and so it goes on. It is little wonder that to focus on these strange Christians in Acts 2 is almost embarrassing. It is another world. The tragedy for us – and it seems we don’t realize this most of the time – is that this merry-go-round of activities (ours and of the children) saps our energy or we fail to see these things in the light of the potential of the kingdom of God.

Modern Relationships: The world of text, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. etc. seems to suggest a world of communication, a world of relationships but more and more studies indicate that the truth is that these communication methods are purely superficial and although they do give a feeling of connectiveness it is very shallow, and many (at a point of vulnerability) confess that they have very few real friends. So why is that? Is it that real friendship means sitting down and spending time, face-to-face sharing open-heartedly, and that in reality we can only have a limited number of real friends with whom we do open up and share our hearts?

A Modern Agenda: So here is a suggestion. First, recognize the value of real relationships with other Christians – we’ll come to that in a moment. Second, pencil into your diary or wall calendar or phone calendar, specific times when you will purposefully not let anything else get in the way so you have value times with a limited number of church friends. (Yes, it may be that this is a ‘fellowship group’ or ‘house group’ but be careful what you do at that!)

Biblical focus: To make sure we don’t let this become just some social exercise, let’s remind ourselves of the New Testament teaching that reminds us of this ‘togetherness’ thing. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (Jn 13:34) “Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves.” (Rom 12:10) “Live in harmony with one another.” (Rom12:16) “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you.” (Rom 15:7) “agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you.” (1 Cor 1:10) “encourage one another.” (2 Cor 13:11) serve one another humbly in love.” (Gal 5:13) “be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Eph 4:2) “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other,” (E;ph 4:32) “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph 5:21) “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” (Col 3:16) “encourage one another.” (1 Thes 4:18, 5:11) encourage one another daily.” (Heb 3:13) “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” (Heb 10:24) “Keep on loving one another.” (Heb 13:1) do not slander one another.” (Jas 4:11) Don’t grumble against one another.” (Jas 5:9) “love one another deeply, from the heart.” (1 Pet 1:22) “Offer hospitality to one another.” (1 Pet 4:9) “clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” (1 Pet 5:5) We should love one another.” (1 Jn 3:11, 3:23, 4:7, 4:11,12 2 Jn 1;5)

Christian Community: Now there is sufficient to say here that we will continue this in the next study on ‘Fellowship’ but with what we have considered here in this present study may we make one or two closing comments. The New Testament teaching is laden with instructions that indicate the expectation of a community, of relationships of a nature that shows in the church a whole variety of interactions that God expects of us. Obviously these cannot happen (and therefore we miss out and our lives will be stunted) if we never meet with one another. An hour on Sunday morning is not adequate. As to all the things we take our children to, or get involved in ourselves outside church, what brilliant opportunities to make contact with others outside the church and build relationships there which create, in turn, opportunities to share Jesus and show others the love of God. Enough to ponder on for the moment.

27. Building People

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

27. Building People

Mt 23:39  the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Jn 13:34,35  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Vision Focus: We perhaps need to remind ourselves we are reflecting upon what it means to have a vision for our church, trying to catch something in more general or overall terms of what the New Testament shows is upon God’s heart and which we can work towards. Without vision, we have suggested, people die from lack of hearing the word and from lack of being fed. In the last two studies we have majored on the need to be God-centred, a spiritual people, but there is another side to this coin, people. Someone, in a conversation with me about the direction of the church, recently uttered the words, “Well people don’t matter.”  I spluttered back, “But they do. They mattered to Jesus so they must matter to us.”

The Jesus Approach: It is perhaps so familiar to us at Christmas that we perhaps forget it, but part of the Christmas story – and especially as it flows out of Isaiah’s prophecies – is ‘Immanuel – God with us’. The incarnation is all about God leaving heaven in the form of His Son and coming and living as a human being (not as an angel or some other ‘spirit-being’) to share in the experience of humanity and to reveal His love to us through that channel – as a human being. Yes, it is vital that we restore the God-focus to church but equally that we catch afresh the significance of being human beings made in the image of God who Jesus came to save.

