Category: The Church of Christ

The Church Isn’t a Corporate Ladder

I’ve been preaching through Ephesians and stressing a movement in the letter between chapters 3 & 4. In the first three chapters Paul dwells on the believers understanding of God. He describes God. He describes God’s vision for the church. He reminds the disciples what God, through Christ, has done for them.

In chapter 4 the letter transitions to discussing more practical issues for the church to implement. In the first part of the chapter the emphasis is on unity: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father.  But unity doesn’t mean uniformity and the chapter moves to describing differences among members of the body.

corporate-ladderVerse 11 contains a list of apparent roles or positions within the church:

  • Apostles;
  • Prophets;
  • Evangelists;
  • Pastors; and
  • Teachers.

We need to clearly grasp that this verse doesn’t describe a career path. Too often I feel there’s an expectation that people work their way up this ladder and that becoming an elder or deacon is a perk of congregational longevity. Rather, Paul here outlines the functions the early church needed to become mature. The gifts and roles listed here are not comprehensive and all served a function in equipping the church and promoting unity and peace.

Apostles were witnesses to the resurrection: since the resurrection is the foundation of the church, the testimony of those who had seen the risen Jesus was the first Christian preaching. Early Christian prophets spoke in the name of the Lord, guiding and directing the church especially in the time before the New Testament was written. Evangelists announced to the surprised world that the crucified Jesus was risen from the dead, and was both Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. Pastors looked after the young churches ; teachers developed and trained the understanding of the first churches.
N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (2004, p49)

The images of unity in Ephesians 4 explain why at Lawson Rd we make a big deal when people place membership in the local congregation. It’s exciting when people respond to the calling of Christ in baptism and a commitment to live for God, but Scripture consistently describes new converts participating in local congregations committed to each other. It’s possible that God’s given someone the gift of teaching described here, but when people don’t commit to the other Christians they worship with, they leave uncertainty about their commitment to unity.

Or on the other side, placing membership in a local church lets the elders, deacons, pastors and teachers know the person wants to be equipped by them. It’s difficult to challenge people to grow in Godly maturity when the leaders don’t know clearly who they’re leading. In 1 Peter 5:2 elders are told, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them…” Who is the flock under their care? It’s not defined, but membership is way of knowing whether a person is under the care of Lawson Rd elders, or leaders at another local congregation.

While there’s nothing specific in this passage distinguishing between the local church and the universal church, we need to remember that this letter is written to a local congregation, so the teaching it contains is to be applied in that context unless otherwise noted.  The call for unity applies to the Ephesian church and the various tensions they experience to divide. The spiritual gifts and leadership roles listed here apply to the local church. Life as a Christian is not about having the right birth certificate, being baptised in the right way, at the right place or by the right person. It’s about living as healthy part of the body of Christ.

While some church leaders (such as Paul) traveled from congregation to congregation, in general, the leaders at one congregation did not have responsibility for the Godly growth of another congregation. Their task of equipping God’s people for works of service relates to those who are part of that church family.

My last blog post asked, “Who benefits from your faith?” or  “Who were you saved for?” This week the text builds on that thought. God has gifted you for the work of equipping others so that the unified body of Christ may be built up. Are you exercising your gifts and talents for the benefit of others?

Father to the Fatherless

 – The True God who inhabits sacred space
    is a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.
He makes a home for those who are alone.
    He frees the prisoners and leads them to prosper.
Yet those who rebel against Him live in the barren land without His blessings and prosperity.  Psalm 68:5-6 (VOICE)

I’ve been preaching a series of sermons seeking to identify the heart of God. Who is God at his core? What are the values God holds most dearly?

In Psalm 68:5 God identifies himself as “Father to the fatherless”. The name “Father” is often attributed to God throughout Scripture. While it’s true that he is the Father, or Originator, of all humanity, God makes the point that the name is more than a description of origin. He is Father because it’s a role he willfully adopts.

Throughout history children are a footnote. They hold no power or influence. Those without parents have no natural defenders. Those without fathers struggle to find the provisions needed for life. Yet God describes Himself as “Father to the fatherless”. Father to the weakest, to the marginal, to the overlooked and under loved. God is Father.

All followers of Christ should attest to the goodness of God our Father. All of us were fatherless before Christ signed the adoption papers with his blood, called us his brothers (Hebrews 2:11), and through the Holy Spirit welcomed us into the family of God.

