Publication: Pastoral Letter, May 2003
Dear Friend in Christ:
I pray this letter finds you and yours well. This month, I want to write about a most significant topic, to those whom I believe love the Lord and His Church. I believe a reformation is occurring and in these days, I want us to prayerfully ask together, “What is the Church?” You will probably agree with me, this is no small issue!
I literally “grew up in church” – for a while, we actually lived in an apartment located in the church building. I was born in a hospital operated by a church denomination. I attended two colleges and a seminary, all operated by a church denomination. It would be at least ungrateful of me to attack churches. That is certainly not my purpose.
Having said that, when God called me to the ministry, I was most uncomfortable with the idea of pastoring a church. Though I did become a pastor, I have always struggled – as have many other pastors_with how Christians understand Church. We all bear responsibility for that understanding. Now, almost 50 years after responding to the call of God to be a minister, I believe that the concept of “Church” is in the midst of a very significant reformation.
Like many other Christian leaders, I have watched churches succeed in growing, but generally fail in their mission to fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord (see Habakkuk 2:14; Ephesians 4:10; Colossians 1:18). Why is this still so, after 2000 years? Some would suggest our lack of commitment, spiritual impotence, a lack of holiness, or some other problem. Indeed these may all contribute to the failure to fulfill our mission. Some may even believe that we are fulfilling our mission. (To the latter group, I would say, “You have made peace with half measures.”)
I have witnessed great revivals including the Pentecostal and Charismatic ones, and others as well. I have seen visitations of God to local assemblies, including one that I pastored for 14 years. Years after those visitations, I have noticed the lack of long-term effects. My conclusion from these observations, as well as the conclusions gathered from biblical studies, is that we are thinking of the Church in the wrong way. If my observation sounds arrogant, please forgive me.
Recently, I was asked to meet with a group of elders, who also happen to be long-term friends with each other and with me. We spent several days discussing the future of that particular local church. Like many other churches, it seems stuck in a particular orbit. As we talked, I offered two metaphors for church life, which I will offer to you: Circle or Vine?
First let’s look at a circle. By definition it is inanimate – not living. It is a single round closed line with a center. Theoretically, every part of the circle is equally distant or related to the center. It could be, by definition, an assembly around a person. It could be an association of friends with a common interest. It could be an orbit around some center of gravity. A circle includes everything within it and excludes everything outside of it. But most sadly of all, a circle is a line that ends where it begins.
Now let’s look at the second figure or metaphor: the vine. A vine is a living plant that has significant roots that draw life. It grows outward along the ground, but opportunistically clasps fixed objects in its path to grow upward. It produces long stems which produce joints and other stems. And in the case of Jesus’ vine (see John 15), it bears fruit.
It should be noted that the vine analogy is used to describe both Israel and the Church (see Psalm 80:8; Isaiah 5:1; Jeremiah 2:21; John 15:1-8, 16). The people of God are never referred to as a circle. But have local churches today become more like a circle than a vine? I think so.
There are many ways that local church life imitates a circle. First of all, often we understand the church to be a meeting, not a vine. We gather with our friends around a primary person – not Jesus, but the pastor. O yes, we worship Jesus, but the pastor likely determines which circle we gather in. (Worship of Jesus is sometimes questionable.)
We see the church as something to go to, not from. The church circle is something we join – not each other. Church circles are often built around a particular doctrine or method, or even less worthy, a particular convenience. Often church life becomes an orbit of activity. Our time and resources are consumed by the circle. Then our personal circle becomes a matter of including or excluding based upon who is in or out of the church circle.
A worse part about a circle mentality is that it all too often ends where it begins. That is, even after all of our best efforts at preaching, teaching, and worshipping; we only maintain what we started.
Let me be clear, I do not fault either the dedication or effort of those sincere souls, even heroes, who manage to keep the church doors open, send missionaries, and support desirable causes. A lot of good is accomplished. But I do fault our willingness to perpetuate the notion that we are doing what Jesus and the apostles did. We have unwittingly stymied the vine with the circle, and boxed the circle in facilities that shout to the world, “Here is the church!”
I could go on and discuss how the center of the circle has often become a matter of entertainment instead of a matter of mission, but let’s move on to our second figure, the vine.
