WHY THE INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH WON’T DO THE JOB

In the past few weeks I have grasped again why the ‘Institutional Church’ will never get the job done, i.e. taking the Kingdom to all nations. By ‘institutional’ I mean the traditional, denominational, facility-centred, hierarchical church where ‘life’ flows (or is supposed to) from the top down instead of from the bottom up (cf. Jesus’ many agricultural/organic parables), authority (‘control’) is top-down, there is an unbiblical clergy-laity divide which decimates body-life, the emphasis is on consumerist needs rather than kingdom-concerns, etc. 

First, I noted the headlines of our local newspaper (Fri. 29 March), ‘Bay Churches’ Hot Property.’ It noted that churches in our city control extensive property empires worth R. 850 million. 650 properties make up this sum, and they include businesses, farms, retirement homes, luxury houses, vacant plots and ‘places of worship.’ The bulk of these properties is owned by 3 denominations:  the Old Apostolic Church (R. 91 million), Dutch Reformed Church (R. 72 million) and Roman Catholic Church (R. 51 million). The former is ‘a chiliastic sect with roots in in the Catholic Apostolic and New Apostolic Churches’ and their spokesmen were the most reluctant to talk about their property portolio. One church owns a home listed at R. 2 million. The DRC correspondent could at least report that some of their facilities are used for soup kitchens, adult basic education and holiday youth programs. 

Then I learned of a megachurch in our city launching a huge (almost desperate) money-raising drive to enhance their sanctuary entrance facilities, to exchange the 70’s look for a 2013 look (for visitors to feel more comfortable and accommodated?). I have in previous blogs quoted missiologists Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost’s findings in their ‘The Shaping of Things to Come.’ In this volume they rightly argue from Scripture that the Church’s mission in the world is incarnational/missional (believers go to broken people) rather than attractional (come to us!)

To come back to my original assertion. To the above arguments I would add:

  • Bad stewardship and even wastage of money, energy and life. I pastored institutional churches for decades:  the amount of money spent on buildings and their upkeep, worship paraphernalia (state of the art mixing desks, loudspeakers, amplifiers, microphones, etc), church programs, staff salaries, ‘ministry,’ etc! My wife and I (among a growing number in our metro) facilitate small organic groups predominantly in homes, we try to practise the priesthood of all believers, we enjoy pot-lucks – financial upkeep? negligible! And we are able to support ‘widows and orphans’ in our community in a small but meaningful way.
  • The loss of incarnation and mission. Witness the plethora of books on trying to get the people out of the building and into mission. Unfortunately, while some are well-intentioned, most ‘churches’ stick with the original mould/model:  there’s something ‘special’ about doing it in a ‘church building.’ ‘Come to us, come worship with us…’ 
  • The loss of community, something our hurting world is crying out for! One church door steward, when asked how many people he knew, replied honestly ‘I shake hands with 200 people each Sunday morning but I don’t really know anybody.’ Even in ‘cell groups,’ while community improves, the agenda is still controlled by the powers that be. [Leaders, when will we grow up and trust God with people who love him, read the Bible and are indwelt by his Spirit?]
  • And so we could go on…

The alternative? Bible-based, Christ-ruled and Spirit-led organic ecclesiae, gathering in homes, in the market-place, under a tree, in a squatter camp tin shack. Do yourself a favour and read Wolfgang Simpson’s ‘Houses That Change the World,’ then go on to Robert Bank’s ‘The Church Comes Home,’ then Frank Viola’s ‘Re-Imagining Church.’ Or just read your Bible/NT, and particularly the Gospels and the Book of Acts. Even if you go to the Epistles, you will never find them addressed to ‘The Senior Pastor’ (or even Elders) of the church in Corinth. Rather to ‘the saints in the church at Corinth,’ or to ‘the church that meets in the home of so-and-so.’ Read up early church history (‘church buildings’ as such were only popularised by Emperor Constantine in the 3rd century AD). Read the story of the Anabaptist communities. 