As we read through the Gospels we see Jesus calling twelve men to travel with him for three years, to be with him, learning of him, to be like him. There were also a number of women who also traveled with him, and with whom he appears completely comfortable. But then the Gospels are filled with personal encounters, Jesus interacting with individual human beings, but when it comes to references to people groups we find he was completely at ease with the tax-collectors, prostitutes, and ‘sinners’, the riff-raff of society. Yes, he ate and drank with socialites as well and so we see him with a wide spectrum of people.

Thinking about People: The Church is about people and so perhaps we should consider, in the context of vision, what we think about that we do as people, with people. Perhaps we could consider a) how we relate on a normal daily basis with one another in church, b) how we view past hurts, c) how we go about serving together and d) how we go about reaching out to others, all good valid points for consideration as we look forward and ask, “What sort of church is it that God wants?”

Daily Encounters: The ethos of the church has to be love (and we’ll consider this in detail at a later stage). Very briefly, our starting point is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” (Jn 3:16) to which John adds in his letter, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son,” (1 Jn4:10) i.e. it starts with God’s love for us. As we experience that and are filled with the Spirit of love (for “God is love” – 1 Jn 4:8,16) we respond to Jesus command, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12) We do this by loving, caring and accepting one another, learning to be encouragers, being there for one another. This is the starting vision we would want to convey, a church for whom people are important.

The Past is Important: Now I have referred to this already in a past study, but a danger that we have is to assume that once a person becomes a Christian, everything is fine and the past is sorted out. History and experience shows that this is not always so. Why? We live in a fallen world and a world that in the past century (at least here in the West) that has strayed badly from God’s norms. Thus we have many people damaged by past relationships going wrong. But it’s not just that, there are hurts from things beyond our control, inabilities to conceive, death of babies, death of children, death of loved ones prematurely through disease, all of these things cause hurts and often leave deep scars. Over the years I have had the opportunity to be in contact with ministries that minister to all of these sorts of things and I conclude, after having watched this for many years, that in any church of any size, part of their vision must be to seek healing for their hurting members, either through regularly (perhaps once a year?) bringing in an outside ministry, or training up our own people to so minister. All part of vision.

Serving Together: We have covered this in some detail in the two previous studies on servant-heartedness, so let’s abbreviate this to creating a church where individual gifts can be discerned and encouraged and developed and given space in which to operate. A big subject we will no doubt cover again before we finish.

Reaching Out Together: To misquote Jesus’ parable (Mt 13:45,46), having found a pearl of great price we will want others to find it as well. Now let’s try and remove some guilt from church. There will be those who have the gift of an evangelist (Eph 4:11, 2 Tim 4:5) and we need to encourage them, protect them and give them space and opportunity in which to operate. But we are not all evangelists. Some of us are what I call ‘people-people’, people who are natural communicators who get on well with anyone, but not everyone is like that. Introverts (and it is not a sin to be an introvert!) are not naturals like that. Yes, Jesus does call us all to be witnesses of his, and so there will come times when in conversations we need to speak out for him, but it does require sensitivity.  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15) Some of us are good at creating and making such opportunities, others of us will just be salt and light and then have people asking about us.

Preparation: Now if you anticipate having such a conversation, because a friend or family member asks you about your faith, about God or about church or anything spiritual, it is useful to prepare before hand what you are going to say. To save space, here I will simply suggest that part of our vision is to prepare our people for this, train and equip them to be witnesses or evangelists, and within that, design special services or special gatherings (or just meals) where not-yet-believing friends or family can be invited in to hear and consider the possibilities of faith. Unless we put it in our vision, it probably won’t happen.

And So?  So there it is: vision is presenting a picture of what we believe God has on His heart for us in such a way that we can see things to work on, goals to aim for. If it is of God’s heart and we get God’s grace to share it, we should win over the vast majority of our flock to it, to enter into a future that draws us closer to God, enables us to experience His presence, His equipping, and His empowering, and gives us exciting purpose and direction for the days ahead. The excitement is in what we could become with His enabling and linked with that will be anticipation of the church changing and us bringing changes to the world around us – for good! So I guess it is time we moved on into the real stuff that thinks of what church is about in real terms. As we go into the next Part, perhaps with an eye to where we have been in this part, I want to start by considering what would we do if we were starting utterly from scratch. So take a dose of amnesia, sit down on a desert island with a Bible, and see what might happen

(Here again at the end of this Part we present an overview of this series)

Part 1 – Falling Short?

