Publication: Pastoral Letter, October 2014
Dear Friend in Christ:
People often ask me to recommend a church in their area. While our magazine, ONE-TO-ONE, lists supporting ministries and churches, I am usually reluctant to recommend a particular church because I am aware that the one in search of A church may find human beings there and blame me for that! I am not writing about how to find A church, but how to find church wherever you are.
Allow me first to confess that I am not an expert. Years and experience have not left me with a set of rules for church. The Bible calls the Church a “great mystery” and I certainly have discovered that. I suppose that I identify most with those who “seek a city whose builder and maker is God” (see Hebrews 11:10).
The big question is, what is church? How do we define the undefinable mystery? We cannot, but we can say from the Bible some things about it. It is a gathering, the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, a local community of believers, and where two or three gather in His name. The Church is not where we go on Sunday, not an address, a building or organization, but a group of covenant followers of Jesus who love one another, encourage one another, equip one another, and who reach out to the world with the Gospel. All of that is only a description, not a definition.
Throughout this letter, we will be talking about “the Church” which is the whole body of Christ worldwide, and also “church”, which will generally refer to a local gathering of believers.
What Did Jesus See?
Jesus saw something so precious that He gave His very life for it (see Ephesians 5:25). Thought He only spoke of church twice, He loved it and became the foundation for it. He saw people who would become the extension of His life and ministry in the earth while He was at the Father’s Right Hand interceding for it. He also prayed for it while on earth (see John 17).
In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus talks about how to deal with a brother who is sinning and unrepentant. After confronting that person who remains unrepentant, Jesus says, “Tell it to the church.” My conclusion is that He was speaking about the local church. In verse 20 He says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst.” That seems to me the most basic description of true church … intimate fellowship together with Jesus.
This description also seems to fit those who gather in areas of serious persecution. They cannot gather in large numbers in obvious places, but enjoy the presence of Jesus in smaller settings. I believe that it is the presence of Jesus that makes us church wherever we gather. Jesus loves often and honest fellowship—shared life.
Whatever Jesus foresaw, He loved it with His life and gives it His life. He is central and preeminent in the church. It is His church. Not our church.
What Do We See?
Jesus saw something eternal and Heavenly; what we see is something temporal and earthly. Church as we know it is definitely pre-resurrection and often carnal. When the word “church” is used, some immediately think of a building, a meeting, or denomination. The word “organization” comes to mind. I am not being critical, just saying that is how we see church.
Of course, the early Church was not perfect because it, too, was made up of people. There are examples of lying, dishonesty about money, immorality, drunkenness, division, and other problems that had to be dealt with. (The media seems to enjoy pointing out those problems in our times.) Having said all of that, those problems were addressed, not tolerated. Jesus and the apostles were jealous for the purity and sincerity of the Church.
What we often see is a well-managed theatre. The church building is constructed for performance, and we try to get those involved who do it best, week after week. This has created a lot of passive “audiences” who come for inspiration, information, and sometimes entertainment. However, sitting in a theatre watching the same movie does not make the audience covenant brothers and sisters nor does it make them the active Body of Christ.
Perhaps the greatest measure of Church is its impact on cultures in the everyday world. We can rightly question that current impact upon Western culture. Yet, while our culture has drifted into secularism, we keep trying to “do church” the same way, or at least better and better than the church down the road. The bigger church usually does it best.
What Does the World See?
Perhaps we have overlooked the important question. How does the world see us? Of course, that varies from person to person. What is undeniable is that there are an increasing number of people who “used to go to church.” This coupled with the young people who are increasingly disinterested, is cause for concern. The younger generation values authenticity and often views the Church as unauthentic, even when it is. The average age of devoted Christians is getting older.
No doubt that many churches are trying to be more relevant to youth and some are succeeding in a limited way through programs, events, music, and other means.But decline remains a problem.“Community” is a major quest for youth, especially among the fatherless, and helps explain our challenge.A friend recently pointed out to me that many “jihadists” join terrorism in order to have cause and community. Young people join gangs for the same reason. They do not see church as meeting those needs.I believe that this is because contact with Jesus and His church has not become personal in too many cases. Our attractional model is not always attractive to those who face the practical, personal, and daunting challenges of everyday life. They are seeking real solutions, not better meetings. To them, Jesus is a religion not a solution.
