Friday, February 29, 2008

Pagan Christianity by Barna and Viola Part 3

Read part 1
Read part 2

In this post we examine what the early church did in it's meetings.

The authors correctly argue that we search in vain for a “worship service” concept in the New Testament. Today’s order of worship came from a combination of the Old Testament and pagan sources, as they effectively demonstrate. This drastic difference between traditional worship services and New Testament church meetings is an issue that should be pressed hard because the church is unwilling to face the truth about this sacred cow.

But then the authors begin to claim that the New Testament church was devoid of preaching, and that nobody should preach (unless it was a special occasion or the preacher was a church planter)! They say, “the contemporary sermon delivered for Christian consumption is foreign to both Old and New Testaments.” (88) And, "despite the fact that the contemporary sermon does not have a shred of biblical merit to support its existence, it continues to be uncritically admired in the eyes of most present-day Christians." (101) "The sermon actually detracts from the very purpose for which God designed the church gathering." (p. 86)

At first I thought they were saying that the formalized 3-point alliterated sermons taught in homiletics classes were alien, but no. They mean any sermon. Preaching did not happen in early church meetings, according to these authors, except on special occasions or by visiting church planters. They think Crysostom and Augustine popularized the Greco-Roman homily taught in rhetoric classes. (273) They say giving sermons and the art of preaching were "stolen from the pagans. A polluted stream made its entrance into the Christian faith and nuddied its waters. And that stream flows just as strongly today as it did in the fourth century." (93)

I felt confused. Yeah, foreign elements came into preaching during this period, especially the fact that it was restricted to bishops and priests.

But consider the following:

  • Paul characterized his times with the Ephesians as “teaching you publicly and from house to house.” (Acts 20:20), a practice he pursued “daily” according to Luke. (Acts 19:9)
  • The Christians in Jerusalem “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” (Acts 2:42)
  • Paul’s calls on Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:1,2) and to “give attention to the public reading of scripture” (1 Timothy 4:13). The pastoral epistles are loaded with instructions to preach and teach.
  • He includes “if anyone has a teaching,” in his description of a house church meeting. (1 Cor. 14:26) Yes, this could be a short word-based admonition as they argue, or it could be a planned teaching. Nothing in the passage says which is true.
  • He refers to elders who “work hard at preaching and teaching.” (1 Thess. 5:17) This one is important because it shows these are not visiting church planters, but week-in week-out preachers.
All these point to the fact that early church meetings centered substantially on the word of God and preaching/teaching. Our earliest description of a Christian meeting (Justin Martyr in the first apology c. 140 AD) says, “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.” So Viola’s and Barna’s claim that the early church was all spontaneous and subjective singing and personal sharing is very different, I think, from what we see in the New Testament, just as what we see in today’s worship service is different.

I totally agree with their claim that the idea of a worship service arose as a response to the vacuum left by the loss of mutual ministry during the third century. This can be adequately demonstrated. But why do they weaken their argument by over-reaching and trying to prove that leaders didn’t preach in the New Testament?

The New Testament does demonstrate regular teaching and preaching, contrary to their argument. Preaching did not have to be impromptu and unplanned as they argue.

Paul calls on Timothy to be diligent so he can “handle accurately the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15) That implies studying. Paul’s “preaching daily at the lecture hall of Tyrannus” Acts 19:9) doesn’t sound very impromptu. The crowd at Solomon’s porch numbered in the thousands. Are we to suppose the apostles weren’t teaching and preaching to large crowds even though it says they were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching? This was all impromptu and interactive? I don’t think so. There is no basis for claiming these lectures are impromptu, or only for special occasions, other than the authors’ preconceptions.

As discussed in the previous post, Viola and Barna have a concept of a meeting without planning or human direction, and the notion of preaching the word doesn’t fit that picture. But I don’t think their picture comes from the New Testament. In Acts 20, Luke records a “breaking of bread” meeting where Paul taught and preached until midnight. That’s a lot of preaching and teaching! I believe if anything, the preaching in the New Testament was way longer and more in-depth than typical sermons today.

