Saturday, December 17, 2011

Why I'm Re-doing Faith that Makes Sense

I originally wrote Investigating Christianity in 1987 after a night when my wife and I shared our faith with a couple of guys at a campsite. They were super interested, and inclined to go further in exploring Jesus, but there was a problem: they were headed toward Alaska and we were headed home. I knew I would probably never see them again.

I wanted to have a piece I could put in their hands that would embody some of the most powerful approaches we typically use in Xenos, but could think of nothing. Most books for non-Christians rely on the historical arguments for the resurrection and related approaches, but I, for one, don't consider those very convincing in themselves. I know many have come to faith because of such arguments, and I use them myself as collaborating arguments. I just don't feel such arguments carry the day with truly skeptical thinkers.

That's when I decided to write my own book. Tyndale House later picked up the book, re-titled it, and sold a ton of them. That book has lead many to Christ. I know, because they email me telling me how they came to faith through reading the book.

I'm hoping this one, Discovering God, will be better. By selling it as a kindle, nook, or apple ebook for 99 cents (the cheapest allowed), I'm hoping people will just give it as a gift to someone they've been talking to, and ask them to check it out for later discussion. Instead of being something we only give people after they come to a Bible study, this might be good to give beforehand. The print version should come out within a week. It will be retailed at $3.99.

I was very impressed as a young believer by the argument from fulfilled prophecy, because I saw this is the Bible's own apologetic, used in the Old and New Testaments throughout. Other evidential arguments are there as well, but far less frequently. In this piece, I've featured several of the best examples of fulfilled prophecy.

So why redo Faith Makes Sense, when it had a dozen printings and 150 thousand copies produced? Because all of that book is out of date today.

First, the style of writing in the early nineties is completely different than what people need today. Mostly because of the internet, today's prose is far more direct, punchy, and never wordy. People simply won't read as long as they use to. That's why I shortened the book by 20 thousand words.

Also, a number of the most persuasive arguments available today were not well understood twenty years ago. specifically, the argument from design as seen through abiogenesis and cosmological fine-tuning have really gained force in recent years.

In the next post I'll give some samples of the new material in Discovering God.

Finally, language changes every decade, and key words that were fine then are now ill-advised. I'm hoping that the wording in this new title will be accessible and will communicate clearly.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Relationships: How Deep?

In my last post, I argued that the unity described in passages like Eph. 4 can only be referring to love relationships between believers in a local church, and that modern definitions are superficial and inadequate.

But how do we know what the New Testament means when it calls on God’s people to love one-another? Is our modern understanding necessarily deficient or superficial? How could we ever know what the inner lives of people in the New Testament church were like? Maybe their experience in church wasn’t much different from ours.

Here is where objective teaching meets interpretation and application to form a group’s ethos. We could take the call to speak the truth in love in a number of ways, some of them quite superficial. But New Testament teaching won’t let us do that if we face it honestly.

The “one-another” passages

One of the clearest ways to look at this question involves the so-called “one-another” passages in the New Testament. These passages, found scattered all over the New Testament form a baseline for what we should expect when it comes to relationship building and koinonia. Because the apostles repeat these calls in dozens of diverse contexts, they must be universal imperatives. Look at these selected examples and consider, in each case, what would be necessary before that passage could be any more than a dead letter.

Galatians 5:13 For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
Serving is the concept of ministry. This passage is a plain call for serving love in the body of Christ. How could we possibly accomplish this if our only context for knowing people is a large worship service on a Sunday morning? Those who think the Bible never calls on Christians to become involved in smaller group fellowship are mistaken. Fulfilling these commands is inconceivable apart from some kind of small group involvement.

1 Thessalonians 5:11 Therefore encourage one another, and build up one another, just as you also are doing.
To encourage others effectively, you need to know what’s going on in their lives. You would have to be aware of their progress in various areas in order to know what to encourage. Likewise with the notion of building others up--how are we to do this unless we know each others' needs and progress? Unless we have a reasonably good idea of where others are in different areas of their lives, any attempt to build them up would be pure guesswork. Those who have worked to help people grow spiritually know that the transforming power of love and truth doesn’t work at arm’s length. This imperative assumes people have built good relationships with each other.

Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another.
If we are to speak the truth in a life-giving way, we first have to let that word “richly dwell within” us. This suggests extensive learning--way more than the average western Christian today. But we would also have to know each others' lives well in order to not only teach doctrine, but to “admonish” (nutheteo)--a term related to our concept of counseling. This passage envisions Christians who are knowledgeable in God’s word, wise in its application, and engaged enough with each other to counsel one another's lives. Doing this with relative strangers or acquaintances is unrealistic. Would you accept admonition from someone who didn’t know you or understand your life situation?

James 5:16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.
Some churches have arranged to have people confess their sins through a screen to priests who barely know them. But this can hardly be what James has in mind. In the context of the New Testament church, this verse refers to something normal Christians do with each other. Most of us would find it difficult to open up about our sin problems with anyone unless we felt significant trust. To be as vulnerable as this verse suggests would take lengthy personal investment to build trusting relationships where people feel safe opening up to one another.

Ephesians 4:32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
Conflict and alienation are constant threats, preventing us from building a community of trust and grace. Many people come to Christ with obstinate habits such as hostility, insensitivity, suspicion, and judging others. Many lack the ability to forgive offenses and need extensive training in grace. Every local church would love to see their people acting like these verses describe. But any group that has tried, knows how difficult it is to get a group to move from fleshly selfishness to forgiving love. Close-in modeling, counseling, and admonition are essential to such a transformation. Teaching people how to practice grace with each other must happen in community, just as surely as teaching people to swim needs to happen in water. Too often, modern churches aren’t sure whether they have a problem here for one simple reason: their people are so disengaged and distant they rarely interact enough to take offense at each other--not exactly what Paul had in mind.

Romans 15:7 Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory.
Romans 12:16 Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly.
These verses aren’t just telling us to accept people we like. In the body of Christ, all are welcome. This is a tall order for any sizeable group of people. It doesn’t mean we can’t admonish unruly people, but it does mean we must learn to love them. Every healthy church has significant numbers of hard-to-love people, people with serious problems, including annoying relational dysfunctions. Obeying these passages will test the maturity and graciousness of everyone in the group, especially when people spend time and build close community. In healthy churches, difficult people are not only included, but often become unrecognizable compared to their former selves, and stand as powerful examples of God’s life-changing grace. Proper understanding of these passages rules out merely saying, “I have a friend I love and try to build up.” That’s not good enough. This passage is referring to the body of Christ, not to someone we already love. Two people who love each other is a nice start, but we are called to form Christian community with everyone.
1 Peter 1:22 Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart.
The language of these verses and others like them simply cannot be understood as a superficial definition of love too often accepted in western churches. To “fervently love one another from the heart” has to mean deeply committed and involved relationships. This is not describing simply a friendly demeanor toward others we see at church. Love like this is going to take time. Love like this will mean sacrifice.

Getting our bearings

Before deciding what you think these passages mean for the church today, remember:
  • These passages are all moral imperatives direct from God to us, and are not optional for serious Christians.

  • These commands are not linked to any particular cultural setting, like the first century Greco-Roman world (unlike, for example, women wearing veils, or greeting one another with a holy kiss). They apply directly to twenty-first century America.

  • The content of these imperatives applies to all Christians except perhaps those who are severely impaired. The “one-another” language makes it clear that carrying out these actions is not the responsibility of leaders or an elite group, but of all ordinary Christians. The leadership is responsible only to equip members so they can succeed.

  • These passages, in context, are not describing how we should relate to our families. Although we should certainly love our families, these passages are about the much more difficult setting of the church. Switching the intended venue from the church to our families would be another example of radical reinterpretation intended to reduce God’s call to something we are already doing (Matthew 5:46).