This shift from institutional to biblical is ENORMOUS, GLOBAL! Leaders, believers, wake up! Witness the Church in China, now 3rd largest in the world. Witness the Church in S. America and Africa and the Middle East and India.

Imagine small assemblies of believers within walking distance in every village, city, suburb, high-rise building and city slum!

In the later 1970’s in Viet Nam, the communist government had closed 200 Vietnamese church buildings. Some years afterward the officials agreed to the buildings being re-opened, obviously in an effort to regain control. To the officials’ shock, the church leaders and members, now meeting in homes and shops and every conceivable place, replied that they did not want their buildings back. They had experienced ‘life’ outside of church buildings and no longer wanted to be inhibited in any way!

So what are you and I going to do about getting the job done?

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WALK WITH THE WISE

In recent years, months and even weeks my son and I who love to watch rugby and ‘theologise’ together, have noted again how we as ‘evangelicals’ (many definitions!) have lost the gospel.

Eugene Peterson hints at it when he reminds us in his introduction to the Book of Proverbs that so many people think that what’s written in the Bible has mostly to do with getting people into heaven – getting right with God, ‘saving their eternal souls,’ etc. Of course we need to get right with God through Jesus, but being a Christian is equally concerned with living on this earth – living well, “living in robust sanity.” As Peterson says, “In our Scriptures, heaven is not the primary concern, to which earth is a tag-along afterthought. ‘On earth as it is in heaven’ is Jesus’ prayer.”

Some time ago my wife and I read through Prov. 13 in The Message.  We were fascinated, encouraged and stirred by some of the verses in this chapter, especially as a couple trying to live skillfully on a daily basis [my wife’s godly mother who died in her 40’s and whom I never got to know, apparently used to often say “I raise my children by the Book of Proverbs’ – after almost 39 years of marriage to Melanie I can only say ‘thank you!’].

Check out some of these rivetting images and maxims with me:

v. 9, ‘The lives of good people are brightly lit streets; the lives of the wicked are dark alleys.’ I recall an elder in one of my early pastorates whose proudest moment was when his son, then at university, said to him, ‘Dad, you are a good man!’ The elder’s life had been like a ‘brightly-lit street’ to his son in a dark time. And your life and mine?

v. 14, ‘The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, so, no more drinking from death-tainted wells!’  What a lesson for those of us who are models and mentors in one way or another. What a lesson for local ecclesiae:  is our ‘church’/fellowship a fountain of life or a death-tainted well? How do you and I contribute to that?

v. 15, ‘Sound thinking makes for gracious living, but liars walk a rough road.’ God knows his people need ‘sound thinking’ in these days when so many of his offspring appear more like head-less chickens running around than saints with transformed lives and renewed minds (Rom. 12:1-2). And if we believe that being truly ‘spiritual’ excludes mental activity, let’s think again (pun intended). For one thing, look again at the Proverbs’ repeated call to ‘sanctified common sense.’ Years ago I was helped by John Stott’s wonderful little booklet, Your Mind Matters: The Place of the Mind in the Christian Life – if you can get hold of it, do. The Spirit’s mystical impartation and renewed thinking surely work in tandem. Paul says he will pray ‘with his spirit’ and ‘with his mind’ (1 Cor.14). We need the fire of devotion and truth.

A post-script on ‘the gospel.’ It includes personal justification by faith, but its focus is primarily the person and work of Jesus:  the whole gamut of his messianic call, incarnation, life, death, resurrection, post-resurrection appearances, ascension, kingship, resurrection of the saints and return to ‘a new earth.’ It is summed up, as I’ve pointed out before, not in ‘3 easy steps to salvation’ but in the broad spectrum of the 4 Gospels [cf N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus] and more specifically in Paul’s words to the Corinthian church in 1 Cor. 15:1-28!  [now if you really want to be blessed out of your spiritual socks, try and listen to some of Anabaptist theologian Scot McKnight’s talks on ‘gospelling the gospel,’ etc. I thank my son for putting the old man on to them!]

