7. What It’s Going To Take –
THE SERENDIPITOUS CHURCH
In recent times the Church (I use Church when referring to the universal/worldwide
Church, and the word church when referring to a local church) has come under intense scrutiny and condemnation for its various scandals involving sexual abuses and financial misappropriations. To make matters worse, rather than the Church’s prophets leading the condemnation, it has largely fallen to secular agencies such as the media and the justice system to highlight these atrocious misrepresentations of Christ. And to make matters even worst, the Church has too often denied its guilt and defended those responsible. Is it wonder now that the Church is held in such contempt by mainstream culture? Is anyone actually surprised at the failure of what many church leaders were arguing for (the sanctity of marriage with time-honoured arguments) against such aberrations of marriage, such as ‘same-sex marriage’ or ‘polygamous marriage’, when other church leaders were divorcing their wives or being exposed as adulterers? Is there any hope for the Church to become who Christ died to build? Yes.
So that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
THE BODY OF CHRIST
For all its shortcomings, the Church is still the body of Christ, His bride! It is estimated that there are around two billion people around the word who identify as Christians. The fact that many, and perhaps its – most, of these people do not understand the Christianity they profess only reinforces the need for the churches to nurture, teach, and train these people. In this sense, there is an urgent need for a revival of sorts where those who profess to be Christians are truly converted to Christ!
The body of Christ comes in a many varieties and shapes. Over the past century with increasing urbanisation of the globe where the populations of cities have increased dramatically, there has arisen a new church trend known as the mega-churches. A mega-church is defined as a church with “a sustained average weekly attendance of 2,000 persons or more in its worship services, counting all adults and children at all its worship locations” (Hartford Institute for Religion Research, http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/definition.html). In the USA, the average mega-church attendance is 3696 people over a weekend. In 1990, the USA had 350 mega-churches. By the year 2000, there were 600 mega-churches. By 2015 there were 1650 mega-churches. The largest mega-church in ’America averages 60,000 attendees a weekend. (For a list of the world’s largest mega-churches go to research of Dr. Warren Bird.)
Curiously, with the phenomenal rise of mega-churches, the average number of Americans attending church generally has dropped dramatically over the same 40 years. According to churchleaders.com, there were around 39% of Americans attending church at least 3 Sundays out of 8 around 40 years ago – whereas by 2018, there were only 18% of Americans attending church at the same rate. With the rise of mega-churches there has generally been the demise of existing smaller nearby churches (which helps to also explain the dramatic increase in attendance of mega-churches). Yet, in smaller, more rural, areas, local churches are often surprisingly still quite healthy.
How will the body of Christ look into the future? This depends almost entirely on one factor…
IT STARTS WITH A CHURCH’S PASTORAL LEADERSHIP
The one common trait of all growing churches, whether they be a city mega-church, or a country church, is the calibre of its leadership. It doesn’t matter if the leader is full-time, part-time, or bi-vocational. It doesn’t particularly matter if they are seminary trained or not. What matters is their competence, resilience, passion (Rom. 12:11), giftedness, and determination. Consider the Apostle Paul. There were times when he was full-time (enabled by the missions support of other churches, Phil. 4:14-15, 1Cor. 9:6) and other times when he was bi-vocational (when he served as a tent-maker to support his apostolic ministry, Acts 18:3; 1Cor. 4:12). What made Paul, and the churches he planted, successful, was that he focussed on Christ (Phil 3:9-10) and the Word of God (1Tim. 4:13) and was led by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:13-14).
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.
Added to this, Paul understood that Christ’s Church was multi-faceted. While he evangelised to pioneer churches, he never lost sight of the need to help these churches become evangelising churches. In order for this to happen effectively, he worked at ensuring their elders and deacons were well-grounded in God’s Word and sound doctrine. He set strict guidelines for godly conduct for those in the congregations and insisted that elders and deacons were the ones who set the highest example of what this looked like.
¶ The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?
