Our study continues tomorrow evening with a look at chapter 4 of Dave Black’s book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, “Genuine Relationships.” In this chapter, Dave discusses the church as community. I wrote an extended post on it when I was blogging through the book some time ago. I recommend reading that, and paying particular attention to the definitions provided by Ruth Fletcher. I’ve quoted a key line in the featured image, but in that earlier post I quote more and discuss at greater length.
… salvation of necessity leads to service. (Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, p. 43)
This is the final post of my series on this book, and I’d like to make an observation about the entire enterprise. I’ve become increasingly convinced of two things during this study. First, there is no single form of church organization or structure mandated by the New Testament. Second, there are quite a few principles that should be applied in any church structure that we may choose to use.
Those may sound like they are at least in tension, but I think any tension is both appropriate and quite possibly intentional on the part of New Testament writers. I also do think that one’s organizational structure can either aid in applying Christ-like principles to one’s church structure or they can hinder us from doing so. Unfortunately, we can turn the best organizational plan into something dangerously hierarchical and lacking in accountability.
The determining factor in how our churches will function is whether we are prepared to actually be the body of Christ, living under one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12). Unfortunately, many have seen the test of the church as being the power of the miraculous signs that are displayed, when the real message of that chapter (really 1 Corinthians 12-14) is that the test of the miraculous signs is the one Spirit.
This final chapter of Seven Marks is critical for this reason. It says that we really mean it. Now we can’t neglect the other elements, but the final demonstration is going to be involved in sacrificial living. Note that the title is not “sacrificial giving.” We can give sacrificially without accomplishing anything for the kingdom. When we are emotionally persuaded to give large amounts of money for an unneeded or ostentatious facility or program, we can give sacrificially, while still failing to live sacrificially.
What does it mean to live sacrificially? I must, of course, recommend reading this entire chapter. But let me suggest that for the Christian, this means putting everything we have and everything we are in God’s hands. It’s not a percentage of giving. It’s not a percentage of our time for worship. It’s a complete commitment of ourselves to being the body of Christ, to act as citizens of God’s kingdom while we are aliens here. (Mixing metaphors is fun!)
Christianity is not something you tack on to the rest of who you are. Yes, I belong to the ___ club, I’m part of the ____ political party, and as for religion, I’m a Christian. No! Being a Christian is not like a club or political party membership. It defines who you are.
Bruce Epperly, in Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel, p. 46 puts it this way:
As Acts 2 proclaims that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the Apostles teaching, to the community, to shared meals, and to prayers …. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” They did not separate economics from theology or spirituality. Within the body of Christ, unity of spirit leads to the quest for physical well-being. While there may have been inequalities in income and property, there was no destitution or neglect. Everyone had enough of the Earth’s bounty to have the energy and inspiration to share the good news of God’s life-transforming Shalom. Putting God first lead Jesus’ first followers to generosity and sacrificial living in which the neighbor’s need outweighed property rights and personal comfort.
Ruth Fletcher expresses the vision and the goal well in her book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, p. 48:
Those first followers gathered around Jesus’ table in order to be shaped by the values embedded in the story of God’s New Creation. They came together to be equipped with the tools and the courage necessary to make God’s intentions real. Although not large in number, the small bands that followed Jesus began to affect the whole fabric of the culture around them. They were like grains of mustard seed springing up like bushes everywhere. They were like leaven affecting the whole loaf, like salt flavoring the whole pot of soup. They were like light shining from a lamp stand showing what God had in mind for the world.
Today we look to large church programs with the goal of bringing people into the church. Might we not accomplish more if we became those grains of mustard seed in order to impact the world around us. In order to do that we have to be willing to live sacrificially, not as a momentary impulse, but as a lifestyle.
One last thing I’d like to note about this series is that, while I’ve followed Dave Black’s outline from Seven Marks, I’ve been able to find very similar notes from my other two authors. These three authors come from different denominations and different tradition streams, yet they find many similar principles for how we should live as the church.
There are many things we can argue about, but I perhaps we can agree that we should be living as a community, caring for one another, and carrying out our witness through caring for the entire world.
One of the points I have tried to make in my series regarding the books Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, and Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel is that one can follow these “Jesus principles” of church leadership under many different formal structures. Some structures may make it harder than others, but I suspect it is more that each structure has different strengths and weaknesses, mostly the result of the fact that all of them involve humans.
Here’s a video about a house church under the UMC banner. You won’t see anything “non-Wesleyan” here, or violations of the Book of Discipline, but you will see a creative and dynamic living out of the Christian faith. This is certainly a thriving congregation, carrying out transforming acts, and showing marks of a New Testament church!
The sixth mark Dave discusses in Seven Marks of a New Testament Church is fervent prayer (pp. 39-42).
There are a variety of views of what it means to be “the church” or what it means to be Christian. For some, it’s a matter of holding the correct set of beliefs. One knows that certain things are true and one gathers with other people who know the same things are true, and this is church. Evangelism, in that case, is convincing other people that the things one believes are true and thus they should join this group.
I exaggerate a little bit here to make a point. I think prayer brings out a problem with this view, and it’s one that has been building through Dave’s book. Notice that all these marks of the church are activities. Dave quotes Acts 2:37-47 on pp. v-vi of his introduction. You might want to read that now. Notice that the description of the church is active. God is acting in the church and so are the people.