  • Disregarding any of these instructions would be sin--just as serious, and even more serious, than stealing, swearing, getting drunk, or watching pornography. After all, Jesus put loving others at the very top level of importance, second only to loving God. As James says, “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it” (James 4:17)
Some western Christians become unhappy when studying the one-another passages because they already have set priorities in their lives that make obeying these impractical. While following these instructions from God may be difficult, and may be different from what we are used to, we must accept that this is biblical Christianity. We cannot claim Christianity is a livable teaching unless we substantially carry out these oft-repeated instructions.

Think about it: deleting from the New Testament every call for Christians to pray would fatally distort the Christian message, and it would leave Christians in an unspiritual, miserable state. So too, deleting the “one another” passages from the New Testament would destroy the spiritual vitality of the church and everyone in it. While we can always find churches that excuse us from following these instructions, we would only be fooling ourselves about true Christianity.


As a Bible teacher, I’m aware every time I teach this area that some people in my audience begin to bristle in anger or uncomfortable resistance. Facing God’s word is often uncomfortable, and it should be. Strangely, even some Christians who take a hard line on a wide range of moral issues think nothing of ignoring and disobeying these very important moral instructions.

The first step in reforming our situation in the church today is to admit where we stand. Are we doing what God tells us to do? Have we developed the kind of dynamic, health-giving community of love described in these passages, where everyone is being equipped, is loving, is ministering to each other? Or have we accepted a version of the church where most people just watch and listen; a picture that comes nowhere near what God describes in the New Testament?

If we have a problem in the western church today, the best thing to do is admit it. We can rely on the grace of God to forgive and to help us change. But nothing will happen if we choose to justify a western version of church life that safeguards our right to be individualistic consumer Christians.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Ethos Part 4: Ephesians 4 and Koinonia

Body life in action: Koinonia
I think one of the most majestic discussions of the body of Christ is in the book of Ephesians. Here again, Paul begins with a lengthy discussion of the nature and importance of our mystical union with Christ and each other. For three chapters he argues that God’s vast plan of the ages has been building toward this outcome.

Two pillars of unity in practice
Finally, in Chapter 4, he pleads with his readers to live out what God has already done:

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of [or “suitable to”] the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (vs. 1-3).
Notice that Paul extols the “unity of the Spirit” in this passage. This is not an organizational unity. It’s not an outward, structural unity where we all share the same church government. People have made huge mistakes during the history of the church by concluding that the key is a single, over-arching church structure or a single leadership entity.

Paul is referring to a unity that is spiritual and mystical. It’s the unity we studied in the previous post--the one that comes from our mystical union with Jesus.

Notice also that the last phrase urges us to “preserve the unity of the Spirit,” not to create unity. Paul is teaching that God has already built real unity into his body, by virtue of the mystical union. But how will this inner, spiritual unity ever come out into the light of day where people can see and experience it?

The first clue is in verse two. Showing “humility, gentleness, patience and tolerance in love”--all these are referring to things found in relationships between people. Living out our unity in the body of Christ is not to be some strange or far-out thing, like a spell or a feeling that comes over people. Instead, we work out our unity by developing loving, deep, personal relationships between the people of God.

Wouldn’t that be something--Christian people who deeply loved the
others in their spiritual community? It would be very impressive if these relationships reached the level called for in the New Testament writings.

At the deepest level, then, is the unseen, but real, mystical union. But over that and because of it, we are to build relationships that are deep, loving, impressive, maybe even amazing to the watching world. Jesus prayed that the unity between believers would be so profound and unusual that it would convince the world that he was authentic (John 17:23, c.f. 14:34-35).

But relationships aren’t all. consider verses 4 through 6:
For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father, who is over all and in all and living through all.

Here again, we see unity. But these seven bases for unity all lie outside our doings with each other. They are truths, or facts, that we did not create and cannot alter. Truth, as well as love, is a key basis for unity. In fact, truth and love have a dynamic relationship that forms the basis for what we should be doing. Paul calls us to bring these two pillars together in verse 15:
But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ
To speak the truth in love; what does it mean? And how does that result in spiritual growth to maturity?