While the circle is inanimate, the vine is a living plant. The circle is a closed figure, but the vine is an outward moving one. Which figure did Jesus use to describe the Church for which He died?
Any analogy can be pressed too far, but it is remarkable how far the vine analogy carries the intent of our Lord. To understand what He meant when He said, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” one should examine what He, Himself, did during His ministry:
- Jesus was rooted in the “soil” of eternity and the Father’s will.
- Jesus was relational and discipling in His church planting.
- Jesus was continually outward in His mission.
- Jesus was interested in all of life and not just the synagogue.
- Jesus met people where they were, doing what they did.
- Jesus built effective “joints” with those to whom He imparted life and truth.
- Jesus’ intent was to teach all nations through replicated leadership.
- Jesus measured success personally not corporately, and expected real disciples to produce fruit.
The vine analogy does not stop at any one place, but gives life to a universal mission that is accomplished by Spirit-filled and Spirit-led individuals.
The vine church is rooted in eternal life and eternal truth. It is not a mushroom. Jesus Himself is that root and vine-trunk. The vine church is Jesus dependent, life producing, and outwardly focused. The vine church is extended by branches that are truly joined to one another (see Ephesians 4:16).
The vine church is not highly centralized; it is not personality or program driven. It is driven by the life and character of Jesus (His DNA). The vine church covers the ground, goes thru, over, and around, as each new branch reaches out. It is opportunistic, clasping onto what lies before it.
The vine church not only relates to its life and itself; it relates to the world before it – business, labor, professions – wherever it finds itself. It is not programmed from without, but from the life within. It is never confounded by obstacles; it climbs them and goes on. It does not say, “come to us;” it says, “we are coming to you.” It is not defensive; it goes on the offense and moves forward. And even when saints give their lives to extend the vine, the martyr’s blood becomes Kingdom seed.
The blood of Jesus was not given to nourish a circle; it was given to nourish the branches that would produce – some 30, some 60, and some 100 fold. In the vine analogy, dead or non-productive branches were pruned by the Father, gathered, and burned. Every parable indicates the Lord’s great displeasure at those who draw life but fail to produce fruit (a frightening thought).
When Jesus commanded us to be fruitful, was He simply speaking of us having the “fruit of the Spirit,” which Paul later wrote about in Galatians 5? I don’t believe so. He was talking about reproductivity – spawning new branches and bearing reproductive fruit that reached the world.
I suppose that the vine resides in most “church circles”…that is, there are believers joined together in Christ to bear fruit. But in most cases, the vine is much smaller than the circle. What the New Testament calls for is a vine that not only grows inside the circle, but advances outside – far outside! There should be more life produced in the world than in the circle – that’s where the fruit is. No, I don’t mean “evangelism” as it is often understood. I mean fruit bearing on a personal level – not merely corporate, local church growth.
One might appropriately ask, “Charles, what is your purpose here?” It is not to be a mere critic – that’s too easy and irresponsible. I love the Church and for nearly 50 years have given my life to it. My purpose is to offer a different view of what the Church ought to be – a view that releases life to the world.
Good churches are warehouses of Divine truth and life. But we are not growing beyond our walls. Significantly, in many cases, we are not truly reaching the younger generation – one which is very relational. They just don’t see the Church as being relevant to their lives because Christian individuals are not able to relate to them. It is not the programs that we fail to offer, it’s the people that we fail to offer. Our people are not “programmed” to relate the love of Christ to “strangers”.
What I hope to offer is a different philosophy, mindset, or blueprint for Church life. It is personal versus corporate; relational versus mechanical; outward versus inward; and above all, Christ-centered versus personality driven. Like the vine, we should grow one person at a time – that’s not slow growth if all the branches “get the picture”. That’s compound interest.
One thing is for sure; the true vine will not end up where it started. It started in Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem. It will end up covering the islands of the sea and every nation, kindred, and tribe. We will not do that going in circles!
Scripture References: Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 4:10; Habakkuk 2:14; John 15; Psalm 80:8; Isaiah 5:1; Jeremiah 2:21; John 15:1-8, 16; Ephesians 4:16; Galatians 5