Yes, the nature of preaching changed in later church history, and it became something that is not questioned or discussed by the group, which is a mistake. (That's why we open the floor for comments, questions, or sharing after each and every sermon at our large and small meetings.) But advocates for organic s of the church should avoid mixing exaggerated claims in with legitimate claims, thus leaving themselves open to easy dismissal.

See a balanced and well-thought out review here.

Read on to Part 4

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Pagan Christianity? by Barna and Viola Part 2

Read Part 1

George Barna and Frank Viola have written a new book, Pagan Christianity? Exploring the roots of our church practices. In part 1 I explained why I'm unhappy that they took valid points and pressed them to extremes that undermined their thesis. In that post, I discussed their coverage of church buildings.

Their coverage of buildings was similar to their work on church leadership, the subject of this post.

They start out with an important point--that the early church developed the unbiblical concept of clergy and laity--a concept that has been catastrophic in the history of the church. They trace the development of this concept through the second century and into the third by which time the notions of the clergyman as a priest and the monarchical bishop were well-entrenched.

The only addition I would suggest is more discussion on why some of the early fathers went so extreme in insisting that people listen to nobody but the bishop or those authorized by the bishop (priests). I don't accept that it was simply a case of them imitating Roman pagan culture. I think the main reason was that they were terrified at how rapidly false doctrine was spreading through the church. Gnosticism and related teachings posed a real threat to the future of Christianity in the second century. But instead of teaching people why it was messed up and how to refute it from scripture, the leadership tried to silence the voice of Gnostics by outlawing their teaching in favor of approved, or official teachers. This same faulty strategy for maintaining doctrinal purity has been used down through history and up to the present day.

But on the whole, Barna's and Viola's coverage of this unfortunate development and the damage it did to the body of Christ was good. Once ministry came to be viewed as the province of the clergy, Christianity became a new religion, unrecognizable from a biblical perspective. As I argued in Organic Disciplemaking, one horrific result was that disciple making in the New Testament sense diminished to the vanishing point. Only clergy would be discipled from then on, so 99% of all Christians were left to languish in spiritual ignorance and immaturity. The notion of practicing your spiritual gifts and developing your own ministry disappeared from Christian history for almost all Christians during this period.

Another awful result was the complete loss of accountability for church leaders. People today are generally unaware that the Bible was taken out of people's hands very early in the history of the church. Reading and interpreting the Bible was reserved for the clergy. Increasingly, people had no way to know whether the things their priest or bishop said were of God or whether they made it up. Once this happened, anything was possible. Back in New Testament times, God had prescribed that prophets should speak, and the rest should "pass judgment." (1 Cor. 14:29) Without access to the Bible, this practice disappeared very early in the church's history.

So this section of the book was off to a great start, like most of their chapters. Then came the over-reaching and the extreme conclusions.

Instead of leaving it that the church never should have designated clergy as some special class who were alone capable of interpreting scripture and preaching, they advance a mode of church life virtually devoid of human leadership! When discussing the early church, they give their definition of a New Testament meeting straight out: “What do we mean by a first-century-styled church? It is a group of people who know how to experience Jesus Christ and express him in a meeting without any human officiation.” They add that “the one who plants a first-century-styled church leaves that church without a pastor, elders, a music leader, a Bible facilitator, or a Bible teacher… those believers will know how to sense and follow the living, breathing, headship of Jesus Christ in a meeting. They will know how to let Him invisibly lead their gatherings.” (234)

Viola describes going to a house church today where people show up, begin singing, someone else sings and they hold hands, someone shares what God showed them that week, someone else shares, and that's it. The only Bible teaching is a guy standing up and reading some scripture and showing how it glorifies Christ for a couple of minutes. Someone else stands and adds some thoughts. More singing, poems, sharing, and "none of this was rehearsed, prescribed, or planned." (78,79) They think if a group "has a leader present who is the head of the meetings... such meetings are directed by a human head who either controls or facilitates it." Instead, meetings should be "without human control or interference." (266)

