Archive for the ‘church life’ Category

As I considered the local church for this RoTM (RoTNMaaH), I began to think of the ways that it has been a part of my life as a follower of Jesus.  One of the first things that came to my mind was how I’ve been blessed by the diversity of the local church.  A clarification is in order, however.  It seems to me that today the concept of diversity has, quite oddly, taken on a more narrow focus than one might expect.  The mention of the word typically calls to mind different races: Asian, African-American, Latino(a), etc.  Diversity tends to be a synonym for multi-culturalism or simply a plurality of races.  This is especially apparent in light of the buzz around Obama’s historic inauguration and cabinet appointees.  This notion of diversity isn’t wrong, of course, but there is a broader sense of the word that comes to mind when I consider my experience in the local church which is independent of race.  I speak of the simple diversity of persons, or more specifically, backgrounds.

This was especially striking to me a few months ago on a weekend on retreat with about thirty people from my congregation.  The purpose of the retreat was to share our personal testimonies, so we spent our days in a large circle doing just that.  I was struck, awestruck even, by the tremendous diversity among the testimonies shared that weekend.  So many different people, from so many different backgrounds, all telling vastly different stories of God’s enduring faithfulness in pursing them and calling them to faith in Christ.  It was a perfect case study of unity in diversity; one body, many parts.

The local church has been an excellent vehicle for me getting to know brothers and sisters all over the demographic map.   As such, I’ve known deep friendships with people who I never would have met in any other capacity, and I’ve been exposed to personalities, histories, and gifts I might not otherwise ever experience.

I believe that the diversity of the Body of Christ is one of the most powerful encouragements available to us through participation the local church.   I could spend many paragraphs on the manifold blessings of diversity within the church community, but the one on my heart lately is the simple fact that it speaks to the inexhaustible grace of God in reaching so many different people, through so many different means, at so many different times.  God is still changing lives, and the diversity of these lives within the church is revelatory of His awesome power.

This fact is a counter to the pessimism one might feel in response to our fallen world.  There is no paucity for examples where we might heave a saddened sigh at some tragic news.  “How will that woman ever recover such a loss?  What chance do those children have?  How can he or she live a ‘normal’ life anymore? How will those wounds ever heal?”  The testimonies of the Church body answer the question: “By the awesome power of God.”

It is an encouragement to me as a parent when I wonder how my son will navigate through the jungle of lies that will surround him every day, or how he will weather the inevitable suffering that is a part of life.  Here again I can consider the testimonies of my brothers and sisters, who collectively have walked similar (often more treacherous) roads.  How will my son remain in the Truth? The same way my many brother and sisters have: By the awesome power of God.

God is the one who has redeemed, and will redeem, countless millions for His Glory.  Indeed, the whole earth shall be redeemed with them.  The Church is one of many indications that His redemptive power never rests, and His reach knows no bounds.

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RoTM: The Church

Danny and I have been negligent about our Resource of the Month (RoTM) posts, and since this one is coming in the middle of Janurary, it shall be our RoTNMaaH: Resource of the Next Month and a Half, despite the unfortunate phonetic coincidence that the acronym sounds “rotten.”  Regardless, join us for the next 6 weeks as we write about the Church.

Growing up in New England, the start of winter meant the beginning of the snow day season. I remember the feeling of expectation and excitement that welled up in my heart when snow was in the weekday forecast. I’d wake up, look out the window, and rush to the radio, eager hear my school called. I doubt I ever listened so intently to an otherwise dull list of school names. The benefits of a snow day were twofold: (1) no school, and (2) playing in the snow. So powerful were these childhood emotions that the feeling sticks with me to this day; I’m still excited when it snows. The difference is that now I have no good reason for excitement.  Snow means little more than inconvenience, perilous travel, and back pain.

We got about six inches this past Sunday in Boston. Since I was serving in the worship band (a ministry that requires me to get to church a few hours early), I checked the cancellation web-sites (my, how times have changed) before I cleaned off my car. I didn’t want to get to church only to find out that our pastor had called off our service. He hadn’t. As I drove in on the snowy roads, I wondered to myself, “When is it appropriate to cancel Sunday worship service?”

The question nagged at me, because the more I thought about it, the harder it became to answer. The reason, I believe, is that the cancellation question really asks a bigger question: How important is Sunday worship service? Indeed, why go to church in the first place? We could probably write a book here, hence our decision to explore (the C)church over the next few weeks.  However, if I had just a few sentences to spend, I’d say that we go to church for (1) worship, (2) community, and (3) hearing the Word preached. Negatively, we don’t go to church to (1) throw God a bone, (2) earn our salvation, (3) feel good about ourselves (i.e., self-righteous).

