The Church

the-church

What is the Church’s identity?

Who are Christians?

What is the Church all about?

Why is the Church important?

Maybe you have wondered what in the Sam Hill this church thing is all about, or what it is supposed to be about.  It could be that you have abandoned the notion of “church” altogether, opting for a more private spirituality free from the machinations of power people in a broken system.  Let’s face it: there just may likely be more unhealthy churches in America than healthy ones.  After all, in a chaotic topsy-turvy world, folks end up making church in whatever image they’d like.  It seems to me this points to a great need to recover a more historic and robust understanding of this practice of “church.”  So, let’s explore how church ought to be and seek to live into it’s distinct vision for believers in Jesus everywhere.

The Church’s identity:

            The Church is made up of people who have been reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and brought to new life in the Spirit.  This special relationship that followers of Jesus enjoy with their God is a covenantal relationship, and, so, the Church is a covenantal community.  That is, believers in Jesus are receiving the blessings first promised by God’s covenant relationship with Abraham in the Old Testament that all nations would be blessed by grace through faith.  God’s covenant with his people means that God has graciously committed himself to acting on their behalf through election, predestination, adoption, and redemption.  The new covenant community, the Church, receives the promises of God and exists to follow Jesus Christ in all things.  The Church is not a voluntary society, like every other human institution, but is the divinely called community of the redeemed whom God has joined together through his Spirit to Christ.  Therefore, an individual, theologically speaking, does not join a church; instead, God joins the Church to Jesus.

BeChurch

The Nicene Creed* describes the Church with four identifying marks:

  1. The Church is one. The unity of the Church comes from God’s covenant people being in fellowship with him through Jesus in the Spirit.  This unity is expressed through the bond of love and a common worship that includes the spiritually forming practices of preaching, liturgy, and sacraments.  Since believers serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit who exists in unity, so Christians are to work toward maintaining their unity through the bond of peace.
  2. The Church is The Church is holy by virtue of Christ’s finished work.  Therefore, the members of the Church are saints, called by God to live in holiness and participate with him in carrying out his purposes on earth.  As God is holy, so believers are to be holy in all they do.  Since Christians are holy through God’s justification in Christ, so the Church as saints must uphold justice in the world.
  3. The Church is This means that God’s people are found in all parts of the world throughout all times in history, including every race, class, gender, and ethnicity.  Since the Church includes all kinds of people from different cultures, these believers must work together.  The Church, across all kinds of denominations, ought to minister together to the total life of all people through gospel proclamation and good works done in the Spirit.
  4. The Church is Apostolic means “to be sent.”  The Church is not only a people who are gathered for worship and teaching; they are also sent into the world as salt and light to those who remain in darkness.  Where the Church goes, the rule and reign of Jesus goes with them so that the gospel is spread to all nations.

The Church’s mission:

  1. The Church is called to love God. The Church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the house where God dwells.  The Church exists to glorify God and enjoy him forever.  Christians are to develop intimacy with Jesus through the Spirit.
  2. The Church is called to love one another. The Church is the Body of Christ and is to be a haven for saints.  The Church exists for community and is the place where believers are strengthened in faith through the proclamation of the Word in preaching and sacrament.
  3. The Church is called to love its neighbors. The Church is the people of God, being a hospital for sinners.  The Church exists to serve the kingdom of God so that God’s benevolent and gracious rule might extend to all creation.

These three dimensions define the Church as being a “missional” community of redeemed persons who are concerned and focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ.  That is, the forward direction of the Church is to come ever closer to Christ through faith, be strengthened in that faith together through the Word of God, confidently stepping into the world to engage it with the love and grace of God so that others may come to faith in Jesus Christ.

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The Church’s importance:

  1. The Church is a Trinitarian community, birthed as a free expression of God’s love through Word and Spirit. As people created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed for his purposes, believers reflect the image of the triune God.  The Church was important enough for Christ to die for.
  2. What the Church “does” flows from its identity as a redeemed community, being the people of God. So, then, the Church’s mission is not so much about establishing evangelistic programs so much as it is to listen to the Spirit of God and live in the power of the Spirit as it rubs shoulders with unbelievers.
  3. Just as the Father sent the Son, and the Son sent the Spirit, so the Church is sent into the world armed with the grace and love of God as if believers were ambassadors for Christ in a ministry of reconciliation.
  4. God has moved in a “downwardly mobile” way in order to bring reconciliation to all of creation. God has gathered the Church on earth to be sent as witnesses of Christ’s person and work through humility, meekness, and gentleness so that God’s mercy and peace might become realities in this world.