If the Spirit of God is leading you, then take comfort in knowing you are His children. You see, you have not received a spirit that returns you to slavery, so you have nothing to fear. The Spirit you have received adopts you and welcomes you into God’s own family. That’s why we call out to Him, “Abba! Father!” as we would address a loving daddy.   Romans 8:14-15 (VOICE)

How close is fatherhood and adoption to God’s heart? According to James 1:27Real, true religion from God the Father’s perspective is about caring for the orphans and widows who suffer needlessly and resisting the evil influence of the world.So how does the church reflect this aspect of our God?

fatherless 02

Here’s a list I’ve compiled a short list of children’s homes and family services affiliated with various Churches of Christ both in the US and around the world. And the good news if you want to practice “Real, true religion…” is that they all accept donations! You can read a good overview of Church of Christ children’s homes HERE. (You can find a longer list HERE, but I have not verified the links.)

Children’s Homes in the US

Adoption & Foster Care Agencies Supported by Churches of Christ

International Child Sponsorship and Orphanages

This list isn’t close to exhaustive, but indicative of the variety of ways Churches of Christ seek to serve God by loving the fatherless.

 

Worship: When Words Trump Silence

Shortly after encountering members of the Church of Christ I was introduced to the sound of silence. Specifically, I met the silence of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. I was informed that because these verses don’t mention musical instruments Christians are not authorised to include instruments in their corporate worship. We know this because someone determined that silence in Scripture is prohibitive.

While I’ve spent most of the last 20 years worshiping without instrumental accompaniment, I’ve never found silence to be a very good teacher. Arguments over how we should interpret silence seem largely ironic.

breaking the silence 01

I have come to appreciate the words found in these verses and their implications for the worship of the church. Today, I’ll focus on Ephesians 5:18-20.

As I spent time in these passages I first observed that both passages describe worship to God motivated by gratitude. “Sing… always giving thanks to God the Father for everything…“. How would our worship practices and experiences change if we committed to “start with gratitude“? I believe focusing on thanksgiving would help us avoid the consumeristic mindset of approaching worship with questions such as, “How does it make me feel?” “How does it benefit me?”

The next discovery I made was that my worship isn’t only directed toward God. I don’t know the percentage distribution, but verse 19 tells us that we “speak to one another” with our songs while singing to the Lord. I’ve previously expanded on this point in this blog post.

Most recently in reading A Gathered People I realized that these three verses in Ephesians make an audacious claim concerning the church’s worship. I’ve written previously about the special presence of God when the church assembles to worship. I now feel like I have a greater appreciation for what this means.

Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 5:18-20 NLT)

According to Ephesians 5:18-20, we come to worship filled with the Holy Spirit. We sing to Jesus our Lord. We give thanks to the Father through Jesus. The whole Godhead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is present and involved in our worship each Sunday morning.

Worshiping God with my church family isn’t a Sunday routine or obligation I roll out of bed each week to fulfill. When the church assembles each Sunday morning God in three persons pervades the room, filling all the spaces within and around his people. We gather with God’s people not only to offer worship to God-up-there, but to experience the presence of God-among-us.

God’s presence doesn’t overwhelm us. His presence among us isn’t confirmed by fire, smoke, or a brilliant light. His presence doesn’t begin when the song leader steps to the mic.

No, we bring God’s presence with us as we live Spirit-filled lives that include times of corporate worship. We experience God’s presence in worship as His people encourage us, as our songs speak to us, as Christ serves us at His table, and as His Word challenges and soothes us.

For these reasons I find the words of Ephesians 5:18-20 far more compelling than the silence of those verses. What a tragedy we experience when we allow debates over silence to drown out the wonderful teachings of the words!

whydoweworship

Why do you come to worship God with your church family each week? There are many possible answers, but I hope that one of your reasons is to experience the wholeness of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And having worshiped the Three, May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

 

Colossians 2 – Freedom in Christ

In Paul’s letter to the Colossian church he places Christ front and center throughout the letter. We can learn a lot from this.

I really loved preaching this chapter and I’m really appreciating the Christ focus throughout the book. I find it so easy to get caught up in “emergencies” and “situations” and “discussions” that my natural human problem solving gene kicks in. Paul’s writing to a church that has problems, but he doesn’t problem-solve. He consistently points them back to Jesus.

The verse that really caught my attention as I read through this chapter was v23. Speaking of “human commands and teachings” this is how The Message renders v23:

Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice. They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and ascetic. But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important.

What a lovely description of human “spiritual” rules.

At this point I’m going to completely take the verse out of it’s historical context of Judaism, paganism and dietary rules. Hopefully I can still remain faithful to the theological point Paul makes.

