Growth, Health & ‘The Gospel’

Here at Gateway Community Church we’ve been listening to God’s call to make and grow disciples, to have a healthy church, to ensure our structures work best for these ends. We have a long way to go, but there are a few things we want to start doing. The next few posts will outline what some of them are.

Our first priority is this: we want have clarity and unity in ‘the Gospel’.

This is not always straightforward. R C Sproul has written about some of the distortions and over simplifications of ‘the Gospel’ here. For some, ‘the Gospel’ amounts to jargon: ‘we’re here for the Gospel’, ‘this is a Gospel church’, ‘what matters is the Gospel’, ‘nothing but the Gospel’, ‘I love Gospel music’ – all well and good, but what do you actually mean by ‘the Gospel’?

Amongst the people of the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia, ‘the Gospel’ is commonly a set of orthodox truths about Jesus, for example:

  • Jesus is the eternal Son, only begotten of the Father
  • he became a man, born to Mary
  • he lived a sinless life, suffered and was put to death on the Cross
  • his death bore the sin and punishment his people deserved
  • he rose from the dead, winning their rescue, restoring them to life, and reconciling them to the Father
  • he ascended to heaven, and now sits in the most powerful place in the universe
  • he will return to judge all humanity and to recreate the universe which now, rightly, belongs to him

These truths are crucial: If I fudge on one aspect, I don’t have the full picture of who Jesus is. This is why good theology matters: it helps me think clearly about who God is, what he has done in Jesus, and why it all matters. I believe the statements above are objective realities, absolute certainties. They remain true whether I believe them or not. In this sense, the Gospel simply is.

Even so, when at Gateway said ‘we want to have clarity in the Gospel’ we were, however, talking about more than agreeing to a raft of objective truths. This because it is possible to accept those truths but still not live under them. Think of it this way, I believe Capt. James Cook sailed Endeavour into Botany Bay in 1770. I can study the accounts of his voyage, read his diaries, and get some sense of the man. But when I roll out of bed in the morning, James Cook is not going to make a difference to how I live. Why? Because acceptance of historical truths is not necessarily life changing.

The Gospel is considerably more than a happy announcement of forgiveness to a lost sinner.

So, how is ‘the Gospel’ more than a statement of objective truth? How is the Gospel the transformational good news? In this sense: The Gospel is the person of Jesus and everything he has come to do. John Piper opens this reality beautifully in his 2005 ‘God is the Gospel‘. I would just change Piper’s title to make it read ‘Jesus is the Gospel’. I say this because ‘accepting the Gospel’ is more than agreeing with a set of truths: accepting the Gospel is accepting Jesus, bowing the knee to him, naming him as my Lord, my Leader, my Rescuer, the Redeemer and ultimate Restorer of my world and this universe.

We want to be clear about this: The Gospel is considerably more than a happy announcement of forgiveness to a lost sinner. It is that, for sure, but the Gospel announces Jesus’ restoration, his new creation, his Kingdom coming to expression in our here and now. It proclaims the inexhaustible hope that Jesus is reconciling all things to the Father. Can we find a more earth shattering, life changing, heart transforming statement of the Gospel than what we read in Colossians 1? …

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:19–20, NIV)

We want Gateway to understand this glorious Gospel. We want this reality to be the ground for our unity. We want this Jesus to be the focus of our ministry and mission. This Gospel, Jesus Himself, has staggering implications for how we live and behave, for how we engage our community and our world. Perhaps the most humbling reality of all is the wonder that through Jesus we now get to bring new his creation to expression (see 2 Cor 5:17-21).

As leaders we are convinced that the more unity we have in this very big picture, the more we will all pull in the same direction, and the more glory will be given to Christ our King.

Why your church needs effective structures

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In my last post I spoke of the need for church health, and how God changes churches one life, one decision at a time. It would be nice if all that growth would happen automatically.

Problem: growth and health are never automatic. If we go back to my vegetable garden analogy, we’re reminded how you have to do a lot of work to get good growth – especially in Perth. We had to turn 10 square metres of sand into arable land. We added all sorts of stuff: Organic matter. All round fertiliser. Bentonite clay to help the sand clump into something like loam. Bags of sheep manure (apologies to my neighbours). On the top we mulched with nitrogen rich lucerne hay. Add to that more water than our rainwater tank could hold, and we were starting to head in the right direction.

We did this because (A) we looked at what we had, and (B) we knew what it needed to be. Once we knew those things, we could work out (C) what we had to do to our garden to get to where we wanted to be. Through it all our goal was to create the best environment for growth.

