Healthy Hearts Recognise Disease

Today’s post is the fifth in a series of guest posts centered around our church’s annual theme of “Healthy Hearts”. (See all the guest articles HERE.)

This month’s contributor is Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen. Dr. Van Rheenen served with his family and co-workers as a church-planting missionary to East Africa for 14 years, 13 years among the Kipsigis people of Kenya. He later taught missions and evangelism at Abilene Christian University for over 17 years.

In 2004 Gailyn formed Mission Alive, a ministry that partners with churches to plant churches throughout North America. During the last four years Mission Alive has worked with church planters and their teams to plant fifteen churches and currently have seven other church plantings in process. In this role he serves as the chairman of the board of Mission Alive and as its executive director.

Dr. Van Rheenen has graciously shared an excerpt from his popular missions textbook, Missions: Biblical Foundation and Contemporary Strategies, that he’s recently revised. You can purchase the new edition HERE. A kindle edition is also available.

The Church:  The Manifestation of the Kingdom of God

The church is not equated with the kingdom since God’s rule is from eternity to eternity and is exercised even over those who do not consciously submit to his reign.  The church, however, must obey Jesus’ teaching concerning the kingdom of God and manifest its presence in the world today.  Robert Webber says, “The church’s mission is to show the world what it looks like when a community of people lives under the reign of God” (2002, 133).  Because the kingdom of God runs counter to the cultures of the kingdoms of this world, the church that is faithful to Christ will always be distinct from the dominant surrounding culture.

The church is God’s people called out from the world to be his witness in the world.  As an institution, it appears fallible and weak, but paradoxically it has outlasted states, nations, and empires (Newbigin 1989, 221).  The church reflects the eternal nature of the kingdom that cannot be destroyed (Dan. 2:44; 7:13–14).  Its survival is rooted in being God’s people under his eternal sovereignty.

Often Christians fail to recognize the difference between the values and ethics of God’s kingdom and those of the world.  The world so permeates the church that Christians no longer recognize biblical allusions to its separateness. How are disciples of Christ in the world but not of the world (John 17:14–16)?  How can people of God live in the heavenlies while dwelling in the “earthlies” (Eph. 1:3; 2:6; 3:10–12)?  What does Paul mean when he says that the believer’s “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20)?  Why do two Christian scholars define the church as “a colony, an island of one culture in the middle of another”?  “In baptism,” they say, “our citizenship is transferred from one dominion to another” (Hauerwas and Willimon 1989, 12).

Israel illustrates a nation’s struggle to be God’s distinctive people. God’s covenant with Israel set them aside as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” within God’s world (Ex. 19:5–6). Their designated purpose was to become God’s light to the nations (Isa. 42:6; 49:6) and God’s priests mediating his purposes.  Unfortunately, Israel forgot that they were “chosen” and imitated the nations around them by going after their gods (Deut. 32:15–18).  As a result, God sent them into captivity (2 Kings 17:7–23).  The church, like Israel, is called to be a distinct, separate people, personally relating to the God who chose them.

You cannot live in Northern California very long before you encounter the largest trees in the world, the Sierra Redwoods.  These giants can live 2000 years, may weigh upwards of 500 tons, reach over 350 feet in height, and drink thousands of gallons of water to stay alive. Ironically, one would think that because these enormous trees have no tap root, they would topple over during a heavy storm.  But they have a little secret which keeps them safe and healthy – they don’t grow off by themselves.  Their root system is intertwined with the roots of all the surrounding Redwoods.  It is literally an underground fellowship which anchors them to the earth.  And if one does fall, it still has life to produce another redwood from its base!What a picture of the Church!  The more we are connected to one another in love, wisdom, faith, and good works…the better we will thrive in the Kingdom of God.  And if we do fall, the Body of Christ will continue to pump life into us so we can rise again, to the glory of God.

Peter defines the church’s separateness from the world in words that call to mind God’s election of Israel.  The church, God’s new Israel, was to be “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession…” (1 Peter 2:9).  Such separation from the world led Peter to describe Christians as “aliens and strangers in the world” (v. 11; cf. 1:1, 17). They have entered into Christ through a fundamental change of life, called a new birth, which gives them an eternal inheritance with God (1:3, 23). As strangers in a world not their own, they must be holy because their God is holy (v. 15), and they must not imitate the vain ways of their forefathers (vv. 13–19).  Because they are God’s distinct people, they are able to suffer as Christians without shame, knowing that they are participating in the sufferings of Christ (4:12–16).

Unfortunately, the church often loses its identity as God’s distinct people. Vicedom has written that the greatest problem with Christians is that “they do not know that they are Christians” (1965, 80).  The church, however, rather than permeating the world with the eternal message, is being permeated by the world.  Philip Kenneson believes that the church in the United States, although numerically strong, is seriously ill.  He says,

It is quite possible for the church to be both growing and yet not bearing the fruit of the Spirit.  What is happening in many cases is that the church is simply cultivating at the center of its life the seeds that the dominant culture has sown in its midst. . . .  Stated another way, the church that is being cultivated in the United States looks suspiciously like the dominant culture rather than being an alternative to it. (1999, 11, 12)

In light of Kenneson’s statements, Christians must discern whether the church reflects the purposes and mind of God.

Peter describes the church as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). The last part of this verse is contingent on the first part. The church as “God’s chosen possession,” calls sinners to holiness in God.  However, a church without a distinctive nature, partaking of the world, calls people into a fraternity with Christian trappings. This group, because it is not sufficiently connected to the vine, is unable to bear the fruit of God’s Spirit.

How do Christians testify to those in the world while not being of the world?  The Quaker missionary Thomas Kelly wrote,

He plucks the world out of our hearts, loosening the chains of attachment. And He hurls the world into our hearts, where we and He together carry it in infinitely tender love. (1996, 20)

  • How does your church intentionally distinguish itself from its surrounding culture?
  • Do you believe that the church is being permeated by the world?  What does that look like?
  • How does focusing on a healthy heart avoid the diseases of the world while engaging the world?
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