Tag Archives: Church

Speaking of church

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the golden lampstands.'”
Revelation 2:1

[To the church in Smyrna] “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) …”
Revelation 2:9

[To the church in Laodicea] “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realising that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
Revelation 3:19

These verses from Revelation demonstrate a couple of important things about church – that church is all about Jesus, and that church appearances can be wrong.

Firstly, church is all about Jesus being present. In Revelation, the image of seven stars and seven lamps symbolise the seven churches. No church is defined by its building, its programmes, its leadership, … It’s a church because Jesus is there. Take away Jesus and you have no church.

But secondly, church appearances can trick us. The church in Smyrna was described as poor – yet Jesus’ point of view was, “but you are rich”. The church in Laodicea was very confident that they had everything, and more than enough. But Jesus’ words could not be more different: “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”.

So how should we speak about churches? I reckon we speak in two ways: one way for our church, another way for other churches.

Talking about other churches: humility

The way to speak about other churches is with humility.

We have good reason to speak about other churches – it’s not gossip! I want to hear about churches. I try to listen and remember what I hear about churches. If I know someone moving to a new town, I want to be able to say, “Hey, when you move, try out Church X.”

On the flip side, it’s a great help to know if a church might be going astray. If I meet someone from there, or they move to my area, this knowledge gives me a head-start on what issues to be wary of, and what conversations to have.

And yet …

And yet appearances can be wrong. Reputation might be inaccurate. So while I argue that we can talk about other churches, we must be humble. In others words, we admit that we don’t know everything – only Jesus does – and we might be plain wrong.

Talking about our own church: not humility

But when we speak of our own church, let’s drop the (false) humility. If we are part of a church, it should be because we are convinced that Christ is with us by his Spirit. A church with Jesus lacks nothing.

In short, we know our church as a real and living church because of the presence of Jesus – no matter what the appearance may be.

So let’s speak up confidently!

Let’s forget the, “We’re not doing much. Nobody really knows us. You’re probably not interested in this, but I’ll invite you anyway …” Instead, we remember that Christ walks among us!

Quick review: Six steps to loving your church

Six Steps to Loving Your ChurchThis is another in the Matthias Media series of Six Steps … studies. There’s some video input (two short videos each session), as well as discussion questions. It’s well-suited to use in a group, but I reckon these questions could also work for a solo reader.

The studies are for any and every Christian. And they aim to help us move from being consumers and users of church to being loving servants of church. It aims to be a series that changes behaviour at church, as well as thinking.

Fitting in with the ‘behaviour and thinking change’ aim, these six steps do not include in-depth and lengthy study of Bible passages. A couple of the studies don’t look at the Bible at all. It felt a bit odd not to open the Bible – but perhaps that’s evidence of how I’ve been small-group-inculturated. In any case, the six weeks are all underpinned by clearly-explained biblical ideas about church.

Also fitting the aim of real change, each week has assignments. For example, don’t sit in your ‘normal’ seat at church. Or, think of people to invite to church, then share those plans with the group.

In my group, people loved the assignments. They made a strong link between the ideas we discussed and our regular behaviour. By making the link, we were better able to remember the ideas, too.

Because the ideas link from study to study, and because assignments are set and then followed-up, it really is best for people to get to each study. It’s possible to benefit even after missing part of the series – but much more possible if you can make it to each of the six steps.

The discussion guide has leaders’ notes. They proved mostly superfluous to us, but would perhaps give confidence to a very new discussion leader.

I highly recommend this short course. It can fit in well as part of an existing small group (as long as you usually spend more time in the Bible and at prayer). It can also be used as a stand-alone series, perhaps in a church ministry training programme.

 


 

The church in fiction: Home

Here’s a beautiful description of church from Home, a novel by Marilynne Robinson. I love the ways this combines the local and personal (that building and that preacher) with the unchanging doctrines of Christ.

For her, church was an airy white room with tall windows looking out on God’s good world, with God’s good sunlight pouring in through those windows and falling across the pulpit where her father stood, straight and strong, parsing the broken heart of humanity and praising the loving heart of Christ. That was church.

 


 

Church life is Easter

Listening to our church sermon on Acts 12 (our talk recordings are here) it was impossible to miss the parallels between the attack on Jesus and the attack on the church. Within five short verses, Luke artfully associates Jesus’ Easter experience with the life of the Jerusalem church. Here are the details that establish the link.