We can use a similar process when we’re thinking about bringing our churches to health. It is the task of the church, and in particular the leaders of the church, to set the best environment for growth. So leaders need to (A) take a realistic look at how things are, and (B) listen to God’s word to determine where they should be. Once they know these things they can (C) develop strategies to reach their goal.

I actually think this method is pretty helpful. (A) – where are we? (B) – where do we need to be? (C) – what do we need to do to get there? Sure, there are lots of little things to complicate the picture: what factors have led us to this point? What barriers might we encounter in the future? What limitations do we face? But the basic method is still helpful.

And just so we’re clear, moving toward health is more than a matter of method. The questions of A, B & C are best addressed in a spirit of humble dependence on God, of prayerful searching of God’s will, and a deep desire to honour Jesus and bring his new creation to expression. So we need pastors, elders and leaders with more than a smart methodology. They need to be people with a Gospel heart, who are rich in the Word, and filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom. People who can honestly assess their current situation, and interpret relevant factors and influences.

When leaders like this seek to move a church toward health, they will be wrestling with the need to have the most effective structures, systems and ministries. They will be seeking to create the best context they can for growth and health. They will be working for a church that embraces change.

The church needs leaders who seek the best context for growth and health


We all know change like this is hard. We will need to let go of some things we love. Things that make us comfortable. Mostly it is hard work, but if these are the changes God calls us to, they are right and they are good.

‘The Night Watch’ is a colossal painting by Rembrandt van Rijn. Measuring around 3.5 x 4.4 metres it dominates an entire room in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. The painting was completed in 1642 – the height of the Dutch golden age. Over the next 300 years, the painting was lovingly preserved and maintained. The custodians of the painting no doubt had the best intentions, but all those coats of lacquer darkened to tones of the painting so much that people thought it was a night scene, hence the popular title. After Word War II, however, the painting was restored to reveal its well lit early morning hues.

Here’s my point: for the first 300 years the restorers had the absolute best intentions. They were the experts in their day. No one better for the job, and no better methods than the ones they employed. But in time more effective preservation methods were discovered, and the old methods were dispensed with. See, the method was not the important thing. What really mattered was the end result, and the beauty of the work.

Sometimes Churches focus on the wrong thing. And the methods, the well worn practices become the focus. These things might not be wrong in themselves, but when they become the focus, the beauty of what needs to be seen can be so easily obscured. What started as clear as day might end up dark as night. And then we need the courage to undergo a work of restoration and transformation. Hard work. And those focused primarily on the traditional methods and practices may find this an uncomfortable and disturbing process. But at the end of the day, our prayer is that the work of the Master will be seen for what it really is, and that he will receive the praise which rightfully belongs to him.

Q: Are you aware of methods and practices in your church which obscure the Master’s work? What might you do to address this?

I love Jesus, but do I have to be radical?

My opening post reminded us that growth is natural and normal. It also openened up the thought that health is desirable. Whether we are talking about growing vegetables, human beings, organisations, or the church – it is a normal expectation to want them to be healthy.

As we worked through these concepts at Gateway, we began to think that God actually wants us to be radical followers of Jesus. But we knew the word using ‘radical’ would be a little risky. We hear how people become extremists by being taken in by a militant leader and radicalised over a period of time. Normally, the consequences of such actions are terrible.

At other times, when we hear the word ‘radical’ we think of those rent-a-crowd protesters we see on TV. People who don’t wash their hair, don’t eat meat, and don’t use deodorant. A caricature, I know, but you get the drift.

‘Radical’ may have some negative overtones in our culture, so we need to understand the word well. To be ‘radical’ is to go right to the core, right to the heart, right to the root. So, when we’re talking about being ‘radical disciples’ we’re talking about people who not only accept the teaching of their Master Jesus, who not only accept Jesus at an intellectual level. We are really talking about people who take his transforming grace right to the core of their lives, right to the heart of their values, right to the root of everything they seek to do and to become. To be a ‘radical disciple’ is to be as totally transformed by the grace of the Gospel as we possibly can be.

when we’re talking about being ‘radical disciples’ we’re talking about people who take his transforming grace right to the core of their lives

If this is what being a radical disciple is, then it is hard to imagine anything better than everyone being exactly that: a radical follower of Jesus.

Here’s the challenge: the call to be radical disciples pushes us away form some of the negative expressions of the church and Christians today.