Our churches generally overflow with man-made “spiritual” rules. Here’s a few I can think of:

  • Sunday dress code
  • Bible version
  • Church name
  • Celebrating (or not) Christmas and Easter
  • Song styles
  • When the collection should be taken during a worship service
  • Women are restricted from many roles within the church without a shred of Biblical support.
  • Clapping during worship
  • How church finances should be spent
  • Whether or not a minister can also be an elder
  • Who can perform a baptism

rules 01I know there are many more. Feel free to leave your contributions in the comments section.

Here’s the rub. I actually think man made rules are a good thing.

I’m glad that our children get told to slow down when they run through the church building. I have no desire to visit Sister Perkins in hospital because my daughter crashed into her while traveling at high speed.

I think it’s wise that a church requires new members to attend a special class for new members that discusses the values of the church before they can lead a ministry.

Forbidding adults to be alone in a classroom with children is a good rule to prevent child sex abuse.

BUT we get off track when we start requiring particular man-made rules be observed in order that a person maintain good standing with God.

This brings us to the GREAT DILEMMA. It’s easy to sit back and take cheap shots at churches and their various rules. What’s difficult is to honestly examine our own lives and churches and to distinguish between God-required and man-made obligations. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with asking those serving communion not to wear shorts, as long as I recognise that it’s a local preference not a Divine ordinance. Then having acknowledge that this is a preference, we should willing set the rule aside if circumstances require that someone wearing shorts serve communion. It’s not a big deal… really.

Here are a couple of random thoughts that might help us keep things in perspective:

  • Are we more concerned with how we do things or why we do them?
  • Do we have a rule against something because it’s unscriptural or because it makes us uncomfortable?

Maybe you get a chuckle out of this post. That’s okay. We’re funny people sometimes. And I believe that all these “rules” are genuine attempts to help people live holy lives and honor God in our worship. But that’s what often makes it so hard to determine if they’re human or Godly. There’s usually a Bible verse to back up every rule! As The Message says, “They sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice.

So Paul doesn’t get caught up in all this silliness. In the very next verse he lays down this “rule”….

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above

 

Desegregating the Church

Audio Resources

  • My sermon on HARMONY Sunday (20 October, 2013) HERE
  • Don McLaughlin “Jesus Teaches the Unclean” (9 March, 2013) HERE
  • Dan Rodriguez “Multiracial & Multigenerational Ministry in the 21st Century” (9 March, 2013) HERE

Do you know that only 8% of all churches in the United States meet the definition of multi-racial churches? THAT’S EIGHT PERCENT!! (Yes, I’m shouting that in shock and horror.) I’m blessed to serve one of those 8% but we need to keep reminding ourselves of the value of our racial makeup. It’s far too easy to take our racial harmony for granted.

DEFINITION: According to George Yancey a multiracial church is defined as “a church in which no one racial group makes up more than 80% of the attendees.

Racial harmony is not the Gospel of Jesus. Racial harmony is a powerful response and witness to the Gospel of Jesus and the power of God.

HARMONY Sunday 2013On Sunday our church celebrated it’s 4th Annual “HARMONY Sunday”. This special day celebrates God’s work not just in bringing two racial groups together 20 years ago, but on keeping them together for 20 years. Today our church consists not only of Anglo & African-Americans, but some Hispanics, and several other nationalities. We have members raised near the Gulf of Mexico, and others in the Dakotas. Undoubtedly, the Holy Spirit is the glue that keeps us together.

Our church forms part of the Restoration Movement. This group of churches has spent the past 200+ years calling the broader Christian community back to the forms and teachings of the first century church as described in the New Testament. This mission has been carried out more successfully in some areas than in others.

One aspect of the earliest church that the restoration movement has given little acknowledgement is the area of race relations. The pages of the New Testament are filled with examples and teaching relevant to Jew and Gentile relationships, but little application has been made to contemporary racial tensions. Churches of Christ are still as segregated as any other denominations in the United States.

I love God’s vision of his church as described by John in Revelation 7:9,

I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.

God’s kingdom is multi-national, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual. That crowd at the throne of the Lamb is our goal and destination, and there’s only one building. (See also Rev. 5:9-10 and 14:6) If it’s Jesus prayer, and it is, that “God’s will be done on earth as in heaven” then this vision of God’s throne, must be part of our vision for God’s church.

One of the problems churches encounter is that our vision for the church is too one-dimensional. We focus on doctrine over practice. Where we do focus on practice we often limit it to corporate worship. It’s interesting that throughout Revelation the throne scenes don’t describe a liturgy (order of worship), but they take considerable time to describe those present and worshiping.