  • Herod
    When Jesus was arrested, Pilate drew a Herod – Herod Antipas – into the trial (Luke 23:7-8). In Acts 12, it’s another Herod – Herod Agrippa – who arrests Jesus’ apostles (Acts 12:1). The Herodian family can’t keep away from mischief!
  • Unleavened Bread
    Jesus’ last days before crucifixion were in the days of Unleavened Bread (see Luke 22:1, 7). The arrests in Acts were at the same time of year (Acts 12:3)
  • After the Passover
    Herod’s initial plan was to bring Peter out from prison “after Passover” (Acts 12:4). Compare this with the plans for Jesus’ arrest (“not during the feast” Mat 26:5, Mark 14:2). In both cases the planned delay did not occur
  • Prayer
    Prayer is common in the whole Bible. Praying earnestly is very rare. It’s how Jesus prayed in the Garden (Luke 22:44), and how the church prayed for Peter (Acts 12:5)
  • Death & deliverance
    Jesus was crucified, yet was delivered from the tomb. In Acts 12 James is killed while Peter is delivered from death. The experience of the church was not simply one or the other – there’s both death and deliverance.

These similarities build up a picture. Luke, I believe, wants us to see that the attack on the church in Jerusalem was like the attack on Jesus in Jerusalem. It’s not an exact parallel in each detail, yet there is a definite likeness. Jesus uniquely lived out Easter. Jesus’ death and life is the hub of God’s work. The church is built on Jesus’ Easter ministry. And also the church embodies Easter. The shape of church life is Easter.

Why point this out? So we have right expectations.

In church, and in this world, believers are not immune to unpredictable hate. James was killed, but this was not a sign that Jesus somehow failed the church. Peter was freed, but this does not constitute a promise from Jesus to ‘get out of gaol free.’

Church life, in other words, is the same turbulent and confusing and troubling life that Jesus experienced as part of the first Easter. And church life is certainly the place where God himself is at work for good.

 


 

A thought starter on church

In a specialty shop I expect to find people with working knowledge of their products. In a family-oriented park I expect seats, public toilets, and no one driving cars. In an aeroplane I expect seatbelts and a safety demonstration.

In each place, expectations shape the whole experience – and guide my behaviour too.

So what are the right expectations to bring to church? Our understanding of church will direct the way we decide to live.

Here’s an exercise I did with some people from church. We had to complete the following sentence, after filling in the blank with the various options: If church is like … then this is how I behave

  • a business
  • entertainment
  • spiritual retail (a shop for god-stuff)
  • a spiritual public service (like a hospital or employment agency)
  • a family
  • a club

I won’t unfairly influence your thoughts by listing what we said! But I am interested in what you think. What insights jump out for you?

 


 

That confusing church meeting

At Albury Bible Church, we recently put together a tool to help us plan what we do. We think there are three main things: Welcome. Grow. Serve.

Welcome: in the gospel of Jesus, God welcomes us to his family. Therefore we will tell people of that welcome, as well as welcoming them into our church family.

Grow: it’s normal for God’s children to grow in the obedience of faith. Therefore we will make Christian growth normal for our church members.

Serve: Christians do not grow for their own sake, but in love. Therefore we encourage and train for service, both in church and in the wider community.

‘OK’, I thought, ‘when we launch this, I’ll talk about how it works for Sunday’s 10am church meeting.’ So I spent time pondering how our Sunday morning expressed these plans. What we do – and we’re not very unusual – is a mixture. And that mixture is both a help and a hindrance.

alburybiblechurch_leftThe mixture
Sunday church is a mixture. We welcome, because people walk in off the street. We announce that Jesus is Lord and invite people to follow him. We grow because we always read and hear God’s word for instruction, encouragement and challenge. We serve because … well, have you seen how many people it takes to run even a simple church service! Sunday at 10am is everything – welcome, grow, and serve.

So helpful
It is very helpful that Sunday @10 is such a mixture. It contains elements of all the things we want to do. If you wanted a full taste of Albury Bible Church, but in just one meal, the best place to go would be Sunday church. Despite being nowhere close to perfect, you’d find out what we say about God’s great welcome. You would also see something about the ways we encourage Christian growth. By looking around, you would also see quite a lot of serving going on. I hope you would be able to say, ‘I get what this church is about.’

That has to be a good thing. It also is an encouragement to be very clear in church each week. Church is not humdrum – it is a bright spotlight on ourselves and what we think really counts.

The three-in-one nature of Sunday @10 is helpful in another way: for a church health test. We should ask ourselves how we are going at welcoming, growing, serving. Easy to ask – not always easy to answer. Perhaps the place to start is at church. Is there evangelism on the agenda on Sunday mornings? Are new or shy people welcomed further into relationships? Do Christians grow there, or do they stagnate? Are more people serving? Are long-term servants receiving support to stop burn-out? The answers might be confronting. But good to know.

A hindrance
The three-in-one nature of Sunday morning is also a hindrance, a risk to our church ministry. Simply because it can’t do any of these three things at great depth. Church is good, but it’s not enough.