Now I don’t want to suggest replacing believing or knowing with doing. Doing must result from knowing in some sense or from instinct and habit. Even the idea that doing is important involves thought and belief. Often, however, we can tell more about what we actually believe by what we do than by what we claim.
I recall going to teach about prayer at one church. The prayer coordinator was dismayed at the low attendance of the conference. She told us that the church had determined that prayer was their second priority. In that case how could so few people attend a conference on prayer scheduled by their prayer ministry?
The answer, I suggested, was to observe what people did, and particularly how money was spent. In particular, look at your property. How is it arranged? What have you spent money on? How much of your money has gone to sports facilities? How much to education? How much to outreach?
Now I absolutely don’t want you to read that as a negative view of sports facilities. Used well, sports facilities can be a critical element of outreach, and in turn a focus of prayer. The question is what you are actually doing.
In fact, the measurement of the commitment to prayer should not have been attendance at a prayer conference, but rather time spent in prayer, a prayerful attitude, and ultimately establishing lives of prayer. A conference might help that. Since I have offered a few, I’d like to think so! But one can spend amazing amounts of time in a conference on prayer without actually praying. One can have a nice looking prayer ministry, while neglecting prayer.
Do we really believe in prayer? I’m not asking what miraculous things prayer can bring, but rather whether we believe prayer can provide communion with God. That, in turn, leads to asking whether we believe God is active in our lives, our churches, and our communities.
The evidence of prayer in the American church suggests that we don’t. We may believe in prayer as an occasional spiritual discipline on the one hand, or as a means of pushing God into doing things that we want on the other, but as a means of communing with God, either we’re not sure it will work, or not sure we want it.
Dave talks about an “attitude of prayerfulness” (p. 40). Such attitude is a reflection of belief and practice.
I want to illustrate this by quoting from one of the other books I’m following through this series:
Some congregations make a decision by voting; but many churches learn to choose through the process of discernment. Discernment, as it is used in everyday language, has to do with sifting through the information we’ve been given in order to decide a course of action. In the church, discernment describes the prayerful process of making a choice in light of the inspiration, leading, and guidance of the Spirit.
Discernment can be practiced by individuals or by groups. When transforming congregations make use of discernment as a decision-making tool, they place their choices in the context of God’s transforming activity, assuming that they are called to something larger than self-interest and partisanship. Through discernment, they imagine not just what they want to do, but how they might share in God’s New Creation through the choices they make. (Thrive, pp. 126-127)
This is a test for belief and practice. Can and will the Spirit guide our discernment? Will prayer help us in discerning what the Spirit is doing and where we can become part of that activity?
There is a huge difference between having a short prayer at the beginning of a meeting in which you then carry out the normal business of debating (or arguing) and then voting and one in which one seeks to hear the Spirit and come to a consensus. The latter requires a certain amount of trust!
In discussing the early church’s beginnings and prayer, Bruce Epperly (Transforming Acts, p. 26), under the heading “Don’t Do Something, Wait Prayerfully” says,
In the wake of the ascension, the apostles return to their meeting place and, for the next several days, constantly devote themselves to prayer. We don’t know the nature of their individual prayer practices. They may have been a blend of quiet contemplation, praise, intercession, celebration of Jesus’ last supper, and thanksgiving. But prayer was their priority as a community before they undertook any action. They knew that God’s power was coming, and also knew that power without prayer is destructive to us and others.
“Power without prayer is destructive.” I fervently agree. Fervent prayer is a critical mark because it sets us up for everything else, just as it did the early church.
It has been some time since I posted my last installment of my discussion of the book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church by David Alan Black, along with some commentary from the books Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel, by Bruce Epperly and Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations by Ruth Fletcher. My most recent installment was actually an excursus, Is There Such a Thing as a New Testament Church?. (You can find most entries in the series by searching for the words “seven marks.”)
I find this topic as a whole, and this chapter in particular, are examples of a topic where we should read material from people outside our own tradition. We need to strip away some of the “stuff” that has gathered in our denominations and churches that keeps us from being Christ-centered. It’s easier to be building-centered, tradition-centered, or us-centered. All three of my authors suggest things that would take us away from those three centers and ask us to seek what is Christ-centered.
Dave Black cites “They devoted themselves to … the breaking of bread.” in the heading to this chapter and indicates he sees this as a reference to celebration of the Lord’s Supper (also called Communion or the Eucharist). I was interested in how many references I had to choose from in all three books. One of the key points Dave makes is this:
And how often was the Supper observed? If we compare Acts 20:7 (“On the first day of the week, when we came together to break bread….”) with Rev. 1:10 (“On the Lord’s Day….”), it seems that it was observed every Lord’s Day, that is, every Sunday. (p. 33)
Of course, the frequency is not the most important point. I would suggest that the most important point is that this is something instituted by Jesus which calls us to remember his incarnation and sacrifice for us. It centers the act of worship around the person of Jesus who is, or should be, the center of our faith and worship. Thus, “Christ-centered gatherings.” Now there is more than performing a certain ritual to a Christ-centered gathering. In fact, if your communion service is just an act of ritual, you may well have a problem in your church. Let me bring in Ruth Fletcher on this point:
Because individuals who participate in the worship life of transforming congregations will have an active daily prayer life, images and words they encounter in the corporate worship will connect them with experiences of the Spirit they have had during the week. A phrase in a song, in a reading, or in the proclamation may well remind them of a time in which they experienced a call upon their lives, a clarity of purpose, or an impetus to take compassionate action on behalf of someone else. Those moments of resonance will be what infuse the worship service with a sense of integrity and power.