HARMONY Sunday 2013-02That the church in eternity appears as a unified body should not describe those of us who’ve studied the first century church. Acts 2 describes how the crowd on the Day of Pentecost, which became the first church, consisted of at least 15 language groups. Although they held Judaism as a commonality, one can only imagine various cultural customs and values this crowd brought with it from across the Roman Empire. It’s no surprise that one of the first church arguments involved the distinct cultural groups of the Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews. But they didn’t split!! They didn’t form distinct Hebraic and Hellenistic churches. That came years later. Rather, they worked to find a solution to the issues at hand.

God’s vision for a racially inclusive kingdom and therefore a racially unified church is found throughout the Bible. Here’s a just a few passages to consider:

  • Genesis 12:3 All peoples on earth will be blessed through you. [A messianic promise made to Abraham]
  • Psalm 67:2 May your salvation [be known] among all nations.
  • Isaiah 56:6-7 My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
  • Matthew 28:19 Go and make disciples of all nations.
  • John 3:16 God loved the world so much…
  • Acts 11:17 If God gave them the same gift he gave us… who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way? [The apostle Peter after baptising the Roman, Cornelius]
  • Galatians 3:8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith…
  • Revelation 7:9 I saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language…

Perhaps the greatest challenge most churches face is overcoming indifference with intentionality. Most churches I’ve visited will say “Blacks, Whites, Indians, Chinese, Hispanics… Anyone’s welcome here.” But this is a very passive statement. What most of these churches don’t realise is that they’re really saying, “Any Black, White… person that comes here and fits into our existing culture is welcome here.”

diversity 01Hispanics may be welcome, but we’re not printing anything in Spanish anticipating their arrival. African-Americans may be welcome here, but we’re not learning any Gospel songs or celebrating Martin Luther King Day. Chinese Christians may be welcome here, but we have no clue when Chinese New Year is, and little interest in learning much about it.

If existing churches are to represent the kingdom of God as seen at the throne of the Lamb they must learn to be become aware of different cultures and cater to them. We must admit that our way of doing things is not the only way of doing things, even if it’s the way that makes us most comfortable.

WE MUST BE INTENTIONAL.

What does intentional look like? Mark DeYmaz describes how in the early days of Mosaic Church in Little Rock they were starting to attract Hispanics. They began printing their church bulletins in Spanish as well as English. One week a well-meaning volunteer separated the different language bulletins to different sides of the entrance. Yes, this is only a small thing but DeYmaz notes, “Think about it: two separate tables, two separate groups.” That’s intentionality.

I love that as chapter 21 of Revelation (v1-5) describes God consummating his relationship with redeemed humanity, there are no longer any nations, races, people groups or languages. Rather, God’s dwelling place is simply “among is people” and “They will be his people, and God himself will be their God.” The only distinction among people are those with God in his dwelling place and those outside his city who rejected the forgiveness he offered.

Now there’s a vision for the church.

Why True Worship Needs 3 People

There’s probably a gazillion different articles, blogs, definitions, sermons, books, tracts, etc. on paper and on the web related to the topic of worship. This article is my attempt to distill the discussion to the old and ever reliable 3 points.

  • Read Ephesians 3:14-21 here.
  • You can listen to the related sermon here.

This post summarises the thoughts on worship I expressed over the course a recent sermon series.

Worship is All About God

Blue FrenzyAt its very core worship must be God-centred. Logically, a worship service that doesn’t involve God should adopt a different name. We worship God simply because of who He his. When we reflect on his grandeur, holiness, compassion, justice, grace, love… we can either respond in fear or worship. Christians choose to respond in worship.

We also worship God for numerous other reasons including thankfulness, and at the other extreme lament. A quick survey of Psalms demonstrates both the God focus and the diversity of motives. On one hand we thank God for his intervention in our lives, and on the other we seek his presence. Both extremes can lead to worship and although they arise from our experiences, they can still maintain a God focus.

Worship is Also About Me

In our consumer culture there’s a risk to highlighting this point, but notice that I didn’t say “it’s ALL about me”. (Click HERE for a lighthearted example of the risk.) In musical terms when the music and lyrics don’t match we experience dissonance. For instance, the song “He Bore It All” (#351 in Songs of Faith & Praise) contains the bounciest rendition of the phrase “My precious Saviour suffered pain and agony” that I can imagine. While I rejoice at Christ’s sacrifice for my forgiveness, I don’t rejoice at his suffering. That dissonance makes it hard to worship because I can’t decide what’s an appropriate thought to have as I sing.