Back to the Book
The early Church in spite of its problems, grew rapidly, even in the face of severe persecution. Their “Good News” was die to self, take up your cross, and follow Jesus. It was not a course in self-improvement, or “You can make it if you try.” It was a serious choice, and the life promised was not to improve the temporal but gain the eternal. The Church was feared by tyrants, but respected; persecuted but productive, as the Lord added to it daily (not only on Sunday). That is the “DNA” of the Church and, like the prodigal, it will one day return to the Father’s house.
The Bible is an amazing book and it is often said to be our “standard for faith and practice.” That is a good statement, if only we would truly search for the Church in it. Too often, we don’t read it, but read into it our faith and practice. If we search for the Church in its pages, we will be convicted by the Holy Spirit and changed by the Word.
I recently asked a pastor, “What is it that you do that Jesus did not do? And what did Jesus do that you are not doing?” He just looked at me without an answer. Those are questions I ask myself.
So, we all want to improve how we see and do church, right? I’m not sure that we do, but if we do, be warned. “Improvements” do not always improve and are usually cause for division. That is how we got where we are—thousands of “improvements.” So, if trying to improve the Church can cause division, what do we do? That is a serious question. I do not suggest a lot of change or finding a better church. Searching for the Church means none of that.
The search for the Church involves a clearer revelation of what the Church is and, whatever it is, if you are a follower of Jesus, you are part of it. Searching for the Church is seeking those qualities that you find in the Gospels and Epistles. The “City of God” is described there and can be found wherever we are, if we know what we are searching for:
The foundation of the “city” is Jesus, not a lot of other stuff. He is the light of the city and the joy of the city. The city is centered in Jesus, not the Church. (That is what makes it true Church.)
The city or church is community, shared life; it can be as small as two or three. Large is not bad, as long as there is real community with a small number who fellowship with Christ, share His life, and the needs of this life. Openness, love, honesty and accountability characterize community. When that group gets too large to provide those qualities, another group should grow out of it. Living cells multiply.
The true community of Christ embraces the Lord’s command, “Go make disciples and teach them all that I taught you to do.” Our fellowship is around Jesus and His mission. We cannot truly fellowship Jesus without receiving His passion to make disciples as He did. That command takes us beyond ourselves and our group and into the lives of others. Our goal is beyond proselytes to our group but discipling others to Jesus. That happens in personal relationships.
Seeking the City
Our search for the Church begins in Christ Himself, it joins us to others of like spirit in fellowship, and moves us into the World, where the Church is called to be. Ours is not to criticize what others do or how they view church, but to seek the city whose builder and maker is God. We can do that without “church hopping” or church grading if we listen to the Holy Spirit and put on “new glasses” as we study God’s Word. That is exciting and reinvigorating. If you are bored with church as you know it, that is your fault. Seek to see what He saw—He loves it!
Part of what we do here at CSM is to strengthen and encourage local churches and leaders. This is a time of significant attack for many. When you stand with us in prayer and financial support, you help us to stand with Christian leaders worldwide, bringing resources and refreshing to them in this very serious hour. You also co-labor with us in providing equipping resources for believers around the world, many of whom cannot afford to pay for these materials, but who are profoundly grateful for it.
Please consider a special financial gift to CSM this month as we move toward the final days of 2014. Your gifts are tax-deductible and play a huge part in helping us t o fulfill our mission of “extending the kingdom of God…one person at at time.” We are deeply appreciative of your friendship, prayer, and support.
We pray you have a very blessed October. If we can serve you, please let us know. Please feel free to send us your prayer requests to email@example.com. Also, we want to remind you of the upcoming May 13-15 CSM Gatlinburg Leadership Conference happening in Gatlinburg, TN, featuring Nik Ripken (“The Insanity of God” and “The Insanity of Obedience”). For more information, visit www.csmpublishing.org.
Scripture Reference: Hebrews, Ephesians, John, Matthew