Radical disciples are not people who keep their Christianity for Sunday, and who forget about Jesus’ claim on their lives as leave their palace of worship.

Radical disciples are not people who have an occasional thought about Jesus, or who restrict their ‘time with Jesus’ to 10 or 20 minutes every day. They don’t divide their time into ‘time for God’ and whatever the rest is: time without God? Who knows.

They are not people who worship every now and then. They don’t just put in an appearance at weekly gatherings, or who tilt at doing a ‘church job’ every now and then.

Here’s what radical disciples are: They want their entire life, everything they do, everything they think, to be an expression of the new life they have received in Jesus.

Every hour of every day they want to breathe the new heavens and the new earth, to be living, walking, talking, loving expressions of life the way God created it to be.

Radical disciples live in the profound privilege of bringing Jesus’ new creation to expression.

More and more they live and breathe this desire to honour God in everything: their family, their work, their sex life, their relationships, their leisure choices, their spending habits. Everything.

Radical disciples display something similar to my overzealous gardening habits: they check themselves out regularly to see whether they are growing. They know that growth is normal, growth is natural, and health is desirable.

Q: Do you think the call to be radical is helpful? Do you think we can make it a positive value in today’s cultural climate?

Next: Is the focus on growth something God calls us to in His word?

Is your life about getting treasure, or being treasure?

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Returning to our discussion of money and wealth…

We recall that Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, God’s special possession (see Exodus 19 and my previous posts “God & Treasure” and “What is your Treasure?“).

That was then. What about now? Does that call still apply to us? If so, how should we respond? What bearing does it have on how we live, on how we view treasure, or possessions, or wealth?

The truth is that the call to be an alternate society, a contrast community, comes just as powerfully to us today as it did to Israel then. Right at the start of his ministry, Jesus made it clear that he was restoring what his Father had intended, and what Israel had failed to achieve. This had implications for all who followed Jesus. Their first priority was not to seek treasure and wealth. Their treasure was to live out God’s rule and be treasure.

Jesus says, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:31–33, NIV) God was promising to bless them, provide for them, and bring his Kingdom to light through them.

Jesus addressed the matter of treasure directly in Matt 6:19-24. This passage has often troubled readers. People wonder what ‘treasures in heaven’ are, and whether they are working for the right stuff.

The nature of ‘treasure on earth’ is reasonably clear. By talking about ‘earth’ Jesus refers to the human domain and dimension. We seek earthly treasure when we build our lives and aspirations around the things that represent fallen humanity. In the context of Jesus’ metaphor, ‘earth’ is a place of decay, an impermanent existence where everything disappoints. The things we strive for: success, beauty, reputation, influence, possessions, the sense of security that our relative wealth brings – none of these things will last. None of these will deliver the life we aspire to, or the peace we long for. This is what it means to be ‘of the earth’. To store up ‘treasure on earth’, then, is to make these impermanent and ultimately unsatisfying things the focus of your life.

 

seeking ‘treasure in heaven’ is to build our life around the things of God

If earth is the impermanent dimension of humanity, then heaven is God’s dimension. Heaven is the place where his will is done perfectly. Where there is grace, beauty, justice, relationships of perfect love and integrity. These are things that will last. This is where life is perfectly centred in Jesus, expressing the full perfection of God’s original design.

So, seeking ‘treasure in heaven’ is to build our life around the things of God. To centre our lives and aspirations around the things that matter to him and the things that reveal his true intention for life and his world. Heaven is where God’s will is done. Heaven is where Jesus’ new life and his better way come to perfect expression. Grace, humility, justice, compassion, beauty, faithfulness – eloquently revealed in relationship with him.

When Jesus enters peoples lives, his rule comes to expression as they stop living to gain treasure, and instead start to live as treasure bringing love, forgiveness, care and mercy into every part of their lives.

Q: What one thing is God calling you to change? How would your life be different if you started to live this way every day? How would your church be different?

God and Treasure

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We hear a lot today about nations operating in the national interest. Sometimes, hopefully often, that is a good thing. Like keeping people safe and protecting them from aggression. There are times though, when ‘national interest’ is code for naked national self-centredness.

The book of Exodus was written after God delivered his people from a superpower which, to put it bluntly, was just operating in the national interest.

Ancient Egypt was a mighty nation, dominating the world stage at the time. And Pharaoh was using the people of Israel as cheap labour – the cheapest, actually, because they were slaves and had no choice in the matter.

So God’s people cried out. And the Lord heard their cry.