Worship dissonance can equally arise from songs with obscure words, Easter decorations in a lament service, communion commentary that clashes with the sermon, a young preacher using illustrations older members don’t understand, or styles of music that are foreign to particular segments of the congregation. Sometimes these can clashes can be corrected, but in other instances they just reflect the diversity of the church.

The point of discussing dissonance is to say that if any individual perpetually fails to find meaning with the worship forms of the church, it’s hard to worship. If singing hymns only reminds someone of school choir and the style doesn’t sound celebratory to them, then is it possible for them to truly express their hearts to God in song? If contemporary songs just sound repetitive and entertaining to someone else then is it possible for them to express their hearts to God in song?

If the prayers led during each worship service are predominantly formulaic, the task of worship may have been observed, but did it really bring people closer to God? It’s true that many church rituals, such as the Lord’s Supper, are an acquired taste for many newcomers as they learn to find significance in these worship elements. However churches need to watch that they don’t become too rigid in their worship forms and thus exclude some people from worship.

In order to offer God meaningful worship the forms we use must allow people to express their hearts or else it becomes an empty ritual.

Worship is Also About Others

Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3 contains all three of these elements. He is obviously approaching God and he praises God profusely. The prayer clearly expresses his heart. He’s not just reciting a formula. Finally, he prays on behalf of the believers in Ephesus.

Other ways we involve others in our corporate worship obviously include the various moments of teaching (sermon, Lord’s Supper). Also, we generally select particular Scripture readings based upon the response we’re seeking from the congregation. Then we’re reminded in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 that we speak to each other through singing while still offering our songs to God.

So…

Whenever the corporate worship of the church veers too far toward one of these poles our worship loses its full significance. Yes, it’s possible for our times of assembled worship to be too God focused neglecting the hearts of those worshiping. It’s definitely possible for us to view times of worship only through my needs, my feelings, and my thoughts. In those moments we demand God to respond to our wishes and we overlook the needs of those around us. At other times we can also get so caught up in the emotions and preferences of people that we forget to consider what’s meaningful worship in God’s eyes. Holistic worship recognises these tensions and works to include each person. It’s a challenging task.

  • Do you agree with the premise that the church’s assembled worship should consider each of these people/groups?
  • Do you think one of these is easier to corrupt than the others?
  • What forms of congregational worship best allow you to express your heart to God?

Worship in the Presence of God

When the church assembles to worship God’s presence arrives in a unique way. This flies in the face of all those who claim they don’t need the church to have a relationship with God.

  • Read Psalm 50:1-15 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.

In A Gathered People (p131) the authors make the point concerning Psalm 50:5 that “God calls his people together – for them to gather (sunagein in the LXX, thus “synagogue”). The [Greek] term … is used to describe assemblies which draw near to God to enjoy the divine presence.” God wants to synagogue, gather, with his people.

The immediate objection that comes to my mind is to ask, “If I have God’s presence, the Holy Spirit, living within me, how can I possibly experience more of God’s presence?”

I certainly believe the Bible teaches the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within individual Christians (Gal. 4:6), but perhaps two verses from 1 Corinthians will clarify this for us.

1 Corinthians 6:18-19 provides the clearest statement that the Holy Spirit resides within us individually.Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” I suspect that the idea that our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit is the most well-known temple reference in the new covenant.

1 Corinthians 3:16 provides an alternative perspective that the assembled church is God’s temple. “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” In Greek the words “you” and “yourselves” are both plural and the word “midst” indicates the assembly. Since Paul demonstrates in chapter 6 that he understands the Holy Spirit’s presence within each of us, it seems that his reference to God’s dwelling in the midst of the assembled church indicates a greater presence than we experience alone. (See also Ephesians 2:20-22.)

tabernacle 01The references to the temple will also help us understand this concept. At Mount Sinai God gave Israel instructions for building a tabernacle (tent) located in the centre of their camp that functioned as the worship centre for the nation. As the tabernacle was inaugurated, Leviticus 9:23 describes that, “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.” We use the Hebrew word Shekinah to refer to this visible presence of God. God’s Shekinah presence appeared again at the inauguration of Solomon’s temple in 2 Chronicles 7:1-3. “The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it.

On both these occasions the nation of Israel assembled, worshiped God, and experienced his presence at the temple. This imagery should provide a powerful perspective for us as we think about our times of collective worship. The sum of God’s presence is greater than the parts. The assembled church is the dwelling place of God: A place where he reveals his glory. One application of this is found in John 13 where Jesus told his followers, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” When Christians interact with each other, we demonstrate God to the world.

