Church Health and the call to change


My last post addressed the need to be clear about the Gospel: bringing the person and work of Jesus to expression in everything we do. This is not a new challenge. Church history shows how keeping Christ at the centre of public, corporate and private life has not been easy.

This was the burden of the protestant reformation in the 16th-17th Century. The church had become bogged down with theology, structures and traditions which, to put it mildly, did not help people know Jesus and grow in him.

People like Martin Luther and John Calvin sought to bring the church back to the centrality of Jesus, clarity in the Gospel, the supremacy of the Word. This sounds good to us, but it was not a popular move with the established Church hierarchy. Luther ended up with a bounty on his head. Calvin had to move several cities before his teaching base could be established.

But here’s the thing: These men never assumed that once they had corrected the emphases of the church of the time, once they had returned to a more biblical base, that their work was over. They knew it wasn’t possible to reform the church once and for all. They knew the human heart, even the redeemed human heart, was slippery and mercurial. So any effort to draw the church toward a more biblical base would never be a perfect work, and those men and women who strove to give good leadership knew the fallibility of their own perceptions and conclusions.

This is why we’ll often say ‘a reformed church is always reforming’: the work of reformation is ongoing.

we can be faced with a situation where we really need to change some of our established ways, but find it very hard because we love those traditions too much

This presents us with a challenge. Churches work with people, and are led by people. Over time churches develop established ways of doing things. These established ways become traditions because they work well and give people a sense of security. This is good as far as it goes, but it gets complicated because culture moves on, and our ways of relating change. At such times we can be faced with a situation where we really need to change some of our established ways, but find it very hard because we love those traditions too much.

So much of what we call the ‘worship wars’ would have been avoided if we all recognised that the Scripture’s call for us to effective Gospel communication requires the positive embrace of change to that end. Perhaps this is the biggest challenge to the established church today: to be both diligent in ensuring the biblical basis of the church is retained and vigilant in doing the best it can for Gospel transformation to take root in the lives of people.

Question: how do we strive for a positively cultural relevant Gospel without accommodating our culture, thus making the gospel devoid of power?

PS. All the very best of the Lord’s richest blessing for the New Year. And yes, I am on leave, but while on leave I still do the things I love and which energise me.

Why you (still) need the church…

(Apologies that my posts have been a little irregular these last weeks. Leonie and I have visited a few churches, as well as ReCharge – The CRCA pastor’s conference, we have considered a few calls from churches, we’ve decided to accept a call to Gateway CRC, and this last week we’ve out our house on the market, and it appears to have sold. I am hoping that I can now maintain a little more regularity…)

It’s tough being church these days. You have to wonder how even hi-tech and well managed church ‘productions’ compete with easily accessible forms of entertainment. Or why people attend a local community when they can access Driscoll, or Piper, or Ortberg on their smartphone or computer. How can local church ‘Pastor Bob’ compete with all of that? With these choices so readily available, it seems more people are staying away from church, and managing their own spiritual development.

Do we still need the local church?

Ephesians 3:14-20 says we do. If we’re mapping out our own DIY spiritual growth, we are selling ourselves short, as well as dishonouring the community that Jesus gave his life for.

Your local church community can teach you things that the world’s best preachers and writers never can

Paul prays that we may grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. He prays that we might know the full dimensions of Christ’s love. All its texture, every nuance, every subtlety and variation. The surprising thing is that this does not come from the world’s best preachers, or the Christian book of the year, or even the work of the world’s most erudite Christian scholars. Instead, it comes ‘together with all the Lord’s people’. It comes as the Christian community does new life together. That doesn’t mean preaching or scholarship is not required. It just means that when it comes to you growing into the full dimensions of Jesus’ love preaching, scholarship, and books have considerable limitations.

Your local church community can teach you things that the world’s best preachers and writers never can. Yes. Your church. That failed and fallen group of people, with all of their quirky and irritating aspects. These people are the very means by which God draws you into the full dimensions of his love.

How does that work? Here are a few suggestions:

• Only your church can love you with all of your faults and failings

• Only your church can express the forgiving grace of God when you fail

• Only your church can draw you into reconciliation and bring the grace of a receiving and welcoming God to full expression

• Only your church gives you a context to use your gifts and to serve others. Stay at home Christianity is basically self worship

• Only your church can express the hope of the New Heavens and the New Earth to the people of your neighbourhood

• Only your church can bring healing and restoration to the broken lives and the troubled families that live in your local community

All of this comes as a loving and sovereign God does his work in his people, through the power of his Spirit, to the glory of Jesus. Without him, we can do nothing, but as he works in us, his people express the truth that Jesus is the hope of our world.

Sure, it can be tough, and not church is perfect. But don’t give up n your local church: it’s God’s means, God’s personally selected context to bring you into the full dimensions of his love.

Q: How is God calling you to renew your love for the local church today?

The Interference of Self

Read: Heb 13:1-6

Sometimes when I am met by a need or a context where I know I should move forward and respond, I push back and either procrastinate or simply turn away.