  1. Wonderings about Church
  2. Concern for People
  3. Challenged by Scripture
  4. Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
  5. Problems with Religion and Revival
  6. Appearance & Performance (1)
  7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Part 2 – A Different People

  1. Different
  2. Believers
  3. Supernatural
  4. Repentance and Conviction
  5. Needing to be ‘Saved’?
  6. A People of Faith

Part 3 – Making of Believers

  1. A Guilt-Free People
  2. No Longer Orphans
  3. Growing in Sonship
  4. The Yeast of Humility
  5. Getting on a Learning Curve
  6. The Reality of Sacrifice
  7. No Add-ons
  8. Servant-hearted (1)
  9. Servant-hearted (2)

Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

  1. The Significance of Vision
  2. More on ‘Why Vision?’
  3. The God Focus
  4. Spiritual Expressions
  5. Building People

Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

  1. Clear your Mind
  2. A New Creation
  3. Life (1)
  4. Life (2)
  5. Being Together
  6. Fellowship

Part 6 – thinking about Leaders

  1. Led
  2. Local leaders – overseers
  3. Local leaders – shepherds
  4. Local leaders – elders
  5. Local Leaders – The Nature of the Church (1)
  6. Gifts of Ministries – Introduction
  7. Gifts of Ministries – to plant
  8. Gifts of Ministries – to build up
  9. The Servants – Deacons
  10. The Nature of the Church (2)

Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

  1. Uniqueness
  2. Another quick look at ‘Vision’
  3. Power – for Life Transformation
  4. Power – for Life Service
  5. Power – for Living
  6. The Need for Faith
  7. More on Faith.
  8. Obedience
  9. Finale – the Church on God’s heart

23. The Significance of Vision

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

23. The Significance of Vision

Prov 29:18 (NKJV) Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint (or ‘no prophetic vision’)

Prov 29:18 (AV) Where there is no vision, the people perish

Prov 29:18 (Message)  If people can’t see what God is doing,  they stumble all over themselves; But when they attend to what he reveals,  they are most blessed

Eph 2:10 we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

At Last:   At last we come near to the subject of the Church itself. In Part 1 we considered reasons for approaching the subject of the Church, in Part 2 we considered what made Christians different, and in Part 3 we considered the making of a Christian, or what happens to change the person.  The Church is made up of people, that’s what ‘church’ is, we saw from the early days, and so it was important to cover these previous studies, but now we come to what church actually is, and in so doing I hope we may be able to get a completely fresh insight into who or what this body of people is supposed to be, at least according to the New Testament, the whole of the New Testament, and we will do it in this particular Part by focusing on the subject of ‘vision’. In this short Part we will cover:

23. The Significance of Vision

24. More on ‘Why Vision?’

25. The God Focus

26. Spiritual Expressions

27. Building People

Vision?  I couldn’t help using the Prov 29:18 reference (which we may come back to later) because it always has been a key verse people use for this subject. Having said that, I would simply like to ponder on what vision is and why it is so important. A small anecdote might, however, bring a warning against just going through a procedure. Quite a number of years ago, the church that I led decided to go down this path and so we spent some time waiting on the Lord and formulating that we felt He was saying to us. We came up with a ‘vision statement’ which was relatively general, could be easily understood, fitted scripture, and could be applied to any church. Yet it did have specifics that we could work towards. This we did. A number of years later I was aware that we had worked well on this vision with one exception. There was one part we had not got to grips with. Nevertheless, I felt we were still on track. That was until someone said one day, “We don’t have a vision!” To cut a long story short, with an extended leadership team, we spent another complete year, starting from scratch, praying and seeking for clarity. By the end of this long and not always happy process, we came up with an end result. I will never forget the day that one of the newer members of our leadership team looked at this end product and said, “You know, this is identical to the one we had those years back.”

