THE CHURCH IS LEAVING THE BUILDING – AGAIN!

Through the years of my blogging, this theme has cropped up on many occasions. Let this article serve as an update.

First off, as can be seen by my blog title, I’m a total convert to the fundamentality of Christian community. In fact, if anything, I have become even more convinced of the centrality of community to the Church of Jesus Christ. At the same time, the God of the Bible, who in his tri-unity lives in grand community, is a missionary God determined to fulfil his glorious and eternal purpose in Christ in all the earth. His chosen people Israel failed miserably in her calling to be a light to the nations, hence he sent his chosen Son to fulfil that calling in himself and through his Church, ‘the Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16).

Having had the privilege of visiting China on two occasions, I immediately picked up on a recent report of the Church in Zheijang Province, China. [the first book I devoured as a born-from-above teen, was Hudson Taylor’s biography ‘The Man Who Believed God.’ Following my farewell to the institutional Church, I researched the house church movement in China, a phenomenon the Western Church cannot afford to ignore].

Here is the report on the Church in Wenzhou, Zheijang Province. To date we have no idea how many churches and crosses have been demolished during the ‘Three Rectifications & One Demolition’ campaign… Formerly neon-lit crosses have been, one by one, wrapped in burlap and the churches demolished. The demolition of crosses has become an ache in the soul of many Christians and has left many observers dumbfounded. But after experiencing this raging inferno, we see that in this baptism of fire a new kind of Wenzhou church is being reborn in the ashes (my emphasis)…

In recent years, the economic conditions for the Wenzhou church have become quite favourable. Competition (sound familiar?) to build churches had almost become the order of the day… This recent demolition campaign, however, surprised people at first, then caused many congregations to sober up. They have learned that a church building is not the same as a congregation of believers and that a congregation without a building is still a church (my emphasis) [I am constantly asked, ‘But where is your church building?’ My answer that we don’t have one, and that our congregation of small groups doesn’t even have a name, throws most enquirers]. So now, instead of competing to see who can build the best building, the focus has shifted to the spiritual construction of believers…

Prior to the Wenzhou demolitions, Three-Self churches (registered, ‘above-ground churches) and house churches (un-registered, ‘under-ground’ churches) had little or no contact with one another… However this government campaign “suddenly made all these groups realise the common danger they were facing. They were reminded that we are all members of one body and if one part suffers we all suffer. We must help each other in harsh circumstances in order to survive. This deep insight has caused the Wenzhou church go from ‘no contact with each other’ towards ”mutual understanding and acceptance,’ from ‘personal politics’ towards ‘substantial unity.’

Before the Sanjiang Church Incident, the church in Wenzhou had a universal optimistic mood of blind superiority. Such sentiments gradually caused the Wenzhou church to be inclined toward secularism (in fact, valuing the magnificence of the outside of the church over the humility and formation of the lives of those inside the church is precisely one form of secularism). Secularization caused the Wenzhou church to lose the zeal of the generation of believers after the Cultural Revolution. As a result, the new generation in the Wenzhou church became indifferent, even apathetic… This sense of crisis has made the church become more sober and full of enthusiasm. Our church has been thinking about our social responsibility, our call to missions, the purpose of our existence, as well as the form of development our church really needs [I’ve often felt that the Church in the West, including in South Africa, will only know revival/reformation when facing the fires of persecution, in one form or another]… It is clear that Jesus Christ is still truly in charge… I believe that this crisis will inevitably provide the Wenzhou church an opportunity to be reborn from the ashes!” (my emphasis). I believe this applies to the Church worldwide: hence my Master’s dissertation, ‘TOWARD A RE-INCARNATION OF CHURCH IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY…’  i.o.w. we don’t need a patch-up job, we need a whole new ‘building. [this report is taken from the Dec. 2014 China Prayer Update of CCSM South Africa, with their kind permission]

PS to this China report: I’ve been saying for years to the Church in my city and beyond, don’t look to the Church in the West for answers, look East. For interest you may want to check out the generally poor state of the Western Church:  cf. 10 Facts About America’s Churchless, Barna Group http://www.barna.org/churchless

I was also encouraged by a recent chat-show led by the well-know SA journalist, Max du Preez, on secular Radio RSG. While the theme ‘helping to build the new SA’ was directed to listeners in general, many of the callers represented followers of Jesus, reaching out to their neighbours by word and deed.

  • One caller related how he and his wife had retired to beautiful Hermanus, on the southern Cape coast, world-renowned for whale-watching. As caring believers they immediately took note of a very disadvantaged school in a poor township area adjacent to upper-class Hermanus. The school had been struggling with an abysmal 36% matriculation pass-rate. They got stuck in, taking the need to the community, getting experts on board, including local professionals and businesses. Within just a few years, the pass-rate rose to 76%! Many affluent homes took in students from noisy little shacks, affording them study in a quiet and comfortable environment. Mentorships, apprenticeships and bursaries were introduced. This school now has many young people studying at the top universities of our land. As this retired man said, ‘We have talked enough and even prayed enough… it’s time for action!’
  • Another caller related how he had formed a group collecting second-hand clothing (in good condition), crockery, toys, canned/packaged food, etc. They have taken truck-loads of the gathered goods to far-flung, poverty-stricken communities in the Western Cape. Some of the children in these communities have never received even a Christmas gift or a birthday gift – now they had warm clothing and a toy to play with, bring at least some joy and hope of a better life. All in the name of Jesus, and with the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom!