Worship in transforming congregations will offer reminders of what the congregation is trying to become. (p. 134, emphasis mine)
I would note that Dr. Fletcher is part of a denomination that practices communion on a weekly basis at every worship service. The question here is the next step. Why is it that we want to have Christ-centered gatherings? I think it is because of the last line, which I have highlighted above. We come together to center ourselves on Christ, and thus to prepare to be the body of Christ in the world when we leave in whatever way the opportunity presents itself.
This is critical: If your worship service is not leading you to service, to acting as the hands and feet of Jesus, to being a witness, and to proclaiming the good news, it can hardly be Christ-centered. Certainly we focus on Jesus, but if we do so simply to get a dose of “specialness” for ourselves, to satisfy our own emotional, spiritual, and social needs we will fall short. By this I don’t mean that our spiritual needs are unimportant. They are, in fact, critically important. But they will never be satisfied unless we carry what we experience in worship out to wherever it is we go during the week.
Now think of your last worship service. How much of the “worship service” led to actual service out in the world? I suspect that it cannot be real worship in the sanctuary of a church unless it leads to the presence of Christ, through you, outside. We tread the room in which we meet as a sanctuary. It even has some architectural similarities to a temple. But it is each one of us as a group, no, better, as a community, who is filled with the Holy Spirit and called the temple of the Holy Spirit.
I would say that communion then is:
And we are the body of Christ, commissioned to be his body in the world. What better way can we have to remind us of this than to participate in communion?
I would like to suggest further that communion, and likely church fellowship in New Testament times was not a large amount of liturgy with a moment when a small piece of bread is provided and dipped into wine or juice, for that one moment of “communion.” Rather, when the saints gathered, they shared a meal. Many of our churches are too large to share a meal on this basis, and that in itself may be a problem. Large churches, of course, can have small groups that gather and have this type of communion. If we are to spur one another on to good works (see Hebrews 10:24), we need to see one another, hear one another, and know one another. In such a circle we can draw our community together and prepare to extend our circle.
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch reminds me of the origins of the American denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). From the very beginning, Disciples of Christ have practiced open communion and have been a model for the ecumenical movement’s communion hospitality. In the early nineteenth century, Thomas Campbell, a newcomer to the United States from Ireland, was appalled by sectarianism among religious groups in the new nation. Even Presbyterians from different sects would not take communion with one another. Inspired by his vision of the New Testament church, Campbell welcomed everyone to the Communion Table. “Don’t fence the table,” he proclaimed. “Anyone who seeks to follow Jesus as the Christ is welcome, regardless of denominational background.” As early Disciples of Christ proclaimed: “We have no creed but Christ.” Our unity in Christ and our allegiance to Christ compels us to expand the circle of his love to include everyone. (p. 78)
I think that there should be nothing that does not lead us forward into a new sense of mission. But what happens in our churches? Do we feel a welcome such that we are nearly compelled to share this with others? Some may object that the call is not to the church, but if the church (building) is where the church (the body of Christ) meets, then should it not be inviting people to it as Jesus did? When Jesus Christ was here in the body, people flocked to him. He didn’t have to hunt for them because there was something there that they wanted.
We need that attractiveness and welcome in the church. Not the excitement of new glitzy programs, entertainment, and excitement, but the welcome that says that here is a place where the longing of my soul can be satisfied. Here there is not just a building but a community of people whose unity and love for one another is so special that I want to be a part of it, and that they welcome me to be a part of them.
I’ve met people who want to be prophets. Some have asked me to pray that God would call them as such. I always ask them if they are aware of the kind of life led by prophets in scripture. Is this what you really want? Similarly we need to ask ourselves about being the body of Christ. If our gatherings are Christ-centered, they will not be “me-centered.” If we are to be the body of Christ we must remember what happened to the body of Jesus, the Christ. Then, as we look to close our doors to those in need, even to our enemies, to those who hate and would kill us, we need to remember who it was that He gave his life for.
Christ-centered? We need it. We claim to want it. Do we want it enough?
I’m planning to finish resume and complete my blog series on Seven Marks of a New Testament Church with added commentary from the books Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, and Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel. This process was interrupted by SBL, by some bug I picked up in Atlanta that slowed me down for several days and by the time taken to catch up afterward.
In the meantime, I encountered the following:
There is no blueprint for churches in the New Testament, and to try to form New Testament churches is only to create another system which may be as legal, sectarian, and dead as others. Churches, like the Church, are organisms which spring out of life, which life itself springs out of the Cross of Christ wrought into the very being of believers. Unless believers are crucified people, there can be no true expression of the Church.”—T. Austin Sparks, Words of Wisdom and Revelation, p. 62, (quoted in Frank Viola, Finding Organic Church, p. 19).
There’s a great deal of truth in that statement, but there is also a great deal of danger. Let me quote a couple of paragraphs from Frank Viola from just before he uses this quote to illustrate:
Consequently, the “biblical blueprint” model is rooted in the notion that the New Testament is the new Leviticus. Advocates approach the Bible like an engineer approaches an engineering textbook. Study the structural principles and then apply them.