Lessons? I think, having gone through that double process, there are some lessons to be learnt. First, it is good to wait on the Lord to seek for a sense of purpose and direction. Second, if you do formulate a ‘mission statement’, it should have specifics within it that you can work towards in such a way that you know you have achieved them, i.e. in some way or other they should be measurable. Third, it is vitally important I believe that we convey the statement to the church and catch their heart with it so that they are all on board with it. That means, as I noted above, that it is in line with scripture and easily explainable and people can see what they are working towards. Fourth, it is equally important that it is not merely a piece of paper that is trotted out at an annual ‘vision Sunday’ but is something that a) the whole leadership buys into, b) is constantly brought before the church as a reminder of where we are going, and c) we constantly check all we are doing against.

But why? It is important that we understand that the vision we have been talking about is something we, collectively as this local church, are working on to achieve something we can all understand. But why, I still hear. Stop and think of some of the things we have covered previously. How we come to the Lord: conviction, repentance, conversion, and so on. We have become a Christian and we have a life that is now (or at least starting to be) as different as chalk is from cheese in comparison to what it used to be. We know, at the outset, little of the teaching of the New Testament (if not the whole Bible) about God, Jesus and who we now are. There is a whole new world and whole new future ahead of us. We need teaching. On a desert island over many years, alone with a Bible, we could come to our own conclusions, but we are now relating to a whole bunch of other people who have also arrived at this same point as you – some of them many years back, and we find they have ideas, standards, approaches to life, that are quite alien to what we have known in the past.  Moreover we find that we too have a different way of thinking about the world around us and we soon catch the idea that the Bible has a lot to say about all of this.

We need teaching:  But then these things start to really sink in and we realize we are part of a corporate body, that the Bible speaks about and so when we are harmonising and working together with others in this ‘body’, the church, we can achieve greater things. How and why?  We need teaching. Now this process of us as individuals and us as a body is a long-term process. It is going somewhere. I touched on this in Study no.3 in Part 1 when I gave an example of a part of a vision from the past: “It would be a place where learning was normal, new believers shown the way, introduced to the Bible, prayer, fellowship, worship and witness, and introduced to the life in the Spirit, introduced to gifts and abilities in the kingdom of God, released, and equipped to find their place in the body that expresses the kingdom of God.”  (We also considered the subject of learning in Study No.18). Now I wonder if this is the outlook, expectation, or vision of your local church, or do people simply turn up week in, week out, participate in the service and go away without any ‘big picture’ of an underlying purpose to what is going on (which will be much bigger that just this element – the whole of this Part really answers this).

Less formally: Sometimes the formal approach is limited, I believe, in conveying something of what we believe the heart of God wants for us. Here is another example of part of a vision that came from one of the women members when I invited our church years back to write: “It would be a place where people meet with Jesus and their lives changed. People would leave wanting more. The place would be used at other times for Bible studies, full of relevance and LIFE!!! Banquets to invite friends to …. not Outreach, no, no, no! It would just happen as people came in contact with those who knew Jesus, as they saw our lives and community. Old people’s groups, coffee mornings, drop in centre, toddler group, creative group, singing, kids, young peeps having coffee, discussion, a place to be. Stillness group, listening group. The Police would be dropping in often to chat, we would be able to work with them and minister to them too. Other counsellors, people in the community, would also just turn up, be interested, involved. Much prayer, much ministry, all sorts, vibrant, real, true.”

Life Flowing: Wow! I emphasized that it was written by a woman, because I think it just oozes ‘relationships’, because so often the women of the church are so much better at that aspect. In fact, strangely enough just recently, we brought together a small group to meet for an evening to wait upon the Lord and just be His kids together and see what would happen, and it just happened to include the lady who wrote that passage many years ago. After the evening she instantly instigated a Whats App group for this little gathering which will meet monthly, and instantly there was banter and chatter and relationship communication that would have not been possible twenty years ago. My instinctive reaction was, “Wow, how wonderful – life! Life flowing between the members of this group in a dimension that had not been possible on that first evening. Incredible! Relationships! Awesome!”