In the New Testament, Christians gathered to share or exchange the life of Christ with each other. The New Testament authors often express this sharing, or having in common, with the Greek word koinonia. Koinonia comes from a stem meaning “common,” and so means to share or to have in common--to exchange something. The term is a rich one and has many applications, including the one here in Ephesians 4, when Paul refers to “speaking the truth in love.”

To develop true koinonia--or “body life” as some have called it--is not that easy. We must develop several background features if we expect to practice body life at the New Testament level. Paul explains in Ephesians 4:
Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ (v. 11-12).
The process of establishing quality koinonia begins with the leadership, according to these verses. Those with spiritual gifts and roles associated with leadership in the local church have the task of “equipping” God’s people to do his work, or his ministry. One of the central parts of equipping members in the body is teaching them truth.

Paul describes this work in Colossians 1:28: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (NASB). If we are serious about “speaking the truth in love” to one another, we will all have to learn the truth from God’s word at a much deeper level than most Christians in America have so far, as we will see in chapter 20. Any church that takes this piece seriously is going to have to devote much more energy and resources to the project of equipping people with the truth than today’s typical church.

Why should God’s people be equipped? For “the work of service” (NASB) or “the work of ministry” (RSV). The last word in the phrase, diakonia, is translated both service and ministry in our English Bibles. That’s because ministry is serving people in love. Serving others is the business of the people of God, and properly understood, ministry is the active component in biblical love. Love in the Bible is not selfish love, but serving love, or sacrificial love.

Ministry comes in
different forms--word ministries, service ministries, and prayer-related ministries. A full understanding of the New Testament concept of ministry takes some time, so we devote a chapter to it. Most ministries in the local church involve relationship building.

The fruit of ministry

People’s characters need to be transformed before they can be what God wants those who serve him to be. Paul tells us where the trajectory of building up the body leads:
[We are to grow]...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 (Ephesians 4:13).
If this is what God envisions as the result of ministry, it gives us an idea of what will be needed in the way of equipping.

First, notice the words, “we all” (hoi pantes). What this passage describes is not for the few or the elite. God calls each and every one of us in the body of Christ attain to the level of maturity described.

This is also important because as the passage continues, Paul repeatedly uses the word “we” as the subject. In other words, every one of us is to be a recipient as well as a powerful minister in the process of koinonia.

Next, he mentions that we are to attain to “the unity of the faith, and the knowledge of the Son of God.” For this reason alone, equipping God’s people will be an enormous task in modern America, where most new Christians begin in almost complete biblical illiteracy. Attaining to the “knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 13) probably means a lengthy time of study and personal discipleship. Even those raised in the church usually have only a Bible-story knowledge that is practically unusable in ministry situations.

Our characters also need formation. Paul envisions people reaching the level of “a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (v. 13). Only those who have been significantly transformed by the Lord themselves can foster such character change.

Those lacking the ability to build lasting love relationships are not ready to play their parts as ministers in the body of Christ. Love-takers are not ready to give out in ministry. Self-absorbed or materialistic people are not ready. Addicts of all types are not ready. Immoral people are not ready.

Members in the church have to seek character transformation in each other’s lives, if they are to effectively give out in ministry. If we have a church full of passive listeners who aren’t growing spiritually, this whole picture breaks down; koinonia becomes an unreal concept. For this reason alone, we see that much more will be needed than what we see in many modern churches. How would the leadership of any sizable church even know whether or not people in the church are growing? How are leaders supposed to match counseling, admonition, training, and help to people’s needs? Vast swaths of our modern understanding of the church will have to be massively revised if the New Testament picture of the church is to be more than a perplexing mystery to our people.

Truth in love
As people become equipped in the truth and see substantial character change, new possibilities open. Such people are in position to do what Paul calls, “speaking the truth in love” in verse 15:
...but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head.
But what does “speaking the truth in love” mean? Does it mean that we tell people true things in a “lovey” tone of voice? Does it mean that we try to project loving feelings and a friendly demeanor when we tell people the truth?