As someone whose mother was Quaker, I fully understand the longing some feel for spontaneous worship as the mark of authenticity. This is exactly how Quaker worship times work. I also was at a ton of meetings like this back in the Jesus movement, and more recently when visiting house churches in the U.S. But ask yourself, “Why can God only lead after the meeting starts, rather than beforehand?” Just because someone prepares their teaching or preaching doesn’t imply that God isn’t leading, as these authors repeatedly claim. And this assertion—that only impromptu speech is spiritual—is so extreme and unbiblical that it undermines the whole case against formalism. Note: they aren't just saying that spontaneous meetings are okay, they argue that this is the ONLY valid kind of ongoing meeting for churches. Stay tuned for why this is wrong.

Yes, the Bible portrays an interactive meeting with all using their gifts in 1 Cor. 14. but it never says the meeting has no leader, and other portrayals of meetings in the New Testament definitely show a leader present, and planned preaching and teaching, as I will show in my next post.

I've attended these kind of house churches, and I find them boring, often strange, overly subjective, uninformative, and sometimes narcissistic. Being spontaneous doesn't translate into spirituality, and planning doesn't equate to carnality. These are simply false dichotomies, and extremism. Instead, meetings should have both planned parts (like teaching and preaching) and spontaneous parts, and there's nothing contradictory or wrong in that.

The house church movement associated with Viola holds that human leadership violates the leadership of the Holy Spirit.This movement rejects the validity of human leadership in a way that is every bit as alien to the New Testament as many of the other features detailed in this book. From one end of the Bible to the other, God uses human leaders. Early church members are repeatedly called on to respect and follow their leaders. (Heb. 13:7; 17; 1Cor. 16:15,16, etc.) By over-reaching in this way, Barna and Viola undermine the credibility of their own argument, which is a shame because these are points that need to be made.

Read on to Part 3

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Pagan Christianity? by Viola and Barna Part 1

Not good enough.

As a leader in a house church planting ministry, I so wanted to like this book! Frank Viola has been writing in favor of a more organic understanding of church life for years. Observers have often pointed out similarities between his books and some of mine. I see the overlap as well, along with some differences, which should be clear from my most recent book, Organic Disciplemaking. [The need for, and nature of disciplemaking was one area of solid agreement!] Readers like me who share the authors’ desire for an organic, New Testament-style church will experience real excitement while reading some parts of this courageous critique of the modern institutional church. But I’m afraid the work is seriously flawed.

We’ve all seen steer wrestling at rodeos. The cowboy seized the horns of the steer and twists his head, eventually forcing the hapless animal in a direction he never wanted to go. Some interpreters steer-wrestle the Bible and history to fit pre-conceived views of the church. I’m not denying that many, and maybe most of their claims are true. But mixing in exaggeration and selectivity can seriously distort the picture.

I am on their side of the river, and I’m recommending this book, even though I think they over-reached on a number of their points and weakened their case as a result. They show how the concept of church buildings as holy places originated and drew most of its content from pagan influences. They focus on the major formalism added at the time of Constantine, but in fact, church buildings were around, and were viewed as holy houses of God well before Constantine. He did greatly expand the acceptance and the number of “churches” throughout the empire. They then over-reach to the extreme of implying that using buildings at all is pagan and alien to the New Testament.

Their suggestion that the church could just rent or borrow a building like the schoolroom of Tyrannus or Solomon’s portico for "special occasions" doesn’t match New Testament precedent. Paul didn’t rent the schoolroom for a special occasion, but as a base of ministry that he carried on “daily.” (Acts 19:9) Solomon’s portico was in regular use also. Acts 2:46 says, "Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart."
Why should we conclude that large venues like this were for special occasions only, when they appear in the same sentence with things like breaking bread and house church meeting? Outdoor venues like that work well for warm-climates like Jerusalem. It wouldn’t work so well where I live in Ohio.