And so? And so in this first introductory study about vision, although I haven’t identified it as such, I have been talking about expressions of what Paul spoke about to the Ephesians: “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do,” (Eph 2:10) and as much as I think that applies to us as individuals, I also believe it applies to us as the corporate body we call the local church. There is much more to say and we’ll say some of it in the next two studies. For the moment can I finish with some outline notes I sent to a colleague a year or so back as he was struggling with the whole concept of vision:

Vision is:

a) a picture of how the future can be, combined with

b) achievable goals that are understood by the people and are seen to be do-able by the grace of God,

c) an action plan of a course to be followed that:

i) identifies the gifts within the church,

ii) releases people and enables people to use their gifts (and thus feel fulfilled),

iii) includes teaching that envisions the hope and the means of achieving it, and

iv) specific training that equips and releases people to play their part in the body.

Vision is about getting:

  1. The heart of God for our future
  2. The wisdom of God how to achieve it
  3. The power and anointing of God for it to be achieved by God through us.

Vision, to become fruitful, must

  1. Come from the heart of God
  2. Touch the lives and hearts of the people
  3. Be bought into by the majority
  4. Be spoken of regularly
  5. Be worked at continually

It is not restatement of where we are but where we’re going.

3. Challenged by Scripture

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 1 – Falling Short?

3. Challenged by Scripture

Matt 16:18   I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

Acts 9:31  Then the church … enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

A Brief Pause: We are considering the need to look afresh at what constitutes this thing we call the Christian Church, looking hopefully with humility and grace, while facing the instances of the Church falling short of what it should be, but seeing these as goals to be dealt with, not causes of guilt, failure and discouragement. A concern for people and a desire to encourage love for one another, is also another motivating force in our quest to review modern church life. But there yet are other things that press us on as we consider the need to go down this path. The first of them is the way we approach Scripture and the challenges it brings us.

Refocus: Previously I shared about some people I know who have had a less than wonderful experience of church. Those were all negatives, but you may not have had such experiences and think your church life is something quite different, something good. (If that is so, I am pleased for you.)

I did wonder about painting some big brush-stroke pictures of churches that I have experienced and may be the sort you attend. The danger of doing this is that I could appear destructively critical and that’s not my intention.  Anything I write, is with the intention of getting us to look at what we are doing and ask the question, “Is there something better than this that the Lord wants for us?” Now the problem is that until we work our way through the teaching about the Church in the New Testament, we may think we are all right, and any comments that I may make at this point in these word-pictures will really need the support of the content that will follow in the rest of this series, so be patient with me please.

Open to the Bible? But this talk about the New Testament teaching raises an important assumption here. First, I believe what the Bible says – all of it – and so I do not believe we can shrug off particular verses because we either do not understand them or they scare us. Let’s check ourselves with a few New Testament quotes.

For example: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever,” (Heb 12). Take it at its face value and it means that the Jesus who ministered on earth for three years, is the same Son of God who continues to minister on earth today, through his body, the church, as we’ll see later. And when Jesus said, “Anyone who believes in me will do the works I do,” (Jn 14:12) what does it mean but that we, the Church are to be doing exactly what we see Jesus doing in the Gospels, and if we are not, there is a goal to go for.   Now these may be foreign verses for some and if they are, may I invite you to hang around and see how they can possibly be worked out, rather than run away to something more comfortable.

More Wonderings: I am provoked to ponder on these things whenever I pick up my Bible, especially the New Testament, it seems. Acts 9:31, for example, speaks about the way the very early church started to grow. I was struck by the description of it: “Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit…..”   Trying to be honest, I wonder how many churches that I know (and even more I know nothing of) could say that this is a reasonable description of them, that they are “living in the fear of the Lord”.  Where is this holy respect for the Lord of glory, a respect for a God who shuts churches down (Rev 2 & 3) and even takes His children home to glory prematurely (see 1 Cor 11:30)? Do we even believe in a God who does this? And how many of us, I wonder, could say that, as a church, we know what it means to be “encouraged by the Holy Spirit”? Just wonderings. What picture of ‘church’ does the New Testament convey? Is there something more for which we should be aiming? I believe it is there to be seen in the pages of the New Testament.