In the context of New Testament teaching, only one understanding of
this phrase makes sense: Paul is teaching that we should speak God’s
truth (based on his word) to each other in the context of love relationships. This is what transforms lives, according to this and other passages.

In the New Testament, love is not a smiling face or tone of voice we
show people in the lobby at church. Neither is it just a feeling or demeanor we project toward someone. Jesus’ call to love others is far more costly than many modern understandings. Such superficial understandings of love--that it is nothing more than a friendly demeanor--come from the world, not from the Bible.

When Jesus calls his followers to love one another as he loved them, he explains that this means laying down our lives for them (John 15:12-13). He means we should build friendships with others and love them sacrificially as he did. Then, in that context, we need to teach, admonish, and encourage each other, based on the truth as taught in God’s word.

Here comes the time commitment. Here comes the interference with worldly goals and values. This means getting outside of my interests, my family, my aspirations, and getting into other people’s lives. No wonder the early church devoted extensive time to fellowship. They were taking the concept of speaking the truth in love seriously!

Koinonia and church values
Have you ever wondered why some groups seem to assume that people in the body of Christ should invest deeply into relationships and develop closeness, while other groups assume that you go to church and go home afterward and that’s it? This is a perfect example of an area where our theology and our values intersect to form a different ethos. Under some patterns of teaching, people never even try to experience real koinonia--they don’t even know what it is. But if we expound this concept regularly and deeply, people may begin to aspire to a new level of body life never known before.

Simply knowing what the Bible teaches on koinonia won’t be adequate; much more will be needed, as we shall see. On the other hand, failure to teach this area strongly will almost certainly short-circuit any hopes for a New Testament-style church.

Ask yourself: Why would people
in a church assume they should pursue in-depth equipping? Why would they think they won’t be complete until they develop a meaningful ministry? Only deeply held biblical convictions that ministry is the birthright of every Christian, combined with the encouragement of the community will likely result in this outcome. Quality community requires that people understanding and believe at a deep level what the New Testament teaches on koinonia.

In our next section, we'll examine New Testament teaching that points to how deep our relationships need to be.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Altering Ethos: The Mystical Union

Who cares about the theology of the church?

Before we can do and be the body of Christ, we have to understand what it is according to God. This is one of the biggest barriers to successful body life today: failure to understand what the body of Christ is. It would be a huge mistake to skip this section of the book. Author Mark Driscoll recently commented that at a pastors’ conference on the church he found that none of the pastors in his group could give a coherent definition of what the church is!

My experience is similar. People want to bypass this part and get to the question of methods. But trying to implement organic church principles without understanding what God teaches about the body of Christ will result in confusion, frustration, and probably failure.

Our mystical union with Jesus

In the book of Romans, Paul explains that we are identified with Jesus’ death and resurrection, and therefore we should present ourselves to God as those alive from the dead (Romans 6:13). This union with Jesus, this new position we have in Christ, is one of the most important, but often poorly understood, teachings in the New Testament.

Theologians call it the “mystical union” of believers with Christ. Our mystical union is very profound--not just a metaphor or a picture. It refers to something real; in some ways it’s more real than our temporal lives here. To be “in Christ” is to be united with him now and forever. Paul says, “The person who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him” (1 Corinthians 6:17 See also Romans 8:1, 9; 16:11; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:13; 5:30; 2 Peter 1:4). As theologian Charles Hodge said, “No doctrine of the Bible, relating to the plan of salvation, is more plainly taught or more wide reaching than that which concerns the union between Christ and his people.”

Our oneness with Jesus describes how God looks at us: he sees us in his Son. That means what is true of Jesus becomes true of us in the eyes of God. God directly links many of his most important New Testament promises to this spiritual union with Jesus. Notice how the authors of the New Testament use the term “in Christ,” “in the beloved,” “in him,” or similar expressions nearly 200 times.

What does this have to do with the church?