Hebrews 10:19-25 draws all these themes together very effectively. (As you read this, note that in the Greek this is one sentence. Verse 19 starts a thought that v25 concludes.)

  • v19 We enter the Most Holy Place where God’s footstool the ark of the covenant was kept, the location of God’s presence in the Israelite camp/temple.
  • v22 We confidently draw near to God. Throughout Hebrews the term “draw near” or “approach” “describes a believer’s approach to the throne of God in worship.” (A Gathered People, p141)
  • v25 We meet together because that’s where we enter the Most Holy Place, and we encourage each other.

Finally, although the assembled church invokes God’s presence, it also foreshadows the ultimate gathering of the saints in the presence of God. The church assembled is a taste of the feast God has prepared for us. Look at this wonderful description of assembly and worship found in Hebrews 12:22-24.

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly,to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

  • What are your expectations when you come to worship with the church?
  • Do you agree that God’s presence is particularly palpable when the church assembles?
  • To what extent do the actions and words of those leading worship influence your experience of God during worship?

The Basics of Faith

  • Read Matthew 8:18-22 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.

The journey of faith begins with our beliefs. We can’t have faith in something we don’t believe exists. We can’t have faith in something we believe is true. We also can’t have faith in something we don’t know.

In 2008 Willow Creek Association published FOLLOW ME based on their REVEAL research project. They were seeking to identify catalysts for spiritual growth. First they identified four stages of spiritual maturity, then they studied what activities, attitudes and values prompted a person to transition from one stage to the next.

Their research highlighted the importance for young Christians to solidify particular foundational beliefs as a catalyst for moving to the next stage of spiritual maturity. But how do we define “foundational spiritual beliefs”? For the purposes of their study the FOLLOW ME team identified four core beliefs critical to a young Christian’s growth:

  • Salvation by Grace
  • The Trinity
  • Personal God
  • Authority of the Bible

Perhaps there is nothing more important to a person’s ultimate conversion to the Christian faith, and even to the pace and depth of their spiritual growth over a lifetime, than to fully understand and accept the implications of these core beliefs. These spiritual fundamentals are as critical to spiritual growth as basic arithmetic is to learning calculus, or the rules of grammar are to writing a thesis. The church provides an essential learning platform for these fundamental beliefs as well as a faith-based environment for a person’s early impressions of Christian life.” (Follow Me, p57)

In Sunday’s sermon I asked how well all of us could explain these ideas. Here’s my effort in 100 words or less:

Salvation by Grace: We cannot make God do anything. We cannot make him love us. We cannot make him bless us. We cannot make him forgive us. Yet he does each of these things for us. Why? Only because he gives us grace. The sooner we realise that we cannot force God to do anything, the happier we will be and the stronger our relationship with him will be. Yes, it requires humility and dependence to accept this, but it’s a fundamental truth about us and God. (Ephesians 2:8)

The Trinity: The Bible teaches that God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit are all God. It also teaches that there is only one God. Centuries ago the church reconciled these statements by concluding that in a mystical way the three persons are at the same time one. There’s no real logical explanation for this. It requires faith. Yet it involves some wonderful implications. Here’s one: God is by definition loving: three persons bound together in love. (John 17:21-23; 1 John 4:16)

Personal God: It’s easy to look at a verse like John 3:16 “God so loves the world” and feel like we get lost in the crowd. We can visit a church and have the same anonymous experience. But one way God connects with us individually is through the Holy Spirit, who lives inside each of us. When we have a hard time expressing our thoughts to God the Holy Spirit helps. Think about it, “God lives within you”. It doesn’t get more personal than that! (Romans 8:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:19) (This blog also gives a healthy perspective on this issue.)

Authority of the Bible:It’s logically illegitimate to use the Bible to defend the Bible’s authority, but that’s our starting point. The Bible claims to be written by men inspired by the movement of God in their lives. We believe that it accurately describes God’s will for humanity. Since it’s inspired for God, individuals to not have the authority to override or alter it. History affirms the basic facts of the Bible and church history affirms the power of the Bible’s teachings to transform lives. But  only faith can affirm the spiritual significance of the events and teachings found in the Bible. (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Rev 22:18-19)

  • Any beliefs you would add to the list of foundational beliefs for new Christians? (Remember, they can’t all be foundational.)
  • Here’s a broad statement. It’s my impression that Churches of Christ have often emphasised congregational purity over individual growth. Agree or Disagree? (eg. I haven’t seen many (any?) lists like this originating from within Churches of Christ, but I’ve seen plenty on the hallmarks of the “true church”.)