The point is that the poisonous part—viewing buildings as the “house of God” and auditoriums as “sanctuaries” (which means “holy places”)—should be decried without discrediting the whole argument by exaggerating. The authors think any ownership or regular use of buildings is bad, and steer-wrestle the scriptures to suit their preconceived view.

Read on to Part 2

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Prayer Ministry of the Church

The Bible teaches that spiritual ministry can only be accomplished through the power of God. (Psalms 127:1,2) God's power is released into ministry situations through prayer, as the following passages demonstrate. Not only did the apostles feel the need to have their own ministries supported by prayer, they sought to accomplish ministry in others through prayer.

  • Eph. 6:18,19 "With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel."
  • 2 Thess. 3:1 "Finally, brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified, just as {it did} also with you"
  • Heb. 13:18 "Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things."
  • Col. 1:9 "For this reason also, since the day we heard {of it}, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding."

hristian workers must clearly understand the role God plays in evangelism, discipleship and other aspects of ministry. Unless we consciously operate out of a God-centered model of ministry, we will automatically default to a human-centered model, and all the defeat that comes with it.

A moment's reflection tells us that what we propose to accomplish in Christian ministry is supernatural. To reach people's hearts with conviction of their need for Christ, to train them up in the faith, to impart the deep things of God in a life-changing way, to oppose and defeat powerful evil spirits—these are acts that no human can hope to accomplish, no matter how intelligent and competent that person may be. The key to ministry success is always the same: That God moves through us "leading us in his triumph." (2 Cor. 2:14) Spiritual failure in ministry is predictable when leaders try to supplant the power of God with human charisma, ingenuity, marketing skill, force of will, or social manipulation, even when these are supplied from the best intentions.

Monday, February 18, 2008

God's call for the church Part 5

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Part 5:Ministry to the Social and Physical Needs of Our Society

The biblical mandate for social relief ministry

The ethics of generosity in helping the poor is rooted in the person and work of Christ himself according to 2 Cor. 8:9, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich." This example of Christ's should lead us to see our responsibility to use the wealth God has entrusted to us to glorify him by sharing with the poor.

John draws the connection this way: "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world's goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. (1 Jn. 3:16-19) Christ's love should move us to compassion for those who are suffering from poverty.

Jesus agreed that caring for the physical needs of others is an essential part of what it means to love others as we love ourselves in the parable of the good Samaritan. (Lk. 10:25-37)

We are all made in the image of God, and it should pain us that there is gross inequality. When Paul led relief efforts for the poor believers in Judea, he reasoned with the Corinthians that they should give generously to the effort because, "this is not for the ease of others and for your affliction, but by way of equality--at this present time your abundance being a supply for their want, that their abundance also may become a supply for your want, that there may be equality; as it is written, `He who {gathered} much did not have too much, and he who {gathered} little had no lack.'" (2 Cor. 8:13-15) Of course, the ideal is not that all Christians become poor so that there will be equality.

Rather, the ideal is that the poor become more prosperous so that their needs are met.

Jesus taught caring for the poor in very strong terms when he described this scene at the last judgment:

"Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat...' Then the righteous will answer him, saying, `Lord, when did we see you hungry...?' And the King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.'" (Mt. 25:34-40)

Paul makes it clear that we should also prioritize the needs of Christian poor, without neglecting non-Christian poor. (Gal. 6:10) However, this support of the poor is for those who are victims of tragedy, or who are disadvantaged, or not able to work. It is not for those who are unwilling to work. (2 Thess. 3:6- 10)

Finally, the extent to which we go in helping the disadvantaged is a matter of private conscience. It is not to be legislated by the church. This can be seen from Paul's comments in 2 Cor. 9:7 "Let each do just as he has purposed in his own heart. . . not under compulsion. . ."