In Romans 12 we learn that the mystical union not only affects our identity as individuals, but also corporately, as the people of God:

For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another (v. 4-5)
This passage, like others, says that the same mystical union that makes us one with Jesus also makes us one with each other, or “members one of another.” The mystical union operates horizontally as well as vertically. This is why the New Testament calls believers “the body of Christ.” It’s much more than an illustration. The mystical union of believers is a divine fact: we are individually members, not only of Christ, but also of one another.

Why does Paul, in this same context, urge all-out commitment to Jesus, like when he says a couple of verses earlier, “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (12:1)? What does that have to do with verses 4 and 5? Just this:

Commitment to Jesus is commitment to his body!

These are not two separate things, but one and the same. We are not just members of Christ. We are also members of one another. We cannot commit our lives to Jesus without also committing to the people of God. If we think we are totally committed to Jesus, we had better plan on all-out commitment to his body as well.

Anyone who truly understands the mystical union realizes that each of our lives has been joined to the body of Christ in a very profound way. Whether we live that truth out in any visible or tangible way here on earth is another question. But God has already settled the issue: “We are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
Think about these provocative words from Watchman Nee's classic, The Normal Christian Life:
This [corporate unity] is the very opposite of man’s condition by nature. In Adam, I have the life of Adam, but that is essentially individual. There is no union, no fellowship in sin, but only self-interest and distrust of others....
Yes, the Cross must do its work here, reminding me that in Christ I have died to that old life of independence which I inherited from Adam, and that in resurrection I have become not just an individual believer in Christ but a member of his Body. There is a vast difference between the two. When I see this, I shall at once have done with independence and shall seek fellowship. The life of Christ in me will gravitate to the life of Christ in others. I can no longer take an individual line. Jealousy will go. Competition will go. Private work will go. My interests, my ambitions, my preferences, all will go. It will no longer matter which of us does the work. All that will matter will be that the Body grows. I said: “When I see this...” That is the great need: to see the Body of Christ as another great divine fact; to have it break in upon our spirits by heavenly revelation that “we, who are many, are one body in Christ.” Only the Holy Spirit can bring this home to us in all its meaning, but when he does, it will revolutionize our life and work.
Do American Christians grasp their corporate identity in Christ? I have my doubts. Today, church is something you go to on Sunday, not something that you are. I know the church has to assemble, so maybe I’m being too fussy, but I don’t think so. I think we view the church as something external to ourselves, something I might go to if I have the time, something ‘over there.’ We tend to see churches as things we attend or join, or even as a building.

Instead, we should see the church as something I’m a part of, and whether I’m assembling with one group or another, or even if I haven’t been assembling at all, doesn’t change anything. Christians who fully grasp the mystical union see things in a fundamentally different light. All that we expect and all that we do in the church grows out of our understanding of what the church is.

Practical outworking of the mystical union

Few theological teachings have more impact on our view of the church than that about our mystical union with Jesus. If people come to view their church the way God views it, the other points raised in the New Testament follow naturally. As we will see, an organic ethos depends on an organic definition of the church rather than an institutional, structural, or corporate definition. In a word, the essence of the church is spiritual and inward, not external.

Some readers may think this is too abstract and theological to make a difference. Wrong! It does make a difference and a huge one. What the church does grows directly out of what the church is. For instance, why would Christians in a healthy church consider other member’s lives to be their business? Shouldn’t they focus on their own lives and let others live theirs? Why would we conclude that every single member in the church should develop a personal ministry? Why think that if one member is built up, all of us will improve? The answer to all these and many others is the same--“we are individually members of one another.”

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ethos Part 2: Altering a Church's Ethos

Ethos is powerful. You've probably seen it yourself. One group is demoralized and distracted. They don't seem to know for sure why they show up. Another group is crackling with energy; people can't wait to serve. In one group, people are puzzled when someone doesn't want to go all out for God. People in another group are just as puzzled by full commitment. During the next series of posts, we will examine how leaders assess and lead change in group ethos.