Pharaoh, however, ignored it. He made the people of Israel work even harder. Worked them to death.

Why?

Because Pharaoh valued production above people. Pharaoh would have fitted comfortably into some of today’s developing world labour markets. Places where the dollar matters most, where questions are never asked about the actual human cost of the item or the project.

Into this kind of ugliness came the Lord of life: Yahweh the Rescuer, the Saviour.

“The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey — the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.” (Exodus 3:7–9, NIV)

The Lord hates it when any people are oppressed. Even more so when they are his people. So he led them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. He led them across the Red Sea on dry ground. The Lord did this because of his covenant with Israel. He had promised to bless them, and make them a blessing. He had promised to make their descendants as numerous as they stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. God’s promises matter. He never goes back on his word.

So now, with the Red Sea sand still stuck between their toes, as they camped on the border, ready to enter the land of promise, God renewed his covenant with them:

“‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”” (Exodus 19:4–6, NIV)

These verses show the kind of nation Israel was to be:

First, in contrast to Egypt, and other nations, Israel was not to be a nation driven by seeking treasure. They would find their comfort in being treasure. Yahweh’s treasure! They would not need to find their security or significance in things because Yahweh was their security. The fact that they were loved and saved and rescued by him was their significance.

Second, Yahweh called Israel to be a kingdom of priests. It sounds like an odd thing for a country to be. How can a nation have a priestly function?

Well, we know that a priest is someone who represents others in a religious context. A mediator. A go between.

So, Israel was to represent the nations to the Lord. They were to bring the needs of the nations around them to his throne of grace. In times of famine they were to pray. They were to act compassionately in times of disaster. They were to ask the Lord to be merciful and gracious to all the peoples around them.

But it wasn’t just bringing the nation’s needs to the Lord. They were also to bring the Lord and his will to the nations. They would proclaim the truth of God and invite other nations to accept him in faith and live under his covenant. As priests, then, they spoke on the nation’s behalf to God, and on God’s behalf to the nations.

Third, they were to be a holy nation. We tend to think holiness has to do with religious acts and places. In the Old Testament, holiness is not first and foremost religious acts and things. Holiness is a personal quality. To be holy is to be separate, to be distinct, to be set aside for a particular purpose.

So, thinking that through, how would this nation show their holiness? The answer is that they would reflecting the character of the Lord in their national and personal lives. This would happen as they followed the Lord’s commands as a nation and as individuals:

1. worship only God
2. worship no idols
3. use God’s name only with reverence
4. remember the Sabbath day, allowing for rest and worship
5. Honour your father and your mother
6. You shall not murder
7. You shall not commit adultery
8. You shall not steal
9. You shall give false testimony or lie
10. You shall not covet what belongs to others

As God’s people did this, they would be displaying a life and values radically different from Egypt and every other nation on earth.

 

…a life and values radically different from every other nation on earth … this transformed life is one of the ways they would be a blessing

 

What was their motivation? Well, they did not obey in order to be loved and rescued. Yahweh already loved them and rescued them. They were already his special possession. The answer is that their obedience was all about gratitude and thanksgiving. It was not a requirement to earn love, but a response to the love the Lord had freely given. This changed and transformed life would be one of the ways they would be a blessing to the nations around them.

It was as if the Lord was saying, you have come out of a nation where people treasured wealth and power more than people…

You will not live for treasure or possessions. You will live because you are my treasured possession.

You are a Kingdom of priests: you will bring the nations needs to me, and you will bring my will to the nations.

You will be a holy nation. You will separate yourself from all the dehumanising values of oppression that you saw in Egypt. You will be different, distinct, to all that.

This call presented Israel with their identity. They would be totally unique as compared with all the nations around them. The Lord’s work in them was to be a total reorientation of life. A radical alteration how they were to engage the world around them.

This call was to shape the national ethos of God’s people. In my next post I’ll pose the question of how that is relevant tot God’s people today.

– Dave

What is your treasure?

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Enough… Treasure

Read: Exodus 19:1-8

Last week Leonie and I watched The Hobbit. The story starts with the dwarfs losing all their treasure, and ends with them mountain an expedition to win it back from the wiles of the dragon. In the midst of it all we are introduced to Golum, and to Bilbo Baggins who manages to take Golum’s personal treasure, which he has named ‘My Precious’.

Great movie. Wonderful fantasy. And yet expresses a profound truth: The quest for treasure does not leave us. The thought that somewhere there is something that will make work unnecessary, or give us beauty, or deliver success, or make life easy – or better still – eternal, is deliciously captivating.

