Part 2. What kind of congregation (ecclesia) can effectively journey with God into his world??
According to sociologist Prof. Josh Packard (University of N. Colorado) in his 2015 ‘Church Refugees,’ well over 30 million committed believers in the USA have left the institutional Church in recent years: ‘While everyone’s story is unique, there are some common tensions that emerge among the dechurched. They wanted community… and got judgment. They wanted to affect the life of the church … and got bureaucracy. They wanted conversation… and got doctrine. They wanted meaningful engagement with the world… and got moral prescription.’
Prof. Philip Jenkins (Baylor & Pennsylvania State Universities) in his 2002 ‘The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,’ has argued that the greatest movement of the past century was not communism or capitalism but Spirit-filled Christianity. He estimated that in 20 years, two-thirds of all Christians will live in Africa, Latin America or Asia (because the Bible is alive in these continents). He foresaw, in 20-30 years, a 25% ‘Christian’ China (1).
Oikos Australia reports (Nov. 2021) many traditional churches considering other ways of ‘doing church.’ Oikos promotes simple church, focusing on disciple-making in households and multiplication across the nation. In one town, groups are meeting in the town gardens, reading the Bible and praying together, over a shared picnic lunch. Sounds awfully ‘NT’ to me!?
We have missionary friends in N. India. There also, under the Spirit’s reviving, the Good News is spreading from town to town through small groups of ‘simple’ believers ‘gossiping the Gospel’ and baptizing those newly won to Christ.
Recently I attended a Simply Mobilizing Interface Seminar, which reported that 16,000 believers have undergone their extensive discipleship/church-planting training in the Philippines, with the result that these islands now boast one of the greatest church-planting ‘movements’ in the world. This organization reports that the non-Western world now represents about 80% of all evangelicals world-wide.
Chinese Church Support Ministry confirmed a few weeks ago that the Chinese Church is growing by approx. 25,000 new believers every day.
Back in 2005 Douglas Banister published his ‘God On Earth’: ‘The Church – A Hard Look at the Real Life of Faith.‘ Banister (Gordon-Conwell & University of Tennessee graduate) alerted us to the following:
1) ‘The church is not a machine or an institution. The church is alive, a living cell, organic, chaotic, nonlinear…’ Hmmm…
2) To use a precarious metaphor, the early church was organized like today’s al Qaeda terrorist networks. Contrary to popular opinion there is no ‘one great leader’ coordinating all activity from the top down in such networks. Instead, various cells within the network are interconnected like a spider web. The network has little hierarchy, and there are multiple leaders.
3) We can no longer follow the hierarchical leadership model of the military and corporate world! Personally, I see the Bible preferring an informal ‘plurality of elders’ (cf. Paul’s Pastorals) (function more important than office), leading the body horizontally (rather than top-down) through servant-leaders of Jesus’ ilk: “‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another’s feet… servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them'” (Jn. 13:12-17/NRSV) (2 & 3).
I recall with joy my visit to Cote d’Ivoir in West Africa some years ago. I had taken a team to meet with Pr. Dion Robert to learn from his influential cell-based congregation in Abidjan (generally I don’t favour megachurches). He and his elders were the humblest of servant-leaders. Across the front of the huge sanctuary was posted Jn. 13:17,‘If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them!’ [PS, I was privileged to share in a mass baptism (by immersion) of some 250 new, thoroughly-instructed believers. Unforgettable!] Returning to Jn. 13, I’ve seen this servant-leadership increasingly implemented in my own city over a few decades. Years ago Leighton Ford, American pastor and evangelist, called this ‘leading from within.’
How does the contemporary, largely nominal Church get to discipling all ethne? I humbly submit via repentance, revival, reformation and radical following of Jesus. It’s an historical fact that all true revival/reformation has sprung from penitent intercession of young and old, even on the part of a few (Cf. Archives Nov. 14, 2018 on ‘Revival’). By our obedience we can, under God, make a world of difference. I vividly recall meeting Happy (real name) in N.W. China. A grandmother from the USA, she chose to spend much of her time in a key university city. Almost every day she made her way up the mountain to intercede for the children living below. I was so moved by her example that I (prophetically?) called her ‘the mother of nations’ – she burst into tears, humbly accepting my accolade. On my desk there is a pink-and-white veined stone taken from Happy’s mountain. Another team member team related an experience in a Buddhist temple, where a young child followed him all over, repeatedly jumping into his arms while laughing merrily: hereby God showed him the future openness of the younger generation to the Good News!
It’s a ‘given’ that it is Christ himself who builds his Church (Mt. 16:18). Just maybe that’s precisely what he’s doing in our present world, doing it his/the early Church way? My beloved colleagues in traditional congregations agree that, following Covid, ‘church’ can never be quite the same again and that smaller is often better.
Concerning penitent intercession, may I challenge you to begin by gathering regularly with a few ‘simple’ but serious believers in interceding for God’s Church in these momentous days?? John Wesley reminded us that God does nothing redemptively, except through prayer (consider your own redemption!)
[Please look out for Parts 3 & 4 of our Missio Dei series and check the footnotes below]
(1) Cf. firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com Cf. TIME’S David Aikman and his ‘Jesus in Beijing’ (publ. 2006)
(2) The academically-minded, cf my MTh Dissertation,“Toward A ‘Reincarnation’ Of Church In The Twenty First Century: The Re-Emergence Of ‘House Church.” Many helpful books on ‘organic church’ are available, e.g. Frank Viola’s ‘Finding Organic Church,’ ‘Re-Imagining Church,’ ‘Pagan Christianity’ (co-authored with George Barna), etc.
(3) Cf. Wayne Jacobsen’s ‘Can Institutions Be Redemptive?’ Blog Lifestream.