But church planting is not a form of engineering. And the New Testament isn’t a rule book. It’s a record of the DNA of the church at work. … (Finding Organic Church, p. 19)
I would love to spend some time discussing this view of Leviticus, which is, in many ways a record of the DNA of Israel as God’s people at work, but I’ll skip over my perennial annoyance with the way Christians handle the Hebrew Scriptures. And Leviticus is definitely closer to a rule book than is anything we have in the New Testament, however inadequate the term may be in describing the book.
Again, I would certainly agree that the New Testament doesn’t provide a “rule book” for your church, though we need to consider our understanding of the term “rule book” as well. Even rule books differ in approach! I would also agree with, and even applaud, the characterization of the New Testament as “the DNA of the church at work.” But there’s a certain negative view of engineering involved here, which is just one of the things I think is potentially dangerous.
There’s an interesting form of binary thinking that seems to go on with the question of whether and how we apply the Bible to anything. Someone asks whether the Bible teaches a certain thing that we believe, and the pious thing to say is that it does. So we say it. Then we’re left trying to find just where it does say it. Take the doctrine of the trinity, for example. Does the Bible teach it or not? Can I discover anything about the Trinity from the Bible? Well, if you want a doctrinal statement of “trinity,” such as you’ll find in any of the Christian creeds (yes, they differ, but take any one), then you’ll have to admit the Bible doesn’t say that. Yet the pieces, or at least the questions, start from scripture. I think you can say something similar about almost any of our doctrines. They are rooted in scripture to various degrees, but we wouldn’t have so many confessional statements if the Bible clearly said what we wanted it to.
Having grown up as a Seventh-day Adventist, I confronted this problem early. We were a church that believed in the Bible and the Bible only. Anyone could study the Bible for themselves, and the Bible was sufficient. Well, except that people kept getting the wrong things from the Bible. So we had a doctrinal statement and baptismal covenant. When I was baptized I publicly affirmed a substantial list of doctrines, all of which the church regarded as biblical. But it was not regarded as sufficient that I affirm the Bible; I had to affirm the list.
I think humans tend to be somewhat binary in our thinking. On discovering that the Bible doesn’t actually have a full list of the “true” doctrines or the “ideal” rules for governing your church congregation, we decide that there’s nothing at all. Let’s get away from talking about characteristics, habits, marks, or even transforming moments. The true church is the one that is produced by people transformed by the gospel.
And yes, it is. Transformation by the power of the gospel is where it starts and it is the key. But we still read scripture. We still have to decide to meet somewhere. We still are going to do some things during our church service and not others. We’re still going to choose some activities in carrying out the church’s mission and not others.
The danger, I believe, is that we do this sort of thing without thinking and consideration. Transformed people will be motivated to carry out the gospel commission, but will they know what to do next? Generally there is someone who leads. I have been in churches that claimed that their worship services were run by the guidance of the Spirit and were very free. No rules.
Well, on paper. In their rule book it was true. But in practice, there was a definitely hierarchy. Who was a prophet who would speak? Who would give the message, which was as long as, if not as organized as, the sermon in any mainline or evangelical church. The “free Spirit” definitely flowed in the way human beings directed.
In fact, despite my apparently sarcastic description, it is quite possible that the Spirit was flowing precisely as the Spirit wanted to, having chosen to work through those people. But if so, there was more structure than people were willing to admit. There were leaders in the congregation. They were just not acknowledged as formally as they were elsewhere.
And it’s in this informality that there is a certain danger. If we do not acknowledge and plan our leadership and our actions, then some form of leadership happens. It may be good or it may not. But very frequently in places where structures are not defined, people with forceful personalities, or even people with negative agendas can take over the process. These persons are very hard to move aside to allow the Spirit to actually move, because they will often deny what they are doing.
So how do you avoid this? More importantly, how do you avoid this without turning the church into a bureaucracy and the Bible into a procedures manual?
Well, I think you go back to the source. Not just the New Testament, though that should be our starting place as Christians. And not just the Bible, but rather the Bible combined with our discernment and what we can hear from the Holy Spirit as we listen to the Holy Spirit and discern what we need to do as a community of believers in Jesus. I think this will be a constant process as we look at what is around us, at who we are, at our Lord, and how we can be the body of the Anointed One in the world.
We can even learn a little bit from engineers in this process. Yes, engineers can be very picky people. I’m reminded of something Jody said as she was about to enter the doctor’s office. She was taking a particular action which she wanted the doctor to note because, she said, “Doctors are very much cause and effect kinds of people.” Engineers likewise. Every time I get into my car and every time I get on an airplane, I am very happy that engineers are cause and effect kinds of people. That’s because I really like the causes to get together and produce the effect of my car staying on the road and the airplane staying in the sky as needed. I flew nearly 7,000 hours in the Air Force relying on that sort of thing.
One thing an engineer can do is study one thing, see how it works, and duplicate the effect by creating a similar machine. Such principles applied to scripture might include looking at the church in the New Testament and asking what caused the church to grow. Can we duplicate that? Of course times and circumstances have changed. In fact, they changed from one moment to another in New Testament times. Engineers can also take a device and adapt it to different circumstances.