Now if you thought you passed the tests of belief in what you read in the paragraphs above, how, for example, did you react to my references in the paragraph above to Rev 2 & 3 and 1 Cor 11? I said nothing there that those passages don’t imply or say specifically.

Preparing the way of the Lord: To prepare ourselves for the days ahead, may we give thanks for all the good things we know of our local churches but pray and ask the Lord, is there something more He wants us to become, to more fully express Him to the watching world. If we can face the truth, we must acknowledge that mostly the number of believers in the West has been declining over the past twenty or more years and our influence on our societies have been negligible. If that wasn’t true, our societies would not have been declining spiritually and morally in that time in the way that they have. But peering into the future also means we face the challenge that the Bible teaches that one day Jesus is going to return in power. What will he find when he returns?

The Coming of the Lord?  Put most simply we have two options. First, we can sit back and just watch the continuing decline and continuing growing dissatisfaction within the church and wait for the Lord to come either in revival (of which there are some signs around the world) or in the Second Coming (and I do believe that event is possibly rapidly approaching). Second, we can ask the Lord to teach us to come in line with His word and be available to His Spirit, so that the Bride will be much better dressed when the Bridegroom returns (see Rev 19:7,8).  Jesus once asked a very simple and short question which I find echoes around in my mind: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8) Something to ponder on, and we’ll look at what that means at a later date.

Back to the Beginning:  So Jesus said, I will build my church.” I keep finding I come back here. What sort of Church does Jesus want, what is he working towards. I recently came across some notes from the past that I had when, over a decade ago, I asked our church to each paint a vision of the church they felt Jesus wanted. Here, to conclude, is part (and only part) of one of those ‘visions’ to whet your appetite.  See how it grabs you, just some of the possibilities:

  • “It would be a place where learning was normal, new believers shown the way, introduced to the Bible, prayer, fellowship, worship and witness, and introduced to the life in the Spirit, introduced to gifts and abilities in the kingdom of God, released, and equipped to find their place in the body that expresses the kingdom of God.
  • It would be a secure place where healing from the past can be received and enabling given to face the challenges of the present. It would be a place where each person knows they are loved, supported, encouraged and empowered to become the person God has designed them to be, individually and within the body. It would be a place where practical and financial needs are shared and met together, and life changes brought about.
  • It would be a place where outsiders are welcomed in and shown the reality of the love of God in word and deed, and the possibility of a new life, forgiven, cleansed, and set on a new path, a life where the power and the personal word of God was shared, received and used to bring change of life. It would, in other words, be a city on a hill whose light shines forth to transform the community.”

Just possibilities. These were, as I said, just some of the things put forward. What would you like to add to a picture of what the Church could be like? Make your own list, and then pray for those things to come perhaps.

1. Wonderings about Church

The Wonder of the Church: Part 1 – Falling Short?
1. Wonderings about Church

Matt 16:18 I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Rev 2:1 To the messenger of the church in …. Write….

I wonder: I wonder how much we let Jesus build his church? Or perhaps another way of putting it, I wonder how much of what we call church today is actually built by Jesus? What is church? How has it come into being? How will it continue to come into being? Are all the people in ‘church buildings’ actually part of the church? Just wonderings. I look around at the various expressions of ‘church’ that I know and wonder how the Lord of the Church feels about them. I’m not wanting to be negative, just real, just curious.

Direction: The overall plan for this series will start as follows:
• Part One: Falling Short – things that have challenged me about the modern Church
• Part Two: Making of Believers: What makes a believer different, what are they?
• The following parts will consider ‘Church’

Objective: In this and the following ‘studies’ of this first Part, I want to consider fairly generally some of the things that challenge me about ‘the church’ today. The heading of this Part gives away my goals, to face the things I see and hear of modern church life that suggest to me that we may be falling short of God’s intentions for us.

In the studies that follow I will use the capital form ‘Church’ to designate who we are as a whole, all the believers across the world, and the lower case ‘church’ where it applies to the local congregation, the local expression of believers.

