Category Archives: Ministry
The Incarnation lies at the heart of the early church’s wrestling over what it meant to be the church in specific cultures. The concrete, material revelation of God in Jesus Christ was the basis of their thinking and practice. This is why the character and identity of those leading the church were articulated in terms of participation in God. But this participation was not about some private, otherworldly, spiritual practices having nothing to do with the public, political, social life of a people. it was in fact the very opposite. Participation in God meant forming a community of God’s people whose lives often challenged the political and social institutions of their day.
I have been in several discussions recently centered on the question, “Is the way we do church today working?” Through these discussions, there is often a reference to the description of the early faith community in Acts 2:43-47. There is a passion for us to return to the simplicity of that experience and the home church model that many of those early believers gathered in. A Home Church Model is lifted up as the best model for us to experience growth in our love affair with Christ. That led me to ask, was their community model that culturally different? Was that difference because of Christ? And then finally, did the community work at producing Christ followers?
The focused reference when supporting a Home Church model is to point to Acts 2:37-42 and follows Peter’s sermon. Even before that moment, those that had followed Christ had been gathering before the sermon as referenced in Acts 1:15. These gatherings did not frame the totality of their spiritual development because we also see that they continued to worship at the Temple for prayer (Acts 3:1). In Acts 4:32-34, we have reference to how the community of believers shared with one another which provided the catalyst for Ananias and Sapphira’s sin and resulting judgment.
There were issues even though God’s power was being displayed. There was an issue of impartiality in the serving of those in need that led to divisiveness and an over dependence on the church leaders for assistance (Acts 6:1-7). The church leaders, to alleviate the situation, empowered others who were of great character and ability to help serve so ministry could handle the capacity of growth. Stephen was one of those selected and was carrying out his role so well he created an issue for those who did not know Christ which caused him to be put to death (Acts 6:8-60).
In Acts, we see that those who trusted Christ gathered often in homes. However it does not seem that is was an intentional decision as much as a practical one. Once a person trusted in Christ they were often ostracized from their previous relationships and cultural networks. This necessitated them quickly finding a new community or else they would turn their back on Christ and return to their previous community out of necessity of survival.
One of the things that did make their gatherings different was that they often bled past racial and ethically accepted grouping. This happened as those outside the Jewish community began trusting in Christ (Acts 10:1-48). Paul’s letters support the idea that this was a difficult issue for many early Christian communities (one passage is Ephesians 2:11-22). This unity in diversity is one of the hallmarks of the Christian community in its early life.
But did these early communities of faith, which often met in homes, work at producing followers of Christ? The answer is “yes” and “no”. The answer is “yes” because we have a history of men and women who practice their faith being passed down from generation to generation. We have an understanding of what it means to know Christ from their practice and commitment to Christ.
The answer is “no” because of the rest of the New Testaments gives us evidence that these communities struggled just as much as any community in living out their faith. Paul is constantly challenging them to manifest their new life in Christ and overcome sin patterns that they had ignored. Often these sin patterns where being fostered in their gatherings (1 Corinthians 11:23-34 is one example). James also has another example of how in their gathering they were showing preferential treatment toward the rich at the belittlement of the poor (James 2:1-13).
In the New Testament, I see the emphasis not on a model of meeting together but an ethos of what it means to follow Christ together that can have a diversity of cultural expressions. To say that the Home Church model works better and accurately fits the way the early followers made disciples is not helpful. They did meet together in homes. They did look different because of Christ. But their practice was far from successful because of their model. I think that the incarnation gives us great freedom in form but raises high demand in character and practice.
There is no doubt that how we do church today has many challenges. We as church leaders are in need to raise the expiation and constantly refine the programs and experiences we create to move people toward maturity in Christ. The model is not the issue. Each social frame work has advantages and disadvantages toward manifesting the Gospel. The responsibility for church leaders is to understand that environment and push on the inherent sin patterns to help people see what following Christ looks like in our day and age.
I have benefited from books written by pastors. Over time I have found myself becoming cynical of the volume and reliability of what is being published from pastors. Then a friend forwarded a newsletter that echoed what I feared maybe true of some of these books. It was from The Pastor’s Coach and titled 3 Dangers Large Churches Face. Here is the part that stuck out to me:
A staff pastor and trusted friend in a very large church called me to talk about his frustration. The Senior Pastor of this church wrote and published a book about the story of their church and the ministry system it was using. The book was apparently good, and the story captivating, but unfortunately the ministry system wasn’t working. They needed to kill it or change it in a big way. But the pastor insisted that the staff stick with it since the book was out. It was obvious that changing the system would hurt the church’s reputation if word got out that the system didn’t really work and they therefore dropped it.
I know this story is not true for every book, every church, or every pastor. But I also know the temptation to prop ministries up for appearances or accolades. It breaks my heart when I see it so clearly spelled out. We must be careful when we seek to maintain something out of image.
I would argue that this ‘attractional mission’, while effective for a few, is actually a case of putting the cart before the horse. Deciding on a form of church and then trying to make it so that people want to come is mission in reverse.
Jeremiah ends inconclusively. We want to know the end, but there is no end. The last scene of Jeremiah’s life shows him, as he had spent so much of his life, preaching God’s word to a contemptuous people (Jer 44). We want to know that he was finally successful so that, if we live well and courageously, we also will be successful. Or we want to know that he was finally unsuccessful so that , since a life of faith and integrity doesn’t pay off, we can get on with finding another means by which to live. We get neither in Jeremiah…In Egypt, he continues determinedly faithful, magnificently courageous, heartlessly rejected-a towering life terrifically lived.
A leading man in the Confessing Church recently said to me: “We have no time for meditation now, the ordinands should learn how to preach and to catechize.” That seems to me either a complete misunderstanding of what young theologians are like today or a culpable ignorance of how preaching and catechism come to life. The questions that are seriously put to us today by young theologians are : How do I learn to pray? How do I learn to read the Bible? If we cannot help them there we cannot help them at all. And there is really nothing obvious about it. To say, “If someone does not know that, then he should not be a minister” would be to exclude most of us from our profession. It is quite clear to me that all these things are only justified when alongside them and with them – at just the same time!-there is really serious and sober theological, exegetical and dogmatic work going on. Otherwise all these questions are given the wrong emphasis.