Expanding Simplicity

I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard “Simplicity” named as a value within Churches of Christ, yet it exudes from each and every historical pore. Perhaps the value is best represented in our pioneers’ pursuit of “common sense” theology & philosophy. Consider the numerous ways the Restoration Movement has sought to distinguish itself from other churches.

  • We rejected human creeds as extra-biblical with with simple slogans such as “No creed but Jesus”, and “Bible names for Bible things”.
  • We taught against denominational structures in favour of self-autonomous congregations (not a Bible term).
  • The Restoration Movement has always emphasised the priesthood of all believers, and the ability of each individual to interpret Scripture for him/herself. This contrasts with denominations who have an ordination process for their clergy, dress them in robes, and call them by a title.
  • The leadership of local congregations rests with elders and deacons appointed according to the Biblical criteria of Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3.  There is no elected board or constitution to negotiate.
  • Churches of Christ have seldom attempted to build cathedrals. Most church buildings have emphasised simplicity and rejected stained glass, paintings and ornaments as distractions and potentially idols.
  • Congregational singing has been a historical value and the introduction of specialists, either soloists or choirs, has resulted in controversy. The reason for emphasising congregational singing is to allow each member to worship from the heart. (And I’m sure in some circles a belief that if anyone omits an act of worship they’re sinning.)

All of these customs reveal an underlying value of simplicity, whether this term is ever used or not.  The Restoration Movement was all about Simple Church even before the book was written.

In my experience the church has rarely made the same application to Christians’ personal lives. Many preachers and church members have undoubtedly sacrificed a lot to spread the kingdom of God, but I don’t know that this has been widely preached as an expectation of the church.

Our Sunday morning Bible class is currently discussing Hicks and Valentine’s book Kingdom Come. In two chapters they demonstrate that James Harding and David Lipscomb (early 19o0’s) certainly encouraged personal simplicity. I believe this message has faded over the years.  Harding himself claimed to have never had possessions that totaled more than $500. In turn, Lipscomb didn’t promote simplicity as a goal in and of itself, but championed the poor while teaching that,

“Our fellowship for one another must be of this character… The man that can spend money in extending his already broad acres, while his brother and his brother’s children cry for bread — the woman that can spend money in purchasing a stylish bonnet… merely to appear fashionable, while her sister…[is] shivering with cold…are no Christians… notwithstanding they have been baptized for the remission of sins.”
David Lipscomb (Quoted in Kingdom Come, p98.)

Both Harding and Lipscomb lived this way as a result of their conviction that God calls all Christians to live as pilgrims, or resident aliens in the world trusting in the providence of God.  In The Cruciform Church (p169), C. Leonard Allen calls attention to 1 John 2:15-17.

“Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.” The Message

At the end of the chapter, Allen states that “The church – God’s new social order – can serve the world most faithfully and sacrificially by being the church.” (p179) He goes on to give four examples, the fourth of which states that the church should “Sound a call to greater modesty, generosity, graciousness, and simplicity of life – and look to leaders who model such a life. As “strangers and exiles” in this world, Christians are called to travel light.” (p180, italics his)

Jesus kingdom is not of this world.  (Jn 18:36) We live in a society of gadgets. The advertising industry constantly entices us with the next hot thing: the thing that will truly make our lives simpler.  Often we buy into the deception that more stuff will create more space. It doesn’t work.  Removing stuff remains the only way to create space. When Jesus needed time with God he removed himself from his village, from his friends, from the crowds, and found the quiet space of a hillside.

I don’t want to use this post to suggest that Christians should sell everything and live under a bridge. I don’t want everyone to turn Amish. I don’t want to give the impression that God is simple, He’s not. I do want to call all Christians back to the fact that our faith and our lives orbit around God. He’s our centre. In a busy and materialistic world we need to create space to spend time with God. To listen to God. To talk with God. What have traditionally been called “spiritual disciplines” need to regain prominence in the lives of the church.  It’s not enough to have simple church buildings. We need a simple faith, and a simple relationship, that allows us to tackle the complexities of life.

Hopefully, in the next couple of days I’ll put up a couple of posts on Spiritual Disciplines.

  • Have you been part of a church that actively encourages members to practice spiritual disciplines? How did they do this?
  • How important are personal spiritual disciplines in your life?
  • Churches often promote prayer and Bible reading as standard disciplines. Are you content with the basics or is it important in your relationship with God to be creative?
  • Does your relationship with God benefit more by practicing a variety of disciplines or a variety of approaches to the basics such as prayer and Bible reading?