Therefore, the Church is to glorify the triune God by embracing its missional identity and mandate by making disciples of Jesus Christ through worship, community, and outreach.  The Church is to aim its love toward God, one another, and neighbor through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit.

ibelieve

*The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,

            the Father, the Almighty,

            maker of heaven and earth,

            of all that is, seen and unseen.

 

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

            the only Son of God,

            eternally begotten of the Father,

            God from God, Light from Light,

            true God from true God,

            begotten, not made,

            of one being with the Father;

            through him all things were made.

            For us and for our salvation

                        he came down from heaven:

                        was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,

                        and became truly human.

            For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

                        he suffered death and was buried.

                        On the third day he rose again

                                    In accordance with the Scriptures;

                        he ascended into heaven

                                    and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

                        He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

                                    and his kingdom will have no end.

 

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

            who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

            who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,

            who has spoken through the prophets.

            We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

            We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

            We look for the resurrection of the dead,

                        and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

The Church Playground

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At first glance, when you drive by any school at recess the whole thing looks like a bunch of random kids descending into chaos bordered by a fence to keep it all from spilling out into the streets.  But there’s much more going on than the quick peek tells you.  There are all kinds of petty little groups that make up the playground.  It kind of reminds me of church.

The Presbyterians head outside into recess and can’t believe the lack of order going on.  They try their darnedest to get some organized games happening, but the Baptists aren’t having it.  They’re too far separated from all the other kids to care about playing with any of them.  Besides, nobody is playing by the rules and if there’s one thing Baptists can’t stand is a lack of legalism.  The Pentecostals all seem completely oblivious to anything that’s going on.  They’re just having too much fun going as fast as they can on the merry-go-round to see that the Catholics are totally aghast at their lack of guilt feelings over hogging the equipment.

The little group of Episcopalians are lost in some funky inferiority complex and retreat into their liturgical games while the popular kids, the Non-denominational group, break out singing Chris Tomlin songs so loud that the Methodists go scrambling for their Book of Discipline to see what to do about it.  The Lutheran kids are so busy fighting each other about who is the true Lutheran that they can’t hear the non-denom kids anyway.  And the Reformed are those annoying kids who keep acting like the teacher instead of just enjoying being a kid on the playground.

There are two things about the church playground: the groups of kids don’t play very well together; and, the entire playground thinks it’s the only one in town.  They don’t realize there are other playgrounds with all kinds of other kids.

We live in a big world.  How we interact with that world is going to determine if the school gets shut down, with no more playground.  After all, what parent wants to send their kid to the school where nobody gets along with each other?

What’s more, how we interact with each other on the playground of Christianity says a lot about our view of God.  For far too many groups, God is the high and lofty Principal who’s only seen when something goes wrong, not realizing that he is really the encouraging teacher who’s daily in the classroom offering kind words and self-sacrifice that changes your life forever.

Instead of lamenting that Christendom has vanished from its grand position in society and that the moral fabric of our country is down the toilet along with the janitor’s cigarette butt, maybe we should stop giving the other kid a swirlie long enough to see that our bullying and belligerent ways are anything but the words and ways of Jesus to a world who needs spiritual care, not spiritual abuse.

I’d suggest we use our detention time to think about what we’ve done.