The other meta-question asked by the prospect of cancellation is “Why would you cancel church in the first place?” In the case of a snow day, I propose two broad categories of answer: (1) Safety – it is unsafe to travel, (2) Pragmatism – nobody will be there anyway.

So, tackling my meta-questions in reverse order, I find more tensions than answers.  The pragmatic “nobody will be there anyway” reason for cancellation is valid:  Why labor for hours in travel and setup, or spend money on heat and electricity for a few (if any) congregants?  Fair enough, I guess, so long as the reclaimed time and resources are better spent.  Against the validity of this claim is the awesome truth that our God can be decidedly impractical.  How do we resolve the tension?  Ask God.

Regarding the reasoning from safety, we may ask the fair question, “Why risk injury or accident for church?”  What if the governor declares a state of emergency and it’s illegal to travel?  Against this, of course, is the conviction afforded us by looking to countries like China, wherein millions literally risk their lives to illegally attend a worship service in the cold darkness of a cave.  I would guess that a few inches of snow would not deter these brothers and sisters of ours in the least.  How do we resolve the tension?  Ask God.

Working back to the first question, “how important is worship service?” we can notice that in many ways the answer is a barometer for somebody’s feelings about church. It could also serve as a barometer for a given church’s efficacy at ministering to its congregation.  I submit for now that worship service is very important (more on this over the next few weeks).  If you should feel otherwise, you might ask yourself why.  If it’s because of your church, perhaps you’re there to be an agent for positive change (prayerfully, lovingly, and thoughtfully implemented without subversion), or, you might need to move on.  Ask God about it.  If it’s not because of your church, perhaps there are heart issues upon which God is placing His finger, or past wounds that need healing.  Ask God about them.

We might also think outside of the proverbial box, too.  “Church,” of course, is not the building we attend, and there is no hard requirement that we have to go there to worship, connect or be edified.  In the case of a snow storm, perhaps people who live near one another could gather together in houses.  Or, perhaps a simple phone call could be made to a brother or sister for prayer and connection over the phone.  The pastor could e-mail sermon notes, record it and post it on a web site, or families could have their own worship service.  Here, I think, is the key to my point above.  If service is cancelled, or it is truly insane to attempt travel, we ought to put the reclaimed time to good use.

In my personal experience, the church has vascillated between being a spa and a gym.  Sometimes, it’s immensely refreshing and I can’t wait to go again.  Other times, I dread going, labor at participating, and feel sore days afterwards.  In either case, I’m the better for having gone, and it’s been good for me.  As for the snow, since God gives it to us in the first place, it only stands to reason that He’ll tell us what to do about it if we ask Him.

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I’ve always tried to place myself in the service of the church, specifically my church.  I don’t say this to make myself sound humble, but to explain my basic ministry strategy: if there is a need, and I can fill it, I try to do so.  The reason for this is fairly simple- “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil 2:3-4).  So, whatever the hole is (someone to set up chairs, teaching a class, etc) I think it’s is wise for church members to do what they can to fill it.

But I’ve been challenged recently in the area of spiritual gifts.  Now, I’m a charismatic (notice the small “c”, though I realize the hot new term is “continuationist”), by which I basically mean that I believe that the spiritual gifts listed in the Bible still exist today and we ought to seek the spiritual gifts for use in the church.  Why I hold that position is for another post somewhere down the line, but suffice to say I find it the only viable exegetical position.

So, about that challenge I mentioned- these two points, the continuation of spiritual gifts and the need to serve the church actually go hand in hand.  The spiritual gifts exist primarily for the sake of the church, not the individual.  “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7).  True, there has been plenty of abuse in the church in this area, and no doubt there are plenty of selfish people floating around in the charismatic movement.  But that doesn’t negate what Paul tells us is their primary purpose: the edify the church.

This is what confuses me most about the “Open but Cautious” camp.  I’ve heard many people claim they are “open but cautious” in regards to the spiritual gifts (this is fairly common in seminary).  This means that they understand that a cessationist point of view lacks biblical warrant, but they are often afraid of the excesses in the charismatic movement.  Fair enough point, but given the purpose of the spiritual gifts, this ultimately is a selfish stance rather than a “church oriented” position.  Just as the Lord’s Supper is open to abuse (see 1 Corinthians), preaching, teaching, and a host of other good things, so are spiritual gifts.  And just as we don’t cease to participate in those activities because of the potential for abuse, so we shouldn’t cease to seek and use spiritual gifts because of what may happen.

If I truly consider myself a servant of the church, I will seek spiritual gifts.  I will put aside my own preconceived notions, my own comfortability.  Spiritual gifts exist to build up and strengthen the church, and if I care about building up and strengthening the church, I will “eagerly desire spiritual gifts” (1 Cor 14:1).