If we were to rely on Sunday mornings to do our evangelism, we would be doing very little evangelism. If Sundays were the only point of welcome, our relationships would be paper-thin. If Sunday morning was the only time of help for Christian growth, we would all be stunted in faith. If this were the single focus for service, the opportunities would be limited and the people soon exhausted.

I reckon that to think ‘Sundays are going OK’ is a risk to ministry. The risk is a false equation – that ‘Sunday is OK’ equals ‘We are going OK’. They are not equivalent!

How this factor works out will vary from church to church. For our church, we see the need to complement Sunday morning with a whole range of further ministry. We specifically evangelise in a dedicated programme called Connect, reading Mark’s gospel together. We need to make more of our church membership. We emphasise our Open Bible Groups as the primary growth-focussed ministry. And Night Train is just one way we support and develop serving. As the fanatical texters say, YMMV* but, to thrive as faithful communities, all our churches will need to do a good job away from the main Sunday meeting.

It feels like I have re-discovered what is obvious. But that’s the type of discovery I like to major in! What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear more and to engage in discussion about this. Comment away!

 


 

Church & football (OK, soccer)

Source: http://flic.kr/p/cGGisb

For readers who are part of a church, have you ever thought that your church is just like a soccer team? Because I have.

In a soccer team, everybody gets to put foot to ball. We all work so our team can score. In other words, the small skills are the same (kick!) and the big aim is the same (score more goals!).

Sure, there are differences. Left-footers, right-footers, and ambidextrous freaks. Some run faster, some defend better. But whatever position you are on the team, you kick the ball.

This reminds me of church because everyone who trusts Jesus has the same tasks: live in godliness and speak about Jesus. One might struggle with greed and another with anger – but both seek the Father’s help to struggle well.

And, I’m convinced, God wants us all to speak. Here are some of the types of speech: prayer in Jesus name (private or in groups); singing that encourages faith and gives thanks to God; answering questions about ‘God-stuff’; teaching Sunday school; preaching; leading a Bible study group; sharing a Bible passag to encourage a friend; door-knocking the neighbourhood; teaching your own family the Bible; etc. Some speech is more flamboyant – like the flashy football striker. Some is really high pressure – like taking a penalty. Some is essential but almost unseen – like the hard-working defender. Yet it’s all speech for Jesus.

Now, every soccer team has one odd-bod. The goalkeeper. The keeper also gets to kick the ball. And the keeper has the same aim – that the team score and win. But they also get to handle the ball, and wear funny clothes. They’re a bit different. Just like paid ministers (that’s me). There are many similarities between goalies and ministers/pastors.

  • Most kicks take place away from the ‘keeper: church is not about ‘the minister’, but everyone taking every opportunity
  • A keeper does not take the most kicks, but these kicks are often set-pieces and kind of predictable
  • When a keeper makes a mistake, the consequences for the team are usually immediate and severe
  • Have you seen the funny clothes we ministers sometimes wear?
  • In the end, the goalie is just another player

Words for all team members, from Colossians 3:15-17:

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

 


 

Church is like a flag

It’s not news to tell you that, as a minister, I think about church.

Some thought is theological (what does God say about church?). Some is social or cultural (what does church look like in Australia?, what do my neighbours think when they hear ‘church’?). And some is pragmatic (what should we do this Sunday?, how can we better help our leaders do what they do?). These categories overlap, of course, but it helps to know about the different angles or perspectives we can take.

This is a pragmatic post about church: I suggest a way to think about what church does.

My suggestion: we should think that a church service is like a flag. Specifically, a military flag, a battle standard.

(If you click on the image, you can buy your own modern reproduction of a Roman standard. Perhaps every church should have one. No – I’m not spruiking for them!)

As an admitted military innocent, allow me to consider the use of a flag on the battle field.

A flag doesn’t really do anything. It’s not a weapon (except in desperation?). It issues no orders. It does not analyse the ebb and flow of battle. It provides no materiel. It fails to function as a medic. But it does reduce your fighting force – a bloke has to carry it about.

For all that, the military standard appears important. It does not flight, but those who do fight co-ordinate themselves around it. The flag stands central to the battlefield, defining what the war is. Its appearance is a message of motivation: this is who we are, and this is also why we fight. If the flag-bearer falls, it’s imperative that someone else take his place.

Without the flag, soldiers risk being scattered about the field. They can end up expending heaps of energy but to no good purpose. And remember, war is dangerous. It’s cruel to ask people to risk hurt without purpose.

And church?

Church doesn’t really do anything, either. Except exist as church. It sometimes looks like nothing more than a bunch of people gathering repeatedly out of habit. There’s a sameness about church – just as there should be (after all, the theology of church hasn’t changed since the first century AD).