Romans 9:6-13

            I want to break this to you as gently as possible, but as straightforward as I can:  My friend, you are not in control!  Any semblance of control we think we have is only a delusion.  Now, before you push back on this its important to make the distinction between control and taking charge.  Taking charge of your life means that you own your decisions and take responsibility for their outcome.  The Bible describes this as “self-control.”
            But “control” is not your job – never was, isn’t, and never will be – that’s God’s business.  God makes his choices.  This was the Apostle Paul’s point to the church at Rome.  The congregation was a volatile mix of both Jew and Gentile.  There was some bad history between them that stretched back centuries.  Yet, here they were together in one church worshiping Jesus.
            Paul made his choice to step into the mess between them and let each group know something important: It is neither their choice about who’s in and who’s out as God’s people, nor their choice about how someone gets in to start with.  Again, this is God’s choice.
            The Jews needed to know that Gentiles are in because God did his work of calling and including; Gentiles are chosen just as much as Jews.  The Gentiles needed to know that they were not replacing Jews as chosen people.  The point? God chooses whomever he darn well pleases to choose, and its not up to you, my friend.
            This speaks on so many levels about how to conduct ourselves with one another in the church.  The foundation of all good church dynamics is the recognition that God is the one who calls and gathers people together in the church.  This needs to be the starting point in our relations with each other.

 

Sovereign God, you choose whomever you will to include in your kingdom.  Allow me to see Jesus in each person you call and save so that I can love and encourage them in the faith which is mutually and graciously given to us all; through Christ our Lord, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Do One Thing Well

 
 
            I was watching the BBC series Planet Earth II last night.  There’s nothing quite like the soothing British tone of David Attenborough talking to you about the wonders of our planet.  In the first episode, the sloth… was on… and he… moved… really… slow.  That’s what sloths do.  They move slow.  But that’s okay.  They just move up and down mango trees… at a really sloooow pace… and eat mango leaves.  Turns out they put their giddy-up on a bit when its mating time, but, other than that, they just focus on their mango tree existence.
 
            What struck me about watching Slow Poke Sloth was the fact that he didn’t care he was slow (he did want to get to that lady sloth quicker, but, hey, there’s joy in the anticipation).  He wasn’t wishing he were a jaguar racing across the savannah.  He did one thing.  He did that one thing really well.
 
            It sometimes amazes me how we humans, in contrast to the sloth, keep trying to be all things to all people.  We hurry and scurry and fret and worry and strive and connive and go as fast as we can to get where we’re going, sometimes not even knowing where it is we’re headed.
 
            When it comes to church ministry, even our own individual Christian lives, it also amazes me how much we try to do everything under the sun – as if we were meant to be every creature on the planet.  I have often heard small churches lament that they’re not bigger.  The implication is that if they had more people in the pews, then they could really do a lot of things, offer more ministries.  Yet, even the megachurch doesn’t do everything well.  Truth be told, the trend for big churches is finding ways to be smaller – which is why the multi-site movement is prevalent today.  The big guy has found that doing pastoral and spiritual care is difficult with such size.
 
            I think we need to take a lesson from Mr. Sloth.  He moves slow, but with single-minded purpose.  If you look at Jesus in the Gospels, he was never in a hurry to get anything done.  He moved at his own pace, not deterred or influenced by others trying to get him to go faster or do something he didn’t want or need to do.  When our Lord looked at the state of people concerned about what was going to happen, he told them to do… one… thing… well. 
 
“Don’t worry and ask yourselves, ‘Will we have anything to drink?  Will we have anything to drink?  Will we have any clothes to wear?’ Only people who don’t know God are always worrying about such things.  Your Father in heaven knows that you need all of these….  
 
“But more than anything else, put God’s work first and do what he wants.  Then the other things will be yours as well.” (Matthew 6:31-33)
 
            The singular question for each Christian, every church, and all denominations and ministry groups is: “What does God want?”  The question is not: “What is that other church doing?” “What will make this group of people happy?” “What is everyone else doing?”  Nope.  What… does… God… want?  What does it mean to put God and his work first?  Now we’re talking – that’s the kind of discussion to have in an elders’ meeting.  It’s the kind of inner dialogue that needs to happen in your heart.
 

 

            Mango leaves are not you’re thing.  But going hard after the kingdom of God and his righteousness is to be your one passionate pursuit.  If you will do this one thing, then all the other stuff will fall into place.  That’s not David Attenborough talking – its Jesus.

The Theological Thespian

 
           Every one of us has experienced the awkward times of sitting through a boring preacher, a monotone teacher, and/or a pasty looking person leading a ministry with about as much life in him as a bowling ball.  Yes, God’s Word is always relevant no matter how it is presented.  But that doesn’t mean it has to always feel like eating rice cakes and brussel sprouts.  The Word of God ought to be presented in the life and power of the Holy Spirit and with a great deal of flavor!  Ministry done with some attention to the ministered will have a winsome and gracious tone about it that is attractive. 
 