I have a smartphone, for example, that is water resistant. If I drop it in a puddle, I should be able to pull it back out, dry it off, and go on. I haven’t tried this. The prior model of the same phone didn’t have this capability. Some engineers got together and added new capabilities to the ones the previous model had. I used that previous model, and I like the new one better. There are principles that apply to both.
And that’s important. It’s nice to say that if our church comes forth from people who have met Jesus and been to the foot of the cross (or one of those other common phrases). That must be the foundation, because church will doubtless not work with people who have not been transformed (or better, are being transformed; we are none of us there yes). But this is a principle I get from reading the New Testament. And it’s not the only principle I get.
The good engineer knows how to look at principles and apply them to a new environment. The good Bible student knows how to look at the church in action in the New Testament and find out how to apply not every action they took, but the fundamental principles by which they tried to live, to our modern times.
So Seven Marks of a New Testament Church doesn’t provide you with a rule book. It doesn’t replace the New Testament. It certainly doesn’t replace the gospel. But it shows you what one worker in the vineyard has discerned as principles that can be applied. The other two books, Thrive, and Transforming Acts, are doing the same thing.
The problem isn’t really thinking like engineers. The problem is bad engineering, engineering that applies rules without understanding. Not inflexible engineering that ignores the complexity of human communities. Engineering that ignores reality is just bad engineering. I, for one, think the church could use some genuine, good engineering.
The fourth mark of a New Testament church that Dave Black finds in Acts he calls genuine relationships. The early believers devoted themselves to the fellowship, to their community. There are so many words for it.
In America today we rarely think of the church as a community and even more rarely as our community. Yet much of the New Testament’s teaching on the church centers around things that relate closely to this idea. We go to church for a “service.” We don’t participate in community. We take our children there for some moral education, not so that they can build relationships for their life. Often we barely know one another.
I’m not trying to make us all extroverts. I’m an introvert. I tend to make small numbers of closer friendships. I’m not talking about the number of friendships we each make. I’m talking about how we fit together into this larger community, one that includes various personalities, a wide variety of gifts, people who are like us, and also people who are not-at-all like us.
What we think about our community is going to impact everything else we do. Dave’s first mark is “evangelistic preaching.” That’s proclamation of the good news. But is the “good news” of your church the idea that one can join up, provided they’re not too different and become just like everyone else there? Or is the good news that through God’s Spirit we can all, with our various backgrounds, become one in Christ Jesus, contributing with various gifts, and receiving the salvation and healing that Jesus offers?
I suggest reading 1 Corinthians 12-14. Don’t skip over chapter 13. So frequently people who want to study about spiritual gifts study chapter 12, those who want to look at church order and how to structure your meetings at the church read chapter 14, and those who want to talk about love read chapter 13.
But that is to miss what Paul is doing. In this book Paul is looking at the various reasons why there are factions in the Corinthian church. When he comes to the start of chapter 12 he’s looking at the great gifted ones who lord it over everyone else. Genuine love, as expressed in chapter 13 is the key. How can one identify genuine gifts in action? It’s by the way they operate under the direction of that one Spirit and the way they carry out love in the church.
1 Corinthians 13 is not about marriage but about the church. It gives good advice for a marriage because it tells us how genuine relationships work.
How do followers of Jesus work together when the church meets? Chapter 14 tells us they work for “edification.” That’s building. That building is based on the genuine love that is expressed in chapter 13. So these three chapters work together.
I heartily recommend Dave’s chapter, but I’m going to quote this time from Ruth Fletcher in the book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations. Fletcher defines a difference between “friendliness” and “welcome”:
Friendliness assimilates newcomers into what already exists; welcome integrates newcomers by helping them know they belong. Friendliness says, “We’re glad you came to our table. We hope you feel at home here eating what we like to eat and doing things the way we like to do them.” Welcome goes beyond friendliness to say, “We want you to bring your gifts to this community. We know when you offer those gifts that we will be changed by your presence among us.” (p. 78)
Fletcher implicitly provides us with a good description of community. Rather than being a place where the current members give and others receive, it’s a place that welcomes people to become part of the giving, whatever it is that they may have to offer.
One of the critical things we need to look at in the church if we are to be such a community is gossip, judgment and criticism. For us to help one another grow, we need to be able to talk about ways to grow. Serious discussion of spiritual growth will not prosper where there is no trust, and gossip destroys trust. Gossip is always followed by judgment and criticism, and it destroys community.
Losing this spirit of judgment does not mean that one loses the ability to discern between different options, nor that one cannot recognize sin or destructive behavior. It does involve a change in the way we think and talk about these things. Our talking will be impacted by our thinking. Don’t imagine that you can pretend not to be judgmental and nonetheless deal with issues as a community.
I’m fairly unreceptive of the complaints of those who think that repenting of gossip, judgment, and criticism (three sins endemic in church life) means that we can no longer reform or call others to repentance. Gossip, judgment, and criticism don’t result from a genuine desire to help others find repentance. They result from our desire to feel that we are better than others and to let others in our inside group know that we are better than others.
A genuine concern for others will result in talking to them and doing it in constructive way. Note that this isn’t a strategy change. It’s repentance from a sinful approach (judgmental) and a turn to a genuinely constructive approach (edifying/building). If we have genuinely repented of the need to feel morally superior to others, I think we will generally know the difference. Most of us have been helped to find a better approach to some issue by a more experienced or knowledgeable friend. It feels different.