Expanding Worship – Substance & Style

This is my final posting of discussion of points I raised in my July 8 sermon on the topic of worship.  The sermon highlighted four pairs of values that often seem in tension with each other.

SUBSTANCE vs STYLE

One of the most divisive issues for churches today, involves the way we worship. Substance refers to WHY we worship God.  We can’t change out his role in Creation.  We can’t deny Jesus’ death on the cross.  We dare not change the message of salvation by grace, through faith.  We can’t forget that we look forward to Christ’s return.  We must always keep God at the centre of our worship and worship in ways meaningful to Him.  However, for our worship to reflect our heart, the style must contain meaning for us.

Substance questions our purpose of gathering each week.  Do we assemble to encourage each other and be encouraged? Do we come together to spend time with God? Is our corporate worship the best venue to introduce the unchurched to Jesus?

As an example, many churches have praise teams.  Anecdotally, praise teams often reduce the number of people in the congregation who participate in singing as they’re now more content to listen to good singers.  A substance question asks, “How important is congregational singing? Is congregational singing an expectation of God? are we encouraging people not to worship if they only listen and don’t sing?”  These are substance questions, not style.

How we answer the worship substance questions goes a long way toward revealing our congregational priorities and identity.  I don’t want to say that our worship service has a singular purpose (I hope my previous posts in this series demonstrate that) but I do believe that God himself must be central.

Styles have always changed: fashion styles; music styles; art styles.  Likewise we no longer sing Gregorian chants, or a majority of hymns from the 1600’s.  Some churches have the Lord’s Supper before the sermon, and some have it after.  Some emphasise formality, others emphasise free worship in the name of authenticity.

Worship styles impact issues like: appropriate clothing, the choice of songs, the tempo of songs, the age of songs, the number of people up front leading singing, (lots of singing), the animation of the preaching, the use of powerpoint, the use of video and other media, how much people say “Amen, etc.” during a sermon, or in acapella churches “vocal percussion”.

Styles will always be controversial because they reflect personal preferences. The most consistent criticism I hear of worship styles is that the church has transitioned from worship (God focus) to entertainment (us focus).  I’m really not sure that style indicates this.  That seems to me to be a heart question, not something tied to a style of worship.

I’ve heard many people connect the conversation about styles with the age of the worshipers.  I would tend to agree, except I know that the Pentecostal and various charismatic churches with “rock bands” also have older members. So that connection seems void.  The variety of music across the spectrum of the radio demonstrates that people like different music with different rhythms and rhymes.  Given this variety, it’s a great challenge for any church to attempt to implement a one-size-fits-all style of worship.

I believe that the answer to this conflict is to keep the substance central, and the styles secondary.  Since the second command is to “Love your neighbour”, then there’s no more important place to apply that than in the midst of a gathering focused on worshiping God.  How nonsensical are we when we attempt to worship God (substance) while begrudging our neighbour over style.

I recognise that there are many discussions that arise out of this topic.  Here’s a few:

  1. Is it better to have two services with different styles so that each person can worship in a style that is most meaningful to them?
  2. Is it better to have one service and include both styles and encourage members to “consider one another”?
  3. Can we can tell when a service is more about entertainment than worship?
  4. How do we best categorise songs: old vs new; fast vs slow; hymns vs choruses; deep vs shallow; or thematically?
  5. Is the style of worship overly influence by songs? Do other elements of worship need to be stylistically consistent?
  6. Is it always possible to distinguish style from substance?
  7. If I have trouble worshiping from my heart due to worship style, is it a heart issue or a style issue?

Lastly, I want to point out that worship style isn’t just about singing. I know some churches that take the Lord’s Supper using different styles here’s a sample:

  1. In the context of a real, actual meal; (Read a description of such by John Mark Hicks here, and review his book ont he topic here.)
  2. In small clusters around the auditorium, passing the bread and cup around the circle and looking at each other;
  3. Family style (no children’s worship in the NT) with children and conversation as part of the remembrance (still in the auditorium);
  4. Come to the front and be served by an elder;
  5. And, of course, the traditional “pass it down the row”;
  6. Although, some who pass it down the row still have different styles by including singing or reading while the elements are being passed.

Again, each of these say something about the personality and identity of the church.

  • How important is style of worship to you?  Would it impact your choice of church home if you faced a choice?
  • Do you think there’s really much variety in the answers to the substance questions, or are most differences just over style?
  • Why do you think singing is so important to worship? (I don’t think I’ve ever heard a complaint about the way a church prays.)