This is where we could take a lesson or two from the world of actors.  The ability to connect well with an audience; showing emotion and empathy; and, exhibiting confidence are just a few ways where church leaders and ministers can take the sacred Scripture text and communicate it with all the gusto of an actor – to be a kind of theological thespian who is concerned not just to know the Bible, but to communicate it in a riveting manner that displays all of its timeless message.  For the Word of God is really a divine drama, an unfolding production of redemption.  And we are to be the divine dramatists who proclaim the creation, fall, redemption, and new creation of God’s tremendous work in the world.
 
We are, therefore, to be mindful and present both to the text of Scripture and the congregation who we serve.  The ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others in order to demonstrate a resonance with God’s Word and Christ’s ways needs to be established so that parishioners can walk away taught and inspired toward a more biblical path to live their daily lives.  But sometimes fear can get in the way, keeping us from being confident in what we are doing – fear of failure; fear of what others might think; fear of being hurt emotionally; fear of not being good enough.  Yet, if we focus more on our identity and security in Christ and less on our abilities or lack thereof, then we can step boldly into ministry to others using various means at our disposal to express ourselves dynamically as we present God’s Word.
 
Maybe this all sounds a bit contrived.  But consider the Old Testament prophets.  They were filled with pathos.  They did anything but simply say God’s message – they proclaimed with incredible passion and sometimes even with arresting object lessons and shocking word pictures.  Whether it was Ezekiel lying on his side for 390 days to symbolize the upcoming siege of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4); Jeremiah putting a linen belt around his waist to communicate the worthless pride of the people (Jeremiah 13:1-11); or, Elijah on Mount Carmel taking on the prophets of Baal with physical altars and speeches of sarcasm (1 Kings 18:16-39); God’s messengers have always communicated their given message with the same tools used by actors in order to bring that vital Word to people in the power and pathos of the Holy Spirit so that it is believed and obeyed.
 
There are a few simple ways we can develop this ability to communicate a bit further.  If you have children or grandchildren, read to them.  Take on a unique voice for each character.  Read the story with emotion and enthusiasm – even if it does not feel natural to you.  Picture immersing yourself in the characters of the book as if you were them, and let the words flow through that grid.  If there are no kids around your house, volunteer to read in a church Sunday School class, or even at the local elementary school (which, I guarantee, are always on the lookout for those who will come to a class and read).
 
Another way, similar to reading to kids, is to begin always reading Scripture aloud with the same attention to character, voice, and situation.  Read a particular text over several times in different translations, playing with different tones of voice and various emphases on words.  After a few weeks of doing this, it will begin to become part of you.
 

 

Other suggestions are:  taking an improvisation class; reading a biography or, better, an autobiography of a favorite actor; and/or actually re-creating some of the object lessons in the prophetic books of the Bible for your ministry.  Whatever it is you choose to do, be intentional about the development of connecting the biblical text to people.  It is an endeavor you will be glad you invested in, with eternal results.

Jude 17-25

17 My dear friends, remember the warning you were given by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. 18 They told you that near the end of time, selfish and godless people would start making fun of God. 19 And now these people are already making you turn against each other. They think only about this life, and they don’t have God’s Spirit.
20 Dear friends, keep building on the foundation of your most holy faith, as the Holy Spirit helps you to pray. 21 And keep in step with God’s love, as you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to show how kind he is by giving you eternal life. 22 Be helpful to all who may have doubts. 23 Rescue any who need to be saved, as you would rescue someone from a fire. Then with fear in your own hearts, have mercy on everyone who needs it. But hate even the clothes of those who have been made dirty by their filthy deeds.
24-25 Offer praise to God our Savior because of our Lord Jesus Christ! Only God can keep you from falling and make you pure and joyful in his glorious presence. Before time began and now and forevermore, God is worthy of glory, honor, power, and authority. Amen. (CEV)
 
            I don’t know if there is a more pertinent and prescient description of contemporary evangelicalism as that they are turning against each other.  But Jude gives some wonderful and practical direction to such a situation:  build on the foundation of spiritual prayer; keep in step with God’s love; help all who have doubts; rescue the perishing; have mercy on the needy; and hate evil.  To top it all off, Jude reminds us to offer praise to God because of Jesus.
 