The book of Proverbs has some striking promises and warnings in the area of caring for the poor. Consider what each of these verses teach, and what the application is.

  • Prov. 13:23 "Abundant food is in the fallow ground of the poor, but it is swept away by injustice."
  • Prov. 14:21 "He who despises his neighbor sins, But happy is he who is gracious to the poor."
  • Prov. 14:31 "He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he who is gracious to the needy honors him."
  • Prov. 19:17 "He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the Lord, And he will repay him for his good deed."
  • Prov. 21:13 "He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor Will also cry himself and not be answered."
  • Prov. 22:9 "He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor."
  • Prov. 28:27 "He who gives to the poor will never want, but he who shuts his eyes will have many curses."
  • Prov. 29:7 "The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor; the wicked does not understand such concern."

Xenos' strategy for dealing with social relief ministry

At Xenos, we believe that the church needs to carry out the biblical mandate outlined above to the extent we are able, based on a carefully thought-out community development strategy. Our social relief ministry, Urban Concern follows these principles:

  1. We should devote the vast majority of our resources to projects that effect permanent socio-economic as well as spiritual change. In other words, we want to impact families and communities with money, help, and the gospel in a way that is self-sustaining over decades, not merely feed hungry people in a way that is soon forgotten in an endless sea of need. Many social problems have spiritual and moral causes which need to be addressed at the same time that we meet immediate need. Any immediate needs that we meet should be a part of an over all strategy to effect permanent change within a specified community.
  2. We should devote more resources to meeting need in foreign countries where poverty is much worse than in the United States. This part of our strategy must be worked out in conjunction with the imperatives in the area of world missionary outreach mentioned earlier.
  3. We should accept limitations in the size of the area and the number of people we help for the sake of effecting real change. This means that we are obligated to say "No" to many worth-while projects in order to avoid diluting our impact in chosen communities.

Friday, February 15, 2008

God's calling to the church Part 4

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The fourth calling for the church is to make disciples. I discuss this thoroughly in Organic Disciplemaking

Jesus called the church to go and make disciples of all the peoples. Mt. 28. A disciple is a student. Ancient rabbis spent years with their disciples, teaching their way of life, their understanding of scripture, and how to teach it to others. Like Jesus, they often lived with their disciples for extended periods. The process of discipleship was a complete shaping of a new rabbi—a passing on of everything the rabbi had; his character, his knowledge, his values, and his wisdom. Ancient Jewish discipleship was an educational process, but it contained much more than our modern concept of education. Rabbis transmitted biblical knowledge, but the close association in daily life also transmitted elements not found in books. The rabbi sought to transmit his outlook, wisdom, and character. This was personalized education where two men formed a close, trusting relationship. Within that relationship, the rabbi could sense inner spiritual needs in his disciple and minister to those. The idea was to produce a certain kind of person. The intensive personal attention in this style of training dictated that a rabbi focus on only a few disciples at a time.

Jesus apparently took this model and used it fully, even expanding on the norm. He lived and traveled with the twelve, and seems to have focused even more on the top three: James, John, and Peter. Although some New Testament authors refer to all Christians as disciples (in the sense that they are all followers of Christ), the majority use refers to those who were trainees of a specific teacher.

The same seems to be true of Paul (the only apostle for whom we have extensive biographical information). Right from the beginning, Paul worked at discipleship. After his three-year stay in Damascus, he had to escape by being lowered from the city walls. According to Acts 9:25 it was “his disciples” who lowered him in a basket.

Later, Paul lived and traveled with numerous young men and at least one married couple, teaching them his extraordinary body of knowledge, both in the Old Testament scriptures (where he was an expert) but also from the amazing revelations he had been given by God. They also got the chance to see Paul at work in the field, and no-doubt participated with him in actual ministry situations. This kind of field training could develop skills and understanding in a way no classroom could. Paul was in a position to see with his own eyes how younger workers ministered. That would lead to the best kind of coaching and feedback.