First Timothy 3:1-5
While some people teach and promote the idea that the Church only exists to evangelise, the Biblical revelation is that its existence is multi-faceted with evangelism being one of its God ordained facets. It is also called to care, console, correct, teach, train, educate, worship, prophesy, heal, pray, inspire, feed, clothe, marry, bury, to name just a few. Added to these mandates is the realisation that God calls churches into being with unique opportunities and talents for reaching a particular people or bearing witness for Christ and His Testimony in a spiritually dark place. For example, the ministry of (Nathan) Burl Cain in Angola, Louisiana (West Feliciana Parish, north of Baton Rouge). Burl was appointed as a the Warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in January 1995 and served there until 2016 (when he retired at the age of 74).
Louisiana State Penitentiary is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. Many of the inmates are serving life sentences and will never be released. A devout Christian, Cain encouraged a spiritual atmosphere in the prison to build a culture of morality and to help inmates serve their time. Under his leadership, violent incidents decreased markedly among the inmate population of more than 5,000.
Cain improved relations with the media, and allowed several documentaries to be filmed at the prison during his tenure. He said that he wanted people outside to see the lives of the men and understand them. He established positive incentives, including a television station so that all prisoners could see some programs. He supported the newsmagazine and radio. The Angola Prison Rodeo, football, and prize fights, are all filmed by TV crews. The latter two activities were started under Cain. On the other side, he worked to increase compassion, establishing a prison-run hospice program in 1997. The changes which he brought about at the prison are detailed in the 2005 book Cain’s Redemption: A Story of Hope and Transformation in America’s Bloodiest Prison by Dennis Shere. In 2008, Cain became the longest-serving warden in the history of Angola.
Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burl_Cain
The ministry of Burl Cain at Angola Prison resulted in the transformation of thousands of ‘lifers’. Eight inmate churches were planted in the prison, as well as a Theological Seminary. As with every other effective church in the world, it was the leadership of Burl Cain which God was able to use to bring about the redemption of Angola Prison.
If the Church today is to have any hope of being the agents of Christ’s hope to the world we must at least get this foundational principle for church leadership right! Sadly, there are some churches where elders and deacons are appointed because they are popular or generous rather than because they are called and qualified.
¶ Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
First Timothy 3:8-13
The pastoral leader of a church is called by God to care for those He places in their charge. They do not do this because it is a job. They do not this because they couldn’t find a better job. They do not do this because of their own psychological neediness to be needed or affirmed. They do not this because to ‘grow their ministry’. They do this because they are called by God to gather and shepherd His sheep. This involves paying a price. It means staying and standing in the face of opposition and adversity. It may mean sleeplessness, impoverishment, or poor health. And they do it gladly and willingly.
He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
A PROPHETIC CHURCH
Prophecy is not merely limited to predicting. In fact, Biblical prophecy was mostly about reminding. In our church’s 8 year journey through the book of Jeremiah I continually pointed out that Jeremiah was repeatedly reminding God’s people of God’s Word. To be sure, God used Jeremiah to foretell that the Babylonians would be God’s instrument of judgment upon them, but even this was on the basis of what Moses had already warned centuries earlier as recorded in Deuteronomy 28 (particularly verse 36). Today, we are in a very similar situation to Jeremiah where people have largely forgotten what God has long ago said. Our society is playing a very dangerous game with its various social experiments. Ironically these are being done in the name of being ‘progressive’, when in fact, it is actually regressive since several ancient civilisations did similar things which ultimately led to their overthrow and downfall.
If I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.
First Timothy 3:15
One of the most unloving things any church can do is to ignore the cultural self-harm of its society. Christians stand against sexual misconduct not only because our Creator forbids it, but also because it injures those who deceive themselves by entertaining it. Professor Nancy Pearcey powerfully makes this case in her book, Love Thy Body. For a pastoral leader of a church to remain silent while those they are called to reach, and care for, are legislating for the right to harm themselves and each other