As 21st century followers of Jesus we should ever be encouraged and challenged by Christ’s post-resurrection appearance to his first disciples, as reported by the evangelist John in Jn. 20:19ff/MSG: “Later on that day, the disciples had gathered together, but fearful of the Jews, had locked all the doors in the house. Jesus entered, stood among them, and said, ‘Peace to you.’ Then he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant. Jesus repeated his greeting: ‘Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.’ Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,’ he said. If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” So for goodness’ sake, let’s unlock the ‘church’ doors and leave the building. In the power of the Spirit let’s incarnate Jesus, wherever he has placed us.

Wishing you, my dear readers, a truly blessed Advent!

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CONTROL: ‘THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY’

I remember how, some years ago, Argentinian pastor Juan Zuccharelli, addressed a gathering of church leaders in our local church. A few of us in our city had been following with interest a spiritual awakening in Argentina under the leadership of Ed Silvoso and others. They were impacting businessmen, civic leadership, and many prisons across the land (some prisons claimed the conversion of 80% of their inmates, who would foster prison discipline and feed the local street children). It was Juan’s first visit to South Africa. He related how, as his plane banked low over Cape Town, he had a powerful inner impression of a spiritual principality (cf. Eph. 6) dominating our nation:  he identified it as a spirit of ‘control.’ At the time, and now much more so, I recognised a strong political manifestation of that ‘power’ in our relatively young democracy. Just the other day our President declared that if his ruling party goes down, the whole nation goes down (this after declaring many times that his party would reign until the return of Jesus Christ). Now I am not engaging in party-politics at this point, because I think all parties are flawed in one way or another. What I am saying is that our South African society in general, our morality, prosperity and economy are being greatly hampered by leaders obsessed with political control, forever and a day, come what may. That’s bad control!

Sadly, bad and ugly forms of control are also rife in many churches across our land, continent, and globe:  in mega-churches and smaller churches. In many scenario’s the ‘Senior Pastor’ (or ‘Man of God’) has made it publicly known that it’s either his way or the highway. Other leaders are a little more subtle, but everyone knows who is in charge and who must not be crossed. I know of totally broken senior leadership, junior leadership and members in institutional churches in our city, whose personal health and family life have had to pay the price of unbiblical control. Leaders and members are manipulated emotionally and spiritually, made to feel guilty about unnecessary things, etc. I try to listen to such people and help where I can, but its difficult. You see, members and leaders are victims of a system innately flawed and wired, more often than not, to destruct rather than construct. That’s ugly control!

While we can understand this kind of thing happening in our highly secularised and materialistic world where dog eats dog in pursuit of ‘success,’ but in the kingdom of God? A recent BBC report, under Earth Blog, highlighted that many mammals practice male/female infanticide. A new study of spider monkeys has revealed males killing male babies in order to prevent sexual competition. What’s more, the infants were all from the monkeys’ own social groups. Enough said…

Is there a place for control in God’s economy, and in his Church? Is there good control?

  • The Genesis account depicts the Eternal God, magnificent Creator and loving Controller of all things, creating the earth as a kind of tabernacle to live in. He also creates mankind in his own image to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ on his behalf. Of course, biblical and contemporary history illustrate man’s graphic failure in fulfilling that mandate.
  • But God has a sovereign and saving purpose for his created world, viz. to redeem and re-create it after his will. His chosen instrument is his Son, who comes to cure our sin and empower us to fulfil our destiny in Christ. God’s ultimate purpose is magnificently set out in Eph. 1-2 and Col. 1. Writing to the Philippian community the apostle Paul urges God’s people to press on toward the goal of Christ:  3:20ff, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Therefore, my brothers… that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” Surely a timely word of encouragement for God’s saints today, as we face increasing suffering and persecution in so many parts of the world (as I write we have learned of the death of three South African believers whose home in Afghanistan was torched by the Taliban – they weren’t even career missionaries as claimed by the Taliban but part of an NGO working for the upliftment of Afghani people in terms of agriculture and other vital skills.
  • There is the self-control of faith communities and their members under the gentle, loving control of the Holy Spirit. We are of course totally unable to control our natural, selfish desires and speech without the indwelling presence of the living Christ! But he indwells us corporately and individually. References to this self-control are manifold:  Prov. 29:11; 1 Cor. 7:37; 1 Cor. 14:26ff (spontaneity and order in worship); 1 Thess. 4:4; and especially Rom. 8:5-14! By this good control we display the beauty and glory of God in an increasingly disorderly world.

Coming back to control in the body of Christ under his headship. I think it was Frank Viola, in addressing a denominational leadership conference in Chile some years ago, who said that any kind of leadership in the body that did not set members free in Christ, was not true leadership. He’s right. We only have to look at Christ’s example and mandate in Lk. 4, given in his home synagogue, quoting the servant passage of Is. 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” As a low-key facilitator of organic house churches in our city, called to fulfil Christ’s ultimate purpose in the earth, I have to constantly ask myself:  ‘Am I setting God’s people free??’ And you, my brother, my sister?

[PS. I am currently reading Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Church Life. Writing about the relationship of apostles and members he states clearly:  the local church must never control the work of an apostle, though it is free to help him/her in any way. On the other hand, an apostle must never control a local church. Nee cites Paul on arrival in Rome:  he didn’t take over the local church or become its ‘pastor!’ But that discussion must wait for another time…]