Church does not have a profit motive, like a company board of directors. Church does not aim to win a premiership, like a training squad. It does not even seem to be as useful as other Christian group activity: going door-knocking; visiting the sick; establishing an orphanage.

But for all that, I am convinced that without church Christians would do nothing. Church is a central signal of who we are are whom we follow. Church is necessary, encouraging, motivating, challenging, painful, joyful. The people of God should love the church God has given us.

Who is it that hates church? It is those who hate the military standard on the field of battle: the enemy. I must ask God for strength not to become a traitor to the flag of Christ’s people, the church of which Christ is the head.

 


 

FIEC annual conference 2012

In the last few days the family and I have been at the annual conference of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (www.fiec.org.au). Along the way, I jotted down some notes. These are not minutes or comprehensive, just some gleanings from all that we heard.

image

There was a reminder: any and every church or Christian ministry has the basic human need as its basis. This need and problem is not sin, but the wrath of God which all sinners deservedly face. ‘But now, the righteousness of God has been revealed … in Jesus Christ whom God presented as a propitiation’ (Romans 3:21-26).

How could we in FIEC ever be content with so many people unaware of and uninterested in the gospel that offers free and just forgiveness?

One topic central to the conference was the nature of church.

Part of thinking about church is perceiving how Christians and churches are viewed in Australia. There was a suggestion that Christians now viewed in a new way in Australia: not simply wrong, but evil. I’d not heard that before. Do you think it’s true?

Within church circles, evangelical Christians are accused of having no doctrine of church (or ecclesiology). And also accused of being too congregational. It cannot be both, surely. Underlying this criticism, really, is a different view of church.

To do church well, including planting new churches, we do need to be sure of what Bible says about church. We should also be aware current ways the English word brings many non-biblical meanings. We might be the ones who need to admit a need to change.

For the specific doctrine of church, we benefit immensely with reminders of God’s big plan. Obviously, God’s overarching plan encompasses all other plans, including church ones. God’s plan: uniting all things under Christ (Eph 1:10). In this we certainly see individuals saved. Yet more commonly the Bible explains this as church formation. God brings peace for one new humanity (Eph 2:14-16). Jesus has everything under his get for the sake of his headship over the church (Eph 1:22).

Since all true unity is gospel unity, a number of consequences follow. We need to ensure, for example, that the structure of church never trumps the gospel. We must be wary of loyalty to the FIEC, for instance. As long as FIEC exists, we should aim to be characterised by discussion of and contention for the gospel (much more than discussion of and contention for a structure!).

There was more, of course. I hope these snippets give some sense of the conference.

What now? Firstly: I have many ideas to share with folk at church with the aim of growing what we do in Albury. Secondly: I encourage anyone who wants to find out about the FIEC to get to the annual conference (and that includes the Albury leaders – not naming names …).

 


 

Church options in Corinth

When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, he highlighted many decisions they had made. Made badly! They frequently chose the wrong option. even when there only two choices. Paul urged the church to ask themselves, ‘Now which way will we go?’ Here are some of the pairs.

(All quotations from the English Standard Version. Verse reference included in brackets.)

World’s power – God’s power
Paul preached the weak and shameful message of the cross. ‘Christ died’ unveils the power of God. The world’s idea power does not include a king submitting to a humiliating and cursed execution.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
(1:10)

Division – unity
It seems the Corinthian Christians were active in choosing to join the best groups so as to be on God’s escalator. ‘Peter/Paul/Apollos is the leader of greatest blessing.’ But this was simply human boasting. The truly great way is to join in unity with all who trust Christ.

If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
(3:17)

Inaction – action
With an immoral brother, the church was proud of doing nothing. It showed how accepting they were. Instead, they should have roused themselves into action that purified God’s church.

Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
(5:7)

Wrong – right
Christian meals deeply express the Christian life. We thank God that he feeds us physically with bread, as well as spiritually with Christ. We love our brothers and sisters in the faith as we live out the unity of the Spirit. And we are strengthened for lives of love. Except if we do it wrong. As in Corinth. The church was called to do right as they ate, and to cease doing wrong.

For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgement on himself.
(11:29)

Acceptable – much better
The extravagantly gifted Christians of Corinth had plenty of people to contribute to church life. So many gifts-so little time. So, Paul says, do what builds up the church. There is stuff that is OK and even builds up an individual. But why would you choose that when you can build up everyone? It’s an easy choice!

Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
(14:5)

Lie – truth
Corinthian ideas and action messed around with truth that Jesus rose from the grave. They were sliding towards a lie about the resurrection. Paul reminded them of the necessary truth: Jesus is alive.

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.
(15:14-15)

Not every decision in church life is the same. It’s not always truth versus lie, or bad versus good. The decisions remain important, nonetheless. Corinth took a surprising number of bad options! May their errors stand to teach us of the better way.