More than 30 men and women are mentioned by name as fellow-workers with Paul. It seems likely that many of these were discipled by Paul, and there may have been others not mentioned. In a ministry spanning roughly 30 years, Paul could easily have raised up 30 or more disciples.

In one famous passage, Paul instructs his favorite disciple, Timothy, to carry on the work of discipleship:

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Tim. 2:2)

We can see Paul was concerned with duplicating disciples down through 4 generations: 1) himself 2) Timothy 3) “reliable men” and 4) “others.” From this single verse, we see clearly that Paul used personal discipleship as a conscious strategy for developing leadership in the early church. He also urged women to disciple other women (Tit. 2:3), a practice unknown in Judaism.

In the New Testament church, where there were no seminaries or graduate schools of theology, the church’s leadership was apparently all raised up by a process of personal discipleship. In the absence of any mention of other means for raising up leadership, we can only suppose that such discipleship was likely not just the main means, but the only means used. Apparently not only leaders, but most Christians were discipled at some level in the early church. Paul says, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.” (Col. 1:28).

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

God's calling for the church part 3

See Part 1: The ministry of reconciliation
See Part 2: Koinonia
Ephesians 4:11 says, "And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ."

There are two very different interpretations of this passage which lead to two very different answers to the role of leaders in the local church.

The King James Version places a comma between "saints" and "for" in vs. 12. thus suggesting that the leaders do three things:

  1. equip the saints
  2. the work of ministry
  3. building up the body of Christ.

In other words, the leaders do all significant spiritual work and the rest do very little. The King James Version reflected this view which had been held for centuries and reinforced it for succeeding generations. Even today, this is the prominent view of leadership in many, probably most, churches.

Consider the following quotes by leaders and theologians:

  • ". . .both the clergy and the laity have leadership roles, but they are different roles. The clergy are primarily responsible for the assembled phase of the church life. They are called and trained as professionals to preach, to lead worship, to educate. . ., to provide. . .theological counsel, and to lead the congregation's organizational and fellowship life. . ."
  • "Lay leadership in these areas is important, but it is secondary and supportive."
  • "(A corporate executive who) realizes that it is the Holy Spirit who has made him head of the research division in a large corporation."
  • "(The hospital elevator operator) who exercises his ministry by humming a hymn by taking the patient's up to the operating room." (All from Wentz, Ministry As a Way of Life)

Without the comma, everything changes. The leaders equip the believers to do the work of ministry and they build up the body of Christ. In other words, all Christians are ministers with significant spiritual roles to play.

The leaders' primary job is not to do it all, but to equip the "laymen" to minister. They are train them in doctrine and ministry, help them to find their unique ministry roles, provide structures in which they can play these role - and then let them minister!!

Which interpretation is correct?

Without any doubt, the latter is the correct interpretation. For what are the saints being equipped, if not to do the work of ministry? The cases used in Greek also point to the second interpretation.

Vs. 7,8 make it clear that every Christian is spiritually gifted. Such gifting is given in order to perform spiritual ministry (1 Cor. 12:4-6).

Vs. 16 sums up the teaching of this passage by saying that the church is built up by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part.

Many other passages in the New Testament teach that all Christians are gifted and called to ministry (cf. Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:4-11; 1 Pet 4:10,11).

The big problem we see today is that in one church after another, little or no effort is made to equip their members to do anything. Even when churches have training classes (usually attended by a minority) these several week classes are so superficial they don't qualify the people to do anything.

How can any church claim it is doing what the New Testament calls for if they make no strong effort to equip, or train their members for ministry?

Next calling for the church (Part 2)

See part 1: The Ministry of Reconciliation
Okay, after reconciliation, or along with it, comes Fellowship.