            I can’t think of a better approach to contemporary ministry than to adopt this succinct plan of Jude.  I’m not sure we Christians could come up with a better approach.  It only makes sense to follow a clear biblical agenda, especially in these days of uncertainty and unrest.  These verses sound like a good point of conversation for church leaders and bible study facilitators.  How would you implement this into the life of the church, and into your own life?  The answers to that question just might lead to some very fruitful and helpful ministry.
 

 

            Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

The Effects of Humanity’s Fall

 
 
            The entire world is profoundly broken.  Everywhere people are ‘messed-up’.  Anywhere one goes, whether it is school, work, home and even church, there is institutional brokenness expressed in systems or organizing structures that contain elements of bondage instead of freedom.  It does not take a Christian to observe and know that things just do not seem right.
 
            The Bible’s description of this reality goes back to the fall of humanity.  Satan, the devil, led the original persons, Adam and Eve, into disobedience of God.  Satan tempted Eve to doubt whether God really had her best interests at mind; to question the truthfulness of God’s Word; and, to wonder about the wisdom of listening to God (Genesis 3:1-5).  Adam just flat out chose to disobey God, and, so, the entire world changed (Genesis 3:16-17). 
 
            Immediately, everything was different in the world and with people.  The choice to disobey God brought feelings of fear and shame; a loss of fellowship with God; hiding from God; a bent to pervert the truth; the propensity for the genders to try and dominate each other; expulsion from the garden; and, physical death (Genesis 3:7-24).  That is quite a list of downright icky stuff.  No wonder the world is messed up.
 
            The fall of humanity still affects us all.  It has brought not only physical death, but spiritual death.  That means we are alienated from God, in rebellion against him, and enslaved to our own passions and desires (Isaiah 1:2-6; Romans 2:14-15; Ephesians 2:1-3).  We are alienated from one another as persons by having continual bents toward discord, suspicion, and jealousy instead of love and trust (Romans 1:29-31; James 3:14-16).  We are even alienated and totally out of touch with ourselves by either loving ourselves as gods or hating ourselves with inordinate emotional masochism (Philippians 2:21; 2 Timothy 3:2-4).  In short, we are selfish people who experience separation from God, others, and self.
 
            If this is the true reality of humanity, then it is depressing, discouraging, and damaging.  Who, then, will rescue us from this death?  Thanks to God who has given us victory through the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 7:24-25; 1 Corinthians 15:57).  The good news is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus the curse has been reversed.  He has brought us restoration to our original place of fellowship with God.  Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  Only through him is there hope for humanity (John 14:6).  Freedom, therefore, involves knowledge, honesty, and sincere decisions of faith and love whereby truth is applied to life.
 
            Jesus offered himself for us so that we might live and no longer be separated from God, others, and self.  He has brought us reconciliation.  In him we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing (2 Corinthians 5:16-19; Ephesians 1:3; 2 Peter 1:3).  Jesus is the rightful ruler of the universe, and is able to make all things work together for good in the life of his people (Philippians 2:9-11; Romans 8:28-29).
 
            The essence, spirit, and purpose of church ministry, therefore, is to come alongside people trapped in their cycles of  brokenness and tell them of the good news of Jesus to deliver from all the crud.  Anything short of this is not really Christian ministry; it is just doing stuff.  The church is, then, to call out sin where it resides in sinful structures and not only within individuals.  But we are to do this with all the graciousness that behooves children of God, and always with the remedy of the cross of Christ.
 

 

            Yes, the world is terribly askew.  But God demonstrated his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  We need a Savior.  God provided One.  Jesus is the answer.  Are you in touch with the ways you are separated from God, others, and self?  Are you aware of the ways in which your church has an unhealthy separation from the world?  In what ways can you and your church apply the love of God to broken people and systems in your community?  What will it take to reach the un-churched and de-churched in your families and neighborhoods?  
 
            Having the church ask the right questions is the first step toward bringing true Christian ministry to bear upon the great need of the world.  Don’t express your fallen nature by wasting your time debating personal preferences in the church; spend your energies and prayers in reaching people for Jesus.  The fall does not have to define us; we can get back up again because of Jesus Christ.