Structure of Part 1: The Content of Part 1– Falling Short? – will be as follows:
1. Wonderings about Church
2. Concern for People
3. Challenged by Scripture
4. Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
5. Problems with Religion and Revival
6. Appearance & Performance (1)
7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Prompted by Reading: Very well, let me explain what first started me off down this particular track. I have recently been in the psalms and then in John’s Gospel and, in many ways, I prefer meditating on Scripture, taking it as it comes, verse by verse, and the list of such series on this blog will testify to that. However, my starting point is that as I have been praying and reading, I find an urge to return to a specific ‘subject’ or ‘theme’ approach next.

I just mentioned reading and I recently read Francis Chan’s book, ‘Letters to the Church’, and within it he covers various specific subjects or themes for the Church to consider. I am about to read it a second time to make sure I take it in. I think I agree with all he says and, indeed, I find he has been expressing much that has been on my own heart over recent years, but he probably says it better than I might. (He has such church experience that I think I feel a bit like John the Baptist felt: “I am not worthy to undo his sandals!”) So, as I pray, I sense my next area of investigation within these pages should be the Church itself.

Approach: I have, I find, a same concern within me that Chan speaks about, that of the need to approach the subject in humility and without a critical spirit – and that is quite difficult if you are an honest observer of the Church, comparing what is, with what should or could be. Crusading atheists such as Richard Dawkins have been most scathing about the Church or, to be accurate, parts of the Church and, to be fair, many of the points he has made are valid. However, he only refers to a small part of the Church, I believe, and so as an overall criticism of the whole Church, his comments are quite unfair and inaccurate.

My objective, I think, is different from Chan’s because this is first and foremost a ‘Bible-study site’ and so the ‘meditations’ I write start and finish with the Bible (or at least that is its intention, although this first Part will be more discussional). He does seek to build all his comments on the New Testament teachings and I will do likewise though, I suspect, I will have a broader and more basic approach. He observes our shortcomings and prescribes New Testament remedies, all of which I think I agree with. I would like, as this is more a ‘Bible Study’ series, to take simple scriptures from the New Testament and build the picture from there and, for the sake of those for whom perhaps these things are not so familiar, will start at a very much more basic level. So, hold on to that word ‘basic’ if you will.

Grace not Legalism: I agree wholeheartedly with Chan that such writing about the Church can be used as a weapon by the critical to bash leaders. Never let that happen. I am aware in my own writings that sometimes my comments that challenge the modern church could be seen as lacking grace, although I never want that to be; that is not my heart and if my writings have come over like that, I apologise.

Preaching and teaching and imparting vision can be quite legalistic, and I suspect there is often a lot of this around. The ‘law’ or ‘rules’ approach says, “This is what it ought to be,” and comes with a heavy judgmental hand on all expressions of modern church life that deviate from New Testament teaching. I would like to present, if I can, a grace approach that says, “I believe (agree with me if you can) that here is the vision of what the Lord puts before us in the New Testament – I wonder how we could rise to apprehend this vision and enter into it?” But of course, to do that we have to identify what the New Testament says, make sense of it, and then, if we can honestly face how we presently fall short of it, ponder on how, perhaps, we can reach for it. OK, so hold on to two more words – vision and grace, if you will.

The Context of Revelation: The structure of the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is intriguing. Chapter 1 presents the Lord of the Church, Jesus, but not in the form of the Gospels that emphasise him humanity, but a human form that is also very clearly divine, and as such he comes to the seven churches of Asia Minor and presents a devastatingly revealing assessment of each of them. This is the Lord who sees all and knows everything about the Church – and that includes each and every expression of it today.

And Today? But whether it is the worldwide expression or the local expression, I wonder what the Lord thinks of these gatherings of us, His people, today? How much do we match the teachings of the New Testament? How secure are we, I wonder, in who we are and how we express ‘church’ here in the first quarter of the twenty-first century? Is it a security that comes from having aligned ourselves against the teaching of the New Testament, or is it a false security that just hopes for the best, a hope built on ignorance, a hope built on, “Well, we’ve always done it like this so it must be all right”? This must be the challenge of all that follows here.