One critical point is that it comes from relationship. I have friends who help me with my business decisions who can quite comfortable tell me that some idea would be idiotic. We’ll laugh and go on to a better plan. Why can we do that? Because we have a relationship that comes before the correction. I highly value those friends and that correction. It has saved me from many errors.
“Genuine relationships” open the way to the various elements of community. If you truly want to help those you think are on a wrong path, establish a genuine relationship with them first. As you do so, you may become aware that you also have things in your life that can be improved by what you learn from them.
I think back on growing up in my missionary family’s home. You could not visit my parents’ church without getting invited to lunch. Not invited to join us at a restaurant, but to come join us for the family meal. My mother always made sure she had enough to feed guests. One never knew who would be a guest.
In Mexico, when a mother and son needed refuge from violence, she was invited into our home, even though there was a threat of violence to us involved. She was different from us, of the Chamula people, and only spoke a bit of Spanish, much less any English. But she had a home with us as long as she needed it.
Think about your own church. Would a visitor be welcome? Any visitor? As you bring in new members do you try to remold them after your own image or do they become a genuine part of the church family with their gifts and their warts? Does anyone in your church invite people home to lunch or dinner? Are your homes open? If someone was escaping domestic violence would they get a referral to a nearby shelter or would someone in your church open heart and home to them? If you see young people in your church without parents do you gather in groups to complain about “this generation” or do you decide to welcome the opportunity to get to know them and even mentor them?
I think becoming a community built on genuine relationships will require a great deal of repentance on the part of the American church. But if we want to truly be disciples of Jesus, carrying out the gospel commission, this is one mark we can’t afford to lack!
One of the most interesting and troubling things I’ve found about myself and my church (any of the churches of which I’ve been a member!) is the number of things we know we should do and even decide we will do, but which never get done. Seven Marks of a New Testament Church is certainly ecclesiology, but is it shelf ecclesiology (that’s nice) or is it practical ecclesiology (let’s do that)?
In this case I can’t point fingers. In my personal life I need to get more exercise and lose a significant amount of weight. How long have I known this? Well, I’m the son of a doctor who was medical director of a health conditioning center when I was in my teens. And yes, he knew about these things before that time and after that time, and he taught them to me. I cannot claim that I didn’t know what the health effects of a sedentary lifestyle and excessive food intake (biblical gluttony, no?) would be. While I’m working on reforming this now, I do so slowly and under constant temptation to avoid the needed change. It’s not that I’m tempted to do useless things. In fact, I’m tempted to work, and for me work involves being in front of a computer. So one good thing tempts me away from another one. But that doesn’t make it right. I know I should get more exercise. I know I should eat less. Making those changes so that they are a fundamental part of my new normal is very difficult.
Romans 7 anyone? I know many Arminians see Romans 7 as a description of our pre-Christ experience. I see it as very descriptive of what I and many Christians live every day. The problem comes in when we make Romans 7 into a continuous, hopeless loop about everything. Yes, we all have our Romans 7 experiences, but we’re invited into Romans 8. Not that we’ll live at “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:25) at all times and on all subjects.
It’s easy to make excuses. I’m very busy. It’s hard building up a small publishing company. I have a lot of work to do. I’m very healthy, taking no medications and very rarely missing work. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I’m a vegetarian, for heaven’s sake! (Ice cream, sweets, lots of butter, bread—they’ll do it even to a vegetarian!)
But no matter how many excuses I produce, I know this: I need to change.
There are many reasons why we don’t change, and many excuses for why we can ignore things that we hear.
- We find some fault with the messenger. The wrong person is making the suggestion, so it can’t really be right.
- We nit-pick the message. There’s something in there that won’t work in our situation, so we discard everything new and go back to what we were doing.
- We are change-weary. We’ve tried to make changes so many times and have failed. Why should we try yet another thing?
- We don’t see our present problems. We’re so used to the way things are and the level of success we’re having, that we think that’s precisely what should be going on.
- Other people are much worse off than we are. The church down the street is so inward-looking. By comparison, we’re outgoing, gospel-oriented, and on fire for missions. (This is like my “I don’t smoke” excuse. I’m better than the person who’s killing himself with cigarettes.)
- This change is going to cause problems. Usually this means that the leadership is afraid of losing control.
- I don’t have enough guidance. Where is the calendar, worksheet, study guides, long term plan, etc.?
I could go on, but we’ll stop at seven. Nice number!
I think, nonetheless, that our bottom line is fear. We are surviving the way we are, but will we survive after we change? The pastor wonders if he’ll lose members. The members wonder if they’ll be happy with the new church service on Sunday morning. The education team wonders if anyone will attend Sunday School. Everyone wonders whether they’ll be annoying their neighbors. And while we might not admit it, we wonder whether we’ll be happy ourselves. So we stay the same.
One of the great fears is that we will lose control. This has been the bane of the church from very early times, I think. We’re very much afraid of the movement of the Spirit because the Spirit is not under our management. Not that we don’t try!
In Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, the 12th habit Ruth Fletcher mentions is Choosing (p. 123). Here’s a key quote:
Transforming congregations learn to choose and choose again. They don’t have to get it right the first time around. They can gain insight from any action they take and that insight will aid them opting to take the next step into the future. Transforming congregations acknowledge that when they act with courage, some people may decide to leave, but they would rather decide to do something than to remain lukewarm about everything. (p. 126)
Bruce Epperly comes at this from another angle in Transforming Acts:
The spiritual leaders acknowledged that they couldn’t do everything. They confessed that the task of sharing God’s word left no time for taking care of domestic issues. They needed partners in ministry: so they prayerfully chose a group of people to insure that everyone had a share in the community’s resources. They let go of control, and let go of power, so that human needs could be met.
In ways that are still countercultural, they relinquished the power of the purse for a greater good, the well-being of the whole people of God. They recognized that within the body of Christ, everyone has a role – their spiritual leadership of the community did not lead to micromanaging or power plays, or a sense of spiritual superiority, but a vision of shared responsibility. Perhaps, their selfless leadership inspired the Apostle Paul’s vision of the multi-gifted body of Christ in which the well-being of one shapes the health of the whole body and the whole body, operating effectively, provides nurture and support for each constituent part. (pp. 67, 68)
Giving up control and choosing to act. When we have acted, we choose to learn from that action and act again.
What has impressed me about the church, not to mention my own life, is what a difference we could make if we simply acted on the things we already know are right. Yes, new information is good, but we have a tendency to collect the information and fail to perform the actions. There are many controversial things. But if we laid those aside and simply acted on what we know to be right, what might happen?
I doubt that church would like like the church in America at this moment.
One of my observations in talking to people about their churches and church programs is that they find the first moment when a book or program differs from their situation and take one of two approaches. First, they might discard the entire thing. This is fairly common. That won’t work for us. It doesn’t matter that what we’re doing isn’t working either. Second, they try to follow the program precisely, despite any differences, because if it worked for the expert who wrote the book, it has to work for them.
Neither of these is a strategy that is likely to succeed. Each person, community, church congregation, denomination (or jurisdiction within a denomination) is different. Each one will have different opportunities and perhaps a different call from God. I am passionately convinced that sharing the good news about Jesus with the world is our general calling. Whether that is going to involve a food pantry, classes, involvement in broader community outreach, collecting money for projects across the globe, or any one of a myriad of other possibilities, is wide open.
Especially in protestantism we tend to downplay tradition, but our church tradition has a role. The way you will carry out certain missions is going to depend on the history of the church congregation. We don’t all get her in the same way, and we’re not going to move forward in the same way. Dr. Ruth Fletcher, in her book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations devotes an entire chapter to choosing, to the necessity of discerning the right path and making and carrying out decisions.
The reason I wanted to emphasize this right now is that quite frequently we think we cannot benefit from something like “apostolic teaching” or “the Word of God” unless we absolutely agree on what it is and how we’re going to deal with it. But just amongst the books that I publish, we have Dr. David Alan Black, a Southern Baptist Greek teacher (and full-time missionary, he’d insist!) and Dr. Bruce Epperly, a United Church of Christ pastor, seminary professor, and a process theologian who are both going back to the same place: Acts of the Apostles. Now I’ll tell you that if you read both of their books, something I urge you to do for reasons beyond the fact that I publish both, you’ll find quite a number of things they disagree on and quite a number of points of different emphasis. But in a church that is often drifting and dying while repeating the same behaviors that led it to its current malaise, that one similarity is enormous. Let’s look back at the early church. Let’s ask what made Christianity what it is. Perhaps there is something there that would help us.
Now one interpreter might be looking for a definitive, apostolic pattern to apply and follow. Another might be looking for a series of commands that one can carry out. Another might be reading the story and asking how are stories might relate. Yet certain things come out of such a study, and certain things result from going to the source.
I’m very protestant in ethos. I’m not at all interested in things like apostolic succession, in the sense of a series of people who had hands laid on them by a person who had hands laid on them leading back to the apostles. But I’m very interested in seeing what those early apostles did. I’m very interested in connecting my story to theirs. There is nothing about that process that is mechanical or that allows me to depend totally on someone else’s work.
Dave makes this point in the interview as he talks about us teaching one another. Why am I comparing what Dave has said with what two other authors have said? Is it so that I can sell more books? Of course I want to sell more books. I’m never going to lie to you and tell you I don’t care about selling books. But that’s not the key reason. I started publishing to do this. I wanted us to teach one another, to do on a broad scale what Dave is talking about in the local church (where I also want to see it done). I want is to help one another learn. I hope we find ourselves challenged.
There is nowhere that I want to see this more than in our use of the Bible. How is it that we can begin to see more of this individual Bible study in the church? And let me specify here by “individual” I mean “individual in community.” Let’s avoid two serious errors: 1) That Bible study is individual without any community control or involvement, and 2) That Bible study is a communal affair that can be handled by an expert passing out information. The reason I named a series I publish “participatory” in spite of the number of people who thought that word was too long, is that it is individuals participating in community who have the best possibility to find the message for themselves, their churches, and their communities.
Ruth Fletcher comments on this. Note how she doesn’t propose the same type of study for all types of churches.