Truth is: We are all seeking some kind of treasure.

This desire lies at the core of the human heart. And we direct our lives to pursuing it.
Here’s an email I received while I was writing this sermon:

EBay

Look at how this ad is positioned: it tasks about what you love; it panders to your interests, passions and preferences; it’s addressed to your needs, and asks you to follow. It’s a profound example of how our culture works.

Advertising tells us a lot about ourselves, and what we think is important. They say that kids in the USA are exposed to something like 40,000 ads per year. A study in Queensland found that because of the use of children in advertising, by the age of 7yrs, 71% of girls want to be slimmer.

Advertising knows the truth of the human heart: that we all treasure something.

Broadly speaking, our economy is build around the laws of supply and demand. Around the belief that healthy markets and economies should always expand. And markets expand by producing things that people want. You’ve got to be competitive, so companies look to reduce costs: labour, utilities, plant & equipment, human resources.

When I was a kid, cheap stuff was made in Japan. As conditions improved in Japan, the cheap labour market labour shifted to Taiwan, and then to China. Then on to Vietnam, and now? Bangladesh. Recently, 1200 people died in a building collapse in Bangladesh. The pressure to keep costs down led to shortcuts in safety and building standards. These workers endured terrible conditions to produce fashion items predominantly for our shops.
It happened because the manufacturers and retailers place more value on profit and production than on people. [You can view an excellent report on this terrible tragedy on ABC Australia’s “Four Corners” via iView]

It is an unpleasant thought, but this is actually part of our culture’s history. English colonists simply settled in Australia, believing it to be Terra Nullius – owned by no one. No one considered the rights of the people who were already here. Efforts were made to settle peacefully, but when resistance came, it was met with terrible and disproportionate force.

The Dutch did no better in Batavia (present day Indonesia). The Dutch East India Company’s Captain Coen wiped out whole settlements of natives so he could build the colony and the walled defences of the Citadel for the Governor.

Batavia

How did these world powers justify their actions? Because lucrative spices, resources, and a colony was more important than people.

“…we cannot carry on trade without war, nor war without trade” [Capt Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, 1618]

Those words make me squirm. They should give us pause when today the harsh treatment of people is justified in the name of national interest. And they give us pause because we realise that western society – our society – has for hundreds of years been built by seeing the lives of some people as expendable. We treasure things, and dispose of people.

The point of this hard truth is not that we send ourselves on an eternal guilt trip, but that we repent of the tendency to devalue people in preference to possessions. I don’t know exactly how that should be done, but we can start by considering where, and how, the goods we purchase are manufactured. We can do it by persisting with questioning retailers, and realising that there is some power in the dollars we spend in their establishments.

Grace and peace

– Dave

This Is What Forgiveness Looks Like

On May 20, 2012, 18 year-old Takunda Mavima was driving home drunk from a party when he lost control and crashed his car into an off-ramp near Grand Rapids, Michigan. Riding in the car were 17 year-old, Tim See, and 15 year-old, Krysta Howell. Both were killed in the accident.

Takunda Mavima lived.

Mavima pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to between 30 months and 15 years in prison.

Despite their unimaginable grief and anger, both the sister and the father of victim, Tim See, gave a moving address to the court on behalf of Mavima, urging the judge to give him a light sentence.

“I am begging you to let Takunda Mavima make something of himself in the real world — don’t send him to prison and get hard and bitter, that boy has learned his lesson a thousand times over and he’ll never make the same mistake again.”

And when the hearing ended, the victim’s family made their way across the courtroom to embrace, console, and publicly forgive Mavima.

Make sure this image sticks with you forever:

Hug
Photo Credit, Chris Clark, Grand Rapids Press.

There will be a time in your life when someone will wrong you. God forbid they take the life of your child. But it will happen. And what matters most isn’t how it happened, but how you respond to it.

And if you’re a person of faith, the calling is even greater. The gospel of forgiveness isn’t a high calling for the heroic individual, or a counter-cultural description of heavenly perfection. It is a principle central to the gospel itself – the very heart of our faith in which we are called to embody.

In the swelling sea of human destruction, the little story of Takunda Mavima and a family from Michigan is a lighthouse on a hill, a beacon of hope, guiding the way for all our ships to pass through.

Right now, how can you prepare yourself with a clear plan of action to forgive in the darkest of times?

This post was written by @JustinZoradi and is used with permission. It first appeared on Justin’s blog, and later on Don Miller’s Storyline

Justin