Whatever we do, let’s seek grace this week (and beyond) to WALK WITH THE WISE!

SEARCHING FOR THE REAL THING

I was intrigued to read an editorial in a local newspaper, under the above title, by an architect in our city. He was commenting on a street of homely, very popular restaurants in our city. These pavement ‘cafes’ always seem busy and are patronised by students, yuppies, wannabes, baskers, etc. There are people walking up and down, quaint shops and eateries, trees down each side of the street, yet there is no flamboyant spending. There are no dancing fountains or super-stores, fast-food restaurants, multi-storey buildings with glass atria and so on.The architect sees Stanley Street as evidence of a  global mind shift, an increasing rejection of what is opulent, fake, false, pretence and even scam. Growing numbers no longer trust commercial messages, big business and big institutions. They reject branded goods for handmade alternatives, artisan breads, crafting, and cappucinos to order. I.o.w. a growing number of people are searching for authenticity! For what is real, sincere, not boring and not fake.

Oh my, is the Church really observing and listening? Do I have to remind you of the up-front shows that pass for ‘church, ‘ silk-shirted and perspiring preachers that pass for down-to-earth prophets, the gospel of prosperity for the gospel of the Cross? So un-true, un-real, plastic, false and objectionable. Do you know how many sincere believers I encounter these days who have bailed out of ‘God Pty Ltd’ for the sake of their spiritual sanity and survival?

Now where do they go? That’s part of the reason why I wrote, a few years ago, an almost 400-page academic dissertation on alternative, more biblical forms of church for the 21st century, partly entitled ‘Toward a Re-Incarnation of Church’ (sometimes it’s easier to birth something new than resurrect a corpse). We all long for a Church that is more biblical (founded on biblical truth and principles), basic, simple, organic, grassroots (rather than top-down) and above all authentic.

Tell me, where do you find a group like that, especially in the West? We’re not talking about a Church made up of super-believers but rather of ‘ordinary’ home-grown disciples, transparent, seeking by grace to ‘to love as he loved’, to serve rather than be served.

Didn’t Jesus, Head of the Church, radically model this for us? Didn’t he associate with fringe-people, broken people, rich and poor, attractive and unattractive, clean and dirty? You had to be a ‘sinner’ to ‘qualify’ for his favour and help (cf Lk. chap.’s 14-15, etc). Can you ignore his impatience with any hint of showmanship, hypocrisy, falseness, pretence, mask-wearing (cf the ‘7 woes’ to the Pharisees in Mt. 23). Jack Deere in his ‘Surprised by the Power of the Spirit’ was quite right when he wrote years ago that pharisaism in the Church, with its hypocrisy, legalism and traditionalism, was a greater threat to Christendom than the New Age Movement, as serious as the latter was. Consider again Jn.1:14, ‘The Word became flesh among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’  John uses the word ‘truth’ 25 times in his writings, closely linked with Jesus, who also ‘IS the truth’  (Jn. 14:6). ‘Aletheias’ also translates as ‘reality,’ ‘sincerity,’ that which is ‘authentic’ rather than feigned.

How do we recapture the authenticity of the Church? (ultimately a God-thing!) By passionately pursuing:

  • Jesus himself, Head of the Church and Lord of the Cosmos (Eph. 1-2; Col. 1-2).
  • God’s immeasurable love in Christ for all people.
  • Corporate and individual holiness (Christ-likeness) of life (Eph. 4:17ff), by the indwelling life of the life-giving Tree (cf earlier blog, ‘A Theology of Two Trees’).
  • NT-type community (Acts 2:38-47, etc). Can’t find such a community? (a common complaint). Prayerfully consider starting such a community – gather informally with like-minded, humble, hungry and thirsty friends, people prepared to be ‘real’ with God, the Bible and each other. Gather informally in your home, talk lots about Jesus (the NT one). For your encouragement, God has long initiated this process:  A.W. Tozer wrote many years ago, ‘There is a fellowship within a fellowship – a sort of wheel in the middle of a wheel which gathers to itself all who are of its spirit in every church in every land and every age.’