Even though this is an age when people care more about what the church does than what it believes, transforming congregations know they must lessen the gap between people’s experience of God and the church’s teaching about God if the church is once again to become a reliable source of wisdom. Beliefs matter. Transforming congregations that are creedal churches help individuals discover a deeper truth in the words they recite; those that are non-creedal churches create safe space where individuals can work out their own guiding beliefs. They create space within their own tradition where people have the freedom to honestly express doubts, to say what they do not believe, to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers, and to wonder about the mysteries of the universe. (Thrive, p. 91)
Bruce Epperly has a similar idea:
The first followers of Jesus “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They were a church whose spirituality was truly holistic. They prayed and they studied, and discovered study was a form of prayer. We need thinking Christians, who take theological reflection seriously, who ask serious questions, and challenge unhealthy and superficial images of God and human experience. (Transforming Acts, p. 48)
If you think the various visions are distant from one another consider this: What would happen to the church in America if we were to focus on studying the early church looking for insight into how to be a church following Jesus in the world today? I think that a number of wonderful things might happen despite how we decided to approach the question and the hermeneutical principles we took to the effort. Do I want us to debate such hermeneutical principles? Absolutely! The do make a difference. I think one of the greatest things we can do is to consider and discuss that issue seriously. But if we started at that point, we’d already be devoting ourselves, in our own limited ways, to the apostles’ teaching. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
The section on this mark in the video begins about 15:30. I’m not setting the video to the starting point, as I suspect most who are willing to invest time in the video will watch it as a whole once.
The second mark of a New Testament church according to Dr. David Alan Black is Christian baptism. He explains why he explicitly uses the term “Christian” with baptism. There’s a distinction there that’s important and Dave discusses it. Here’s the video. The discussion of Christian baptism begins at about 08:45.
There are several things that Dave says about baptism that I fully agree with. He believes in baptism by immersion of believers, i.e., people who make the choice to be baptized. He also believes baptism should immediately (or very closely) follow the decision. I also, however, believe that this is an area on which there should be a great deal of tolerance for differences.
For example, I attend a United Methodist congregation. The norm is to baptize infants and then confirm them as youth. I grew up in a church (Seventh-day Adventist) where one dedicated children as infants and then baptized them when they made their own decision. I made my decision to be baptized at age 9.
While I strongly prefer one option, and many of my reasons are the same as Dave’s, I am quite able to be a member of a church where the practice is different. I would note that the United Methodist Discipline does allow for baptism by immersion, so a United Methodist pastor can practice believer’s baptism by immersion. He or she could not, however, refuse to perform infant baptisms, at least as I understand it. I know that some Methodist pastors are quite dogmatic on the point. My preference would be to see a quite open choice. For example, if a family prefers some kind of baby dedication, where is the problem? Again, I also know a number of Methodist pastors who would go along with that.
I’m going to refrain from arguing the biblical material on this. I think Dave has gone over that quite well, and in this case I am substantially in agreement.
Let me bring in short quotes from our other two authors.
Ruth Fletcher brings in a completely different issue that may cause some concern to United Methodist readers, or those from any other church that has a fairly high view of sacraments. I’m quoting from Thrive, page 141:
As the church finds its way into the future, the role of clergy will shift even more than it already has. Although some ministers will preach and lead worship, many will give their time to training lay people as worship leaders and small group facilitators. Although some will offer pastoral care, that care will extend beyond the members of the church into the neighborhood. Although some will teach, that teaching will focus on equipping individuals to serve in various roles both inside and outside the church. The sacramental tasks of baptizing, leading in communion, presiding at weddings and funerals increasingly will be shared with people beyond those who are ordained.
Here I would have to say two things. First, I personally don’t see that baptism should require an ordained person. Second, as a member of a community that requires that an ordained person carry out any baptism, I will not put my first belief into practice. That is a matter of submission to the community. While I would forcefully argue for and even insist on using the community’s permission with regards to the method and time of baptism, I would also argue that where my community has a firm position, I should, as a member, live in accordance with that rule. Nevertheless I do believe that every member should be in ministry, and that ordination should not be reserved for one gift or set of gifts but should be for all. We should lay hands on and commission every member to minister using their gifts.
Let me continue with a slightly longer quote from Bruce Epperly in Transforming Acts (p. 85):
Such dramatic experiences – whether evangelical or mystical in nature – are not normative for all Christians. Some of us are born Christian. As cradle Christians, we are dedicated or baptized as infants, and then grow in grace not by drama but through a gentle, day to day walk with God. Nevertheless, most of us eventually face moments in which we have to say “no” to one way of life – or certain behaviors or lifestyles – to say “yes” to another.
Providence is both gentle and dramatic. We can experience God, while we are playing with our children and looking across the table at a beloved spouse or friend; we may also discover God in the storms of life, helpless yet saved by a power beyond ourselves.
Third, Paul’s Damascus road experience invites us to connect our spiritual experiences, whether at worship, at camp, or on the road, with discovering our vocation and mission in life. Paul is clear that his mystical experience was not an end in itself, but an invitation to a new self-understanding and vocation as God’s messenger to the Gentile world.
Bruce is talking about the dramatic conversion experience of Paul, which relates in some ways to baptism. Numerous times I’ve encountered people who do not remember a time when they did not know Jesus. They don’t recall a particular decision moment, because they were believers from as early as they can remember. In some ways, my own view of baptism as a thing to be chosen by believers relates to my own experience. I grew up in a Christian home, but I distinctly remember the time when that belief became mine rather than someone else’s. It was no longer my parents’ faith. It was mine. That was at my baptism.