The early Christians "continuously devoted themselves to fellowship." (Acts 2:42) The word for "fellowship" is koinonia, which means "to have in common" or "to share." As those who are united with Christ, we are to share the life of Christ with one another in a way that results in individual and corporate spiritual growth. This is accomplished through the exchange of God's love and truth, which is called "ministry" (which simply means "service").

Koinonia is viewed by the New Testament as a non-optional environment for spiritual growth.

Clearly such koinonia is not just a matter of attending one or two meetings a week. It is much more than that. This is why the verse so often used to stress the importance of attending church (Hebrews 10:25 ". . .not forsaking the assembling together as is the habit of some. . ."), is frequently misunderstood today. This verse is often taken to mean that only our presence at church meetings is necessary. Instead, we find that according to 1 Cor. 12:21 (". . .the eye cannot say to the hand, `I have no need of you'. . ."), it is not just the presence of the other members that we need, but also their function.

Christians are viewed as the body of Christ because we are spiritually united with Christ and with each other. Since we are members of one another, we need to relate to each other in a mutually interdependent way. The important point, therefore, is not just that we attend meetings (although this is a necessary aspect), but that we authentically share the life of Christ with one another. Thus, ". . . speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the Head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love." (Eph. 4:15,16).

How can we practice koinonia?

The New Testament defines normative involvement in Christian koinonia in two major ways. One way is by serving other Christians with our spiritual gifts and receiving others' service through their spiritual gifts. The sphere in which we use our gifts is our ministry, or service.

Another, and perhaps more basic way to practice koinonia is through loving one another in various practical ways. In Jn. 13:34,35, Jesus told his disciples that they were to "love one another as I have loved you." Since they had been with Jesus for several years, they knew how he expressed love to them. Since other Christians would not have this opportunity, the apostles carefully described what this love looks like. Through what are sometimes called the "one another" imperatives of the epistles, we are given a profile of the ways that we can love one another. Below are examples:

  • Encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11; Heb. 3:13; 10:25)
  • Admonish one another (Col. 3:16; Rom. 15:14)
  • Confess your sins to one another (Jas. 5:16)
  • Forgive one another (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13)
  • Accept one another (Rom. 14:1; 15:7)
  • Serve one another (Gal. 5:13; Rom. 12:10)
  • Build up one another (1 Thess. 5:11)
  • Be hospitable to one another (1 Pet. 4:9)

As we practice giving love to other Christians in these ways, and as we allow them to express love to us in these ways, we are practicing koinonia and expressing mutual interdependence as members of Christ and one another.

Christian meetings are important in this regard because they enable us to experience koinonia during the meeting in varying degrees. They also facilitate the meeting of other Christians with whom we can build koinonia-based friendships. New Testament churches commonly met in homes as well as in large groups (see Acts 2:46; 20:20; Rom. 16:5).

Can a church be considered authentic if it has only a third of its members going to a home group? I don't think so. We have 130% attendance at home groups. Yeah, we count our attendance from out home groups, not our big meetings! And that's the way it should be.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Can churches' self-testimony be trusted?

Brian comments in an earlier post that in a study of megachurches, "18% of the 406 churches claiming that 40% or more were converts, there should be about 70 churches where people are being converted in large numbers."

I don't think so.

In the research work referenced earlier, we also often meet with staffers when studying other churches. We routinely ask them what percentage of people they think are converts. Some pastors admit the percentage is low—as low as 18% in one case, but usually 25 to 40%. Yet the survey in those same churches show that only 3 to 7% are actually converts reached at that church. So far, no pastor has come closer to the truth than five times the actual number.

We don’t suggest the pastors are lying. They appear to actually believe that they are doing five to fifteen times better than they actually are. On the other hand, it’s interesting to notice that the same staffs that can break their statistics down in a dozen different ways from memory are unable to give a statistic for the convert vs. transfer composition of their people. They have so far all admitted that they don’t study that question. Perhaps some leaders don’t want to know the answer to this question?