The Lord be with you!

 

Sunday morning surprise

We have a house church gathering in our home on Sunday mornings at about 10. I love to quietly ready myself to  facilitate (note) the gathering, trying to be sensitive to the Spirit’s direction until folk drift in. Sometimes I like to listen to a 30 minute broadcast ‘service’ on RSG, an Afrikaans radio program, at 9 am. Without being too judgmental, the broadcast services often don’t scratch where it itches. But a few Sunday mornings ago I tuned in to a service from Villeria Dutch Reformed Church in Pretoria. What a refreshing change! Sensitive worship in song, no parsonic voice, and a powerful and relevant message from Ds. Jaco Strydom. I wrote to encourage my colleague, and the result is that we have promised to have coffee sometime should I visit Pretoria or he Port Elizabeth.

Here’s a rough summary of the message’s points, in no specific order, with apologies to Jaco if I have misrepresented him [I will include the odd personal comment in square brackets, for which he is not responsible!]:-

  • He based his message on Jesus’ self-humbling in Phil. 2:5-11 and on his inclusiveness in Col. 3:11, “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”
  • Jesus in his life and ministry always set out to overcome divisions, and tried to build unity. He came as peacemaker, and calls his followers to be peacemakers. The anomaly is that are so many ‘peacemakers’ in South Africa, and yet there is often much turmoil in our nation.
  • Churches often minister to the poor, but do we know them?? We cannot effectively minister to the poor if we do not know them! [Think twice when you open your wallet. When we know those we give to, it doubles the blessing]
  • Jaco related the story of a man who was serving the poor on the streets. God then challenged this man:  if you really want to relate to these people, you must go and live on the streets with them. Which he did, with amazing stories of sharing a morsel of bread and rare community. [my own research has revealed that one of the greatest needs in the Church today is community. We need to commit to ‘community’ (sharing at the deepest level) even if we don’t live on the streets with street people. We’re talking about the ‘community’ of Acts 2:42ff, etc. Where do you experience such community? Find it or start it!]
  • In fact this same man shared a pearl of wisdom with Jaco:  ‘You have to be poor to help the poor… it’s not only the rich who can help the poor!’ [Before you dismiss that, think about it for a moment… In my own ministry among the poor I often witness both coming to the party, and what a blessing it is]
  • [Here’s one for grumbling S. Africans] If you take the time and trouble to reach out cross-culturally, you will be a much happier person living in S.A. And if you don’t, you will be very miserable…
  • Let us walk in Jesus’ footsteps:  be like taxis (SA minibus kwela-kwela), There’s always room for more! [I tell you what, some years ago I witnessed even ‘more room’ in Peruvian taxis in the high Andes, 5,000+ metres up. Providentially for our mission team, the taxi’s steering-wheel came off in the driver’s hands before we left Ayachucho for Cangallo, and we could pray for a safer taxi to convey us. God directed us to an empty (!) taxi which was wonderfully safe both ways, and which our resident missionary couple had never seen before in their village nor ever again. You explain that…] [I have almost finished reading Michael Cassidy’s hot-off-the press ‘The Church Jesus Prayed For,’ based on Jesus’ prayer in Jn. 17, where he supports Jaco’s call for inclusivity, without compromising the gospel. A good read].
  • Jaco related a wonderful experience in visiting a hospital where he had been called to give an address. When he arrived there, one lady started to sing a vigorous praise song, soon the other nurses joined, and then cleaning staff with their brooms and mops, and the patients with their walkers and drip-stands, and the very strict matron led the dance down the passage, even a psychiatric patient from the psychiatric unit came flying in to join the happy throng… [All I can say is, Hallelujah! I don’t recall if Jaco actually got to give the address]
  • He recommended a book, Floyd McClung’s ‘How to Love People You Don’t Like.’ Now that sounds interesting![Floyd and Sally have been based in Cape Town for some years now, training African tent-maker missionaries in the townships for Muslim Africa].