Why do I do that? Is it fear that my incompetence might be exposed Is it a sense that I might not be safe? Or is it prejudice? Or some combination of a whole raft of reasons? This passage speaks of ministering to prisoners (v.3) – do I fear their violence, and back off? We also read of strangers (v.2) – can they be trusted? Sometimes I am so prejudiced and governed by insecurity with moves me toward self protection and avoidance. Too easily, my fears blind me to what I really need to see. This is the interference of self.

Quite often the truth we need to hear is uncomfortable

Quite often, the truth we need to hear is uncomfortable. It interferes with the ‘realities’ we construct to protect ourselves from inconvenience. If one of these uncomfortable truths threatens my material wealth, my financial independence, or my leisure, I often try to push it away. Sometimes, I don’t even think I realise what I am doing. Yet through defensiveness or dismissal, or something as harmless as well directed humour, I persist in my denial. I would rather that people affirm me, and confirm the sometimes lesser story I have chosen to live at that time.

Well, there is only one affirmation that really matters. One reality worth living for. On Kingdom deserving the focus of my life, one relationship that brings love, peace, life and hope. And it is God (v.6). I don’t have to worry about what others may think, because living with God, or rather Him with me, I have all I need to survive the day.

Q: Does relationship with God really make that much difference to you? Leave a comment and tell us what you think.

Not much to look at…

Read: 2 Cor 4

I don’t like being weak, and I certainly don’t like being perceived as weak. So I engage in the stupidity of covering up. It is a clumsy attempt to project some other reality, one of relative strength and having it together.

I think I shortchange God when I do this. Paul was a man who was in touch with his weakness. I can imagine his CV saying ‘excellent education under Gamaliel, and later, Jesus himself, but I am not much to listen to, and i have several persistent and debilitating personal issues…’ Would you hire someone like that?

When I seek to give the impression of strength, the focus is on me, and the Gospel is masked. We have all seen mega churches which advertise their senior pastors with larger than life airbrushed images. What images might there have been outside Paul’s church (even though he was regional and itinerant, and not bound to a ‘church building’). A cross? A gallows and noose? A broken terra cotta pot? A picture of disability?

Weakness is God’s favourite work context

God uses weakness to reveal the beauty of his grace and character. This may unnerve us. Even so, that is how it is. He chose weak and underdeveloped Israel. Abraham and Sarah were old and past it. Moses was not a great speaker. David was too small for a soldier’s armour. Jesus was viewed as a reject, and gathered other rejects to himself. The cross is seen as foolishness. Jesus’ followers, small in number and uneducated, were given the task of making disciples of all nations.

Weakness is God’s favourite work context. Weakness is how he perfectly shows his power (2 Cor 12:9).

So I have my weaknesses and so do you. I should not feed them, thinking that a worse situation will end up being a context for greater power. That’s like sinning more to get more grace (Rom 6:1).

So while I work on my weaknesses, I will simply pray that God’s grace and power will be at work despite my weaknesses. I will pray that God’s work, God’s character, and God’s grace might be more clearly seen. That my work, my character or gifts might not be the focus.

I am a jar of clay. A cracked clay pot. So let the treasure of grace and the wonder of Christ be more clearly seen.

Q: How might God use your specific weaknesses and frustrations to reveal his power today?

If you’d like further encouragement to be open about your weaknesses, check out Michael Hyatt’s excellent piece, published yesterday: ‘Tell Your Story, The Good and The Bad’

Are you standing in God’s council?

Read Jeremiah 23

This is a sobering read. God’s prophets were using their power unjustly, and the God whose words they should be speaking has a broken heart and trembling bones because of their unfaithfulness (23:9,10). These prophets are speaking grand words among their friends (23:25,35,36). It’s funny how the words they had crafted for the ears of people, prophecies they had staked their future, are nothing more than delusions (23:26). Who would work so hard for a delusion?Why invest so much energy in a vapour?

Is this the cult of personality? Popularity’s trap? It’s an easy one to fall into. Any preacher or leader knows how good it is to feel words like ‘wonderful message, great sermon, terrific decision’ slap us on the back. It can have us chasing the affirmation, intoxicated by the stream of positive strokes. It’s easy, isn’t it, to seek endorsement of people instead of following God and saying what he wants us to say.

I don’t think anyone rolls out of bed one morning saying, ‘I think today I’m going to start to be a lying prophet.’ These things happen incrementally. They are the amalgam of a thousand prior decisions, each of them minuscule on their own, but adding up over time to represent a totally different direction, a changed value, a new behaviour. Only rarely are these changes for the better.

the temptation to give our own message is always present

Jer 23:22 shows us the better way, ‘If only they had stood in my council…’. If only the first decision each day would be to hear God through his word, to discern his better and best way, to hear his voice. His affirmation and his honour are paramount. Seeking this, we are will do a better job of speaking His word.

Q: Are the affirmations you are receiving leading you deeper into God’s will and council? What might need to change?