A group’s ethos can be altered. You see this all the time when formerly powerful and lively churches turn drab and decline. You see the opposite as well. But just as rocks roll downhill rather than up, a church’s ethos tends to slide downward unless it is carefully nurtured and even re-inserted at times.

Maintaining good ethos isn’t easy--both during “in season” and “out of season” times. Leaders and members have to watch sensitively for shifts in people’s attitudes and outlooks and be ready to reassert truth. Otherwise, they may soon find themselves in a group that is nothing like the one they used to belong to or lead.

Changing a group’s ethos from something negative to something exciting and biblical is a major project. It involves a lot of work and time--maybe even a fight. But the payoff is awesome! In a group with a healthy ethos, people take upon themselves the tasks involved in building up the church without being asked. Initiative replaces inertia. Generous out-giving love can become so commonplace that people can’t imagine a group without it. Instead of leaders endlessly pleading to heedless members, they will find themselves scrambling just to keep up with the rapid movement of events and the urgent need for equipping.

The Bible and ethos

Since a group’s ethos includes both objective beliefs (belief in truths that stand whether we believe them or not) and subjective values or interpretations, we cannot easily turn to passages in the Bible that set us straight in these areas. However, the Bible is not silent on the subject.

New Testament churches had an ethos of their own, and some of that is embodied in explicit precepts or instructions we should follow. By reading carefully, we can detect other aspects not explicitly taught but demonstrated by example, and we should seriously consider trying to incorporate those as well.

Notice how the ethos was different in various New Testament local churches. Compare the ethos in Corinth with that in Jerusalem in Acts 2-7 and you see a striking difference. Notice how a strong group like that in Philippi, developed an unusual giving ethos from the beginning and never lost it (Philippians 4:10-19), while each church addressed in Revelations two and three seem to have a different ethos.

When we see how ethos shapes every aspect of behavior and outlook in a group, the question quickly becomes, “How do we get this healthy ethos in our group?” That’s where the book, Members of One Another comes in. To build healthy group ethos, you have to have a clear picture of where you’re heading. Carefully studying what the Bible says about the church is the most important step you can take toward that goal. Then, you need practical ideas for how to move from your status quo to the new position.

The New Testament picture of church life is definitely possible today. We are not talking here about something exotic that God reserves for the few. This outlook is God's will for all of us. If we don’t have it, that’s probably because we’ve departed from his teaching, or have accepted definitions and values that come from our modern, individualistic culture.

Consumer Christianity

In the modern west, the definition we most likely have imbibed (often without realizing it) is a consumer version of Christianity.

When you go to the store, you’re a consumer. You’re looking for something. You know you’ll have to pay for what you get, but the point is you want some things and they had better be good. If the products are lacking or over-priced, you’ll probably go to the competitor’s store next time. The store is there to provide things you want.

When the consumer mentality goes to church, nothing changes. The question for the Christian consumer is always the same: What’s in it for me? A church might “meet my needs,” or maybe we hear rumors that a different church down the road is better.

Church leaders realize they have to compete--who will provide the biggest blessing? Who can make people feel most satisfied with the weekend’s program? Who will put on the most impressive performance?

The New Testament picture of the church is incompatible with this consumer perspective. God declares in his word that the community of God is a gathering where I go intending to give out, not to receive. To the extent I do receive blessing, that’s only so I’ll be better equipped to serve. Instead of existing to “meet my needs,” the body of Christ exists to equip me to meet others’ needs. Ironically, according to Jesus, I will probably feel better in an out-giving, ministry-oriented church, but that’s incidental. My focus needs to be on self-sacrifice, as Jesus explains:

If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it (Luke 9:23-24).
This passage and its many parallels in scripture may well refer to one of the least understood concepts in western Christianity today. Nothing could be further from the consumer concept. Experiencing what Jesus describes will be very costly. There will be sacrifice. Taking up a cross is something you do when you’re getting ready to die. A cross is a place of agony. Ease and comfort are incompatible with this picture.