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Church without a Building

I’ve had a few years to think about what church life is like without a owning a building.  Our church rents a school gym on Sundays, uses the basement of another church for our training school, and meets in members’ homes during the week for our small groups.  We do have a building fund, and have looked into a few different buildings in the area, but have yet to have anything work out. 


I’ve reflected on this more recently, since a good friend’s church is no longer meeting in the building they’ve had for years.  They, like us, will be meeting in a school gym and will need to readjust how they do things.  In time, they’ll probably build a place to meet, but for now are in the same boat we are. 


I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing.  In fact, I think there are numerous advantages to doing church without a building, and I’ll list a few here.  Before I do that, I’ll cut off the objectors who will note that all the advantages I mention can be found in churches with buildings.  Yes, I know.  And there are advantages to having a building, too.  I realize that.  But I do think that not having a building encourages and forces a church to be shaped in a way that is less likely to happen with a building.  So, if you read this and think, “but my church has a building and we do ___”, then let me congratulate you on having a great church.  These are simply my observations.


Not having a building reinforces the idea that church is not the building, but the people.


Yes, I know, there may not be a more common cliché than “the church is not about the building, but the people.”  But, clichés generally become clichés because they are true.  Too many churches feel they’ve “made it” when they have their building up and running, all ready for the person on the street to walk in and find a home.  The nice thing about not having a building is that this temptation to feel like you’ve “made it” isn’t even an option.  You can’t feel like you’ve made it because your church is about the people, who are living, breathing entities who can’t be maintained simply by mopping the floors and keeping the steeple lit up.


Not having a building encourages people to open up their homes to spend time with each other.


In my years at our church, I’ve become more and more convinced that the greatest strength of our church is the faithgroups (small groups) that meet in homes throughout the week.  Let’s be honest, meeting in a classroom and meeting in someone’s living room have two completely different feelings.  I hope that if/when we do get a building, we never have faithgroups that meet in the church building.  The thought makes me cringe.


Not having a building reminds us that the work of God is supposed to take place in every aspect of our daily lives.


Praying for each other, worshipping together, speaking the truth of God into our lives- these are things that ought to be a part of our daily lives.  However, there can be a sense that “we do that at church” in many fellowships.  But when you’re options are (1) do these things in homes or (2) wait until next Sunday to do them, hopefully you’ll find yourselves opting for (1). 


For those who feel lost in crowds on Sundays, it gives them a place in the church.


I’ll be honest, when a church reaches 300+ people, I start to feel lost- and this is coming from someone who is in a leadership position.  I can only imagine how someone who may not be comfortable in a church of any size would feel.  But, when you are meeting in homes throughout the week in smaller groups, they are more likely to find themselves a firm place in the community.  This then bleeds over into Sunday mornings, where they have a core group of friends that they can feel comfortable with, and who can introduce to other members of the community.  Notice something important here: for many, the best introduction to the church is not the corporate meeting, but smaller meetings within the larger community.


Not having a building creates a place for people to serve.


For a few years, I’ve helped with a team of volunteers who show up to the school building a couple hours ahead of time to set up.  We’ve found ourselves becoming a mini-community, going to breakfast every week after set up.  I’ve made friends that I otherwise may not have made.  When you don’t have a building, it makes it harder for your members to see things that need to be done as “someone else’s job.”  They know that it’s their job to rally together to get things done.


I want to make two suggestions that follow up on these things.


If you are a church that centers on Sunday and mid-week meetings, you will have a much harder time.


You’ll notice that my observations above assume that the church is meeting throughout the week in smaller groups.  But, many churches do not do this; they rely on Sunday and mid-week meetings (often Wednesday) in their sanctuary as their dominant times of ministry.  If your church is one of these churches, but you do not have a building, you will struggle.  (Of course, I would recommend that even if you have a building, you ought to rely more on weekly small group meetings in homes, but that’s another post for another day.) 


Don’t let not having a building hinder you.


You don’t need a building to advance the kingdom.  Even without a building, you can train and send missionaries, plant other churches, hold missions conferences, and so on.  There isn’t any reason you can’t help the poor and needy in your community.  In fact, not having a building might help because it forces you to go to them, rather than wait for them to come to you.  My point: if you’re ministry relies completely on your building, you may need to rethink how you do ministry. 


So there are some of my thoughts.  I may have given the impression that having a building is a disadvantage, but I don’t necessarily feel that way.  There are advantages to having your own building, and maybe someday I’ll get around to posting those thoughts (but don’t count on it).  Also, I’ll repeat what I said above- I realize that all of these things I’ve talked about can happen in churches that have their own building.  In fact, I hope they do happen.  If that is your church, then don’t move.  Ever.


Please feel free leave your thoughts on this matter, we’d love to hear what you think.

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