I may add that Jaco’s church is profoundly involved with a group of homes living in ‘community,’ meeting the needs of people usually thrown aside by the Church. The ministry is called ECHO. Maybe google it some time… 

Heartfelt thanks, Ds. Jaco and congregation, for surprising me (and now many more) with an extra-ordinary challenge, joy and hope – we do give all the glory to God!

A PATTERN PRAYER

Fortunately at a youth camp 50+ years ago, with the late Bernard Johanssen as speaker, I discovered the Lord’s Prayer (Mt. 6:9-13; Lk. 11:2-4) as a kind of ‘pattern prayer’ for my prayer life. I still recall his strong, slow emphasis on ‘Hallowed be Thy Name’ as signifying ‘to be in sympathy with His holiness.’

Of course we can refer to it also as ‘The Disciples’ Prayer,’ or (as I like to do sometimes) as ‘The Family Prayer.’ Which ever way you take it, it is a helpful outline for our prayer life:  sometimes ‘zeroing in’ on worship, or confession, or petition, as the Spirit may lead us, yet always coming back to the balance of the ‘Our Father.’ This coming Sunday we’ll have a discussion around this theme in our ‘house church’ (Acts 2:42)…

Then last night I came across Dallas Willard’s version of the Prayer, and found it most refreshing, so I share it with you…

‘Dear Father always near us, and filling the heavens

may your name be treasured and loved,

may your rule be completed in us –

may your will be done here on earth

in just the same way it is done in heaven.

Give us today the things we need today,

and forgive us our sins and impositions on you

as we are forgiving all who in any way offend us.

Please don’t put us through trials,

But deliver us from everything bad.

Because you are the one in charge,

And you have all the power,

And the glory too is all yours – forever –

Which is just the way we want it!’

Great, isn’t it?!  [Over-all an excellent rendering of the original. With respect, Willard’s translation ‘Deliver us from everything bad’ falls short of the Greek ponerou in Mt. 6:13:  it means ‘evil’  or even better, ‘evil one.’ Jesus knew all about evil supernaturalism seated in a personal enemy. Yes, that same enemy ‘almost’ destroyed me, my wife and 3 children about 20 years ago – even my agnostic psychiatrist at the time commented, ‘Mr. Mulder, I think satan has tried to kill you and your family!’  HOWEVER, let this not distract from the over-all prayer!]

Praying for you and your loved ones a richer prayer life today and always…

 

 

 

A PRAYER

[To my blog visitor from Ukraine, welcome! My grandfather was born of German Baptist stock in N.W. Ukraine in the late 1890’s, and emigrated as a young man to the USA. He married and left for South Africa with his young family in the mid 1930’s. I firmly believe that my unexpected, radical conversion to Christ was as a result of the faithful prayers of my forbears!]

Here is a prayer I sometimes pray when I need to calm my spirit. It is by the American mystic and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, 1915-1968.

“The chief thing that has struck me today is that I still have my fingers too much in the running of my own life. The first essential is missing. I only say I trust You. My actions prove that the one I trust is myself – and that I am still afraid of You.

Take my life into Your hands, at last, and do whatever You want with it. I give myself to Your love – rejecting neither the hard things nor the pleasant things you have for me. It is enough for me that You have glory. Everything you have planned is good. It is all love.

The way You have laid open before me is an easy way compared with the hard way of my own will which leads back to Egypt, and to bricks without straw.

If You allow people to praise me, I shall not worry. If You let them blame me, I shall worry even less, but be glad. If You send me work, I shall embrace it with joy and it will be rest to me, because it is Your will. And if You send me rest, I will rest in You. Only save me from myself. Save me from my own, private, poisonous urge to change everything, to act without reason, to move for movement’s sake, to unsettle everything You have ordained.

Let me rest in Your will and be silent. Then the light of Your joy will burn in my heart and shine for Your glory. This is what I live for.     Amen, amen.