This is Chadwick claim (See William Chadwick, Stealing Sheep: The Church's Hidden Problems with Transfer Growth, Chadwick thinks church leaders purposely conceal the truth about transfer growth, and that they also purposely seek transfer growth by launching strategies only l
ikely to win transfers.

I can't judge that question, but I do think the blank area in our knowledge here begs for some kind of answer. One thing for sure: You can't go by what churches say about their own composition! Their statements about their attendance are often correct (not always) but their statements on composition have never even come close.

Friday, February 1, 2008

What is the church here for?

Church leaders and scholars don't agree on what we are here to do as the church. Some think our mission is to extoll God in worship. Others think we are mainly here to build the kingdom of God through reaching non Christians and building them up spiritually.

The New Testament states the church's mission in several different ways. By looking at various formulations, we can gain a sense of the purpose of the church in God's program.

* Jn. 20:21 "Jesus therefore said to them again, 'Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.'"
Jesus calls attention to the nature of his own mission as a way of understanding the mission of the church. To be specific, we could look at Jesus' description of his intent in various places where he declared his own purpose:
* Lk. 19:10 "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."
* Jn. 3:17 "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him."
* Mk. 10:45 "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

So, viewed this way, we are left here to continue Jesus' work, which is the rescue of humanity.

* Mt. 28:18-20 "And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, 'All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.'"

This passage contains Christ's so-called "great commission" to the church. We notice that reaching the lost millions in the human race again figures prominently. The church is to go, not to wait for others to come. International missionary outreach is explicitly mentioned.

Notice that baptism is included, as well as "teaching them to observe all that I commanded you." In other words, part of the church's task is to teach and disciple those we have reached with the gospel so they have a healthy walk with God. This process is a natural part of a healthy evangelistic strategy, since those who have been discipled are in the best position to join in the task of reaching others.

* 2 Cor. 5:15-20 "And He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and rose again on their behalf... Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God."

In this passage, Paul once again draws the parallel between the mission of Christ and that of the church. "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself..." and "he has committed to us the word of reconciliation." The church is to take up the work of reaching those alienated from God (which is the cornerstone of reconciliation). However, our work doesn't stop there. We are to press the work of reconciliation forward in the area of bringing members close to God through enhancing their walk with him, teaching them how to worship him and how to gain victory over their own personal problems. Seen this way, reconciliation is both an event and a process.

* Col. 2:19 "[Beware of those who come up with their own religion instead of] holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God."

Here Jesus is the head of the body of Christ. Our mission is to hold fast to him, receiving our directions and nourishment from him, often through the agency of other members (the "joints and ligaments"). Likewise, we, as joints and ligaments in our own right, are responsible to take of Christ and give it to others. This is describing how Christians depend on each other for ministry within the church. However, he also points out that the whole body "grows with a growth which is from God." In other words, as a living spiritual organism, the church is to grow like other living things. Here the ever-present importance of reaching out to those who do not know Christ is again evident.

* Eph. 4:11 "And he gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love."

In this passage, we again see Paul's vision of the properly functioning body of Christ. Under the headship of Christ, not only are there leaders who equip other members (the saints) but the saints themselves do the "work of service." This work of service is the responsibility and opportunity of "every joint" and of "each individual part." In other words, the vision here is of a community where everyone has a role in being built up spiritually and building up others. The result is growth. Qualitative growth, or spiritual maturity among the members (we are no longer to be children tossed here and there) as well as overall growth through reaching the lost (the growth of the body).

* 1 Pet. 2:9-10 "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy."

In Peter's version of the commission of the church, the identity of the Christian community is stressed along with its mission. Its identity is that of the people of God. Its mission is to serve as a race of priest-kings who proclaim the excellencies of God. Some versions read "declare the praises of God" (NIV) which is not an accurate translation of the word arete ("virtues" or "excellencies").

Question: What problematic implications arise from the NIV's translation here?