If you’re a modern western Christian, you may have some things to unlearn. Your whole view of Christianity and the church may be at odds with what God teaches in some very serious ways. In Members of One Another, we examine biblical images and teaching that paint a dynamic picture of the community of God, and those pictures may contradict what you have assumed so far.

If you just want reassurance that all is well with the western church as it is today, you probably won’t enjoy this book. But if your heart longs for something deeper, this could be a good first step toward actually experiencing what God has in mind for you.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

What is Church Ethos?

Adapted from Members of One Another

A local church’s ethos is the collection of beliefs and values that animate people’s view of church life and ministry. Here is where people’s theology and their values system intersect to form the outlook and attitudes of a group.

Ethos is a broader concept than theology. It includes theology, but has less to do with the group’s formal statement of faith, and more to do with underlying judgment calls involving expectations and application of truth.

In most churches, people generally buy into certain assumptions about what is appropriate and what should be expected from one’s self, from others, from groups, and from meetings. Many of these assumptions include a combination of theological and attitudinal content. Consider different possible answers for the following examples:

  • How much time should people devote to fellowship, discipleship, and evangelism? What should be the balance between time devoted to the things of God and time devoted to career, sports, entertainment, etc.? These questions have no exact answer in scripture, even though we could argue for some general conclusions like those in this book.

  • What does it mean to be adequately equipped for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12)? That’s a judgment call. We will see that churches answer this question in wildly differing ways.

  • What makes for a good Christian meeting? Different believers would answer that so differently that they would find it difficult to tolerate each other’s versions.

  • What is the proper balance between politeness and honesty in the body of Christ? What about confidentiality (or privacy) versus transparency? In other words, should believers talk about others’ lives and problems, or not? How deeply should Christians be involved in each other’s lives? When would a group be considered disengaged? When are they enmeshed, or lacking boundaries?

  • Where do ministry results fit in? How should we interpret poor results? Are good results always necessarily compatible with faithful theology? Will faithful theology necessarily lead to good results?

  • What elements should we see in those we consider leaders?

  • How responsible should individuals in any meeting feel for the quality of that meeting?

  • How responsible should members feel for the spiritual well-being of other members of their church?

  • What goes into a good time of corporate prayer? Anyone who has spent time in different groups knows how differently people answer a question like this.

  • How should Christians show love to one another? What constitutes a loving community? Here is a good example that demonstrates the importance of priority--many people might agree on most items we could assemble in a list of answers to this question. But what are the priorities? Which ways of loving are more important and which are less so? Should real love include discipline?

  • What should church leaders emphasize in their discourse? What should they teach, but not really emphasize as much? The issue of emphasis often accounts for the vast difference we see between different churches.

  • What kind of shortcomings and foibles in people should we largely ignore and forgive? What behaviors or attitudes are so negative something should be said?

  • How much should we depend on celebrity personalities, or complex organizational structures for advancement toward our mission goals? How much should we look to every-member ministry as the key to healthy growth?

  • What is the balance between efforts expended bringing people to Christ versus building them up in the faith?

  • What should be the balance between expending time and effort on things that benefit people in our group versus those outside our group?

You can see that these questions (and many others we could mention) contain theology, and that’s important. A church won’t have good ethos without careful study and teaching of the theology of the church. But these questions also contain subjective values that vary greatly from group to group.

Sometimes we find ourselves unable to even state the reply to such questions in words--the answers are too subjective for that. Yet, people in a given group will often look at a case in point and share a similar opinion: “That group is too soft,” or “those people are disengaged.” “That group is too man-centered,” or “that group expects too much from its members.”

When a group has strong ethos, people in the group will voluntarily adopt an eager, serving attitude. They think it's normal to suffer hardship, and that sacrifice is reasonable. They can't wait to give out, and are actively looking for chances to minister. New people coming into the group begin to pick up on these attitudes without any need for directives or pressure. Good ethos has an almost magical effect on a group as God calls certain models to members' attention and makes them want to follow.

Groups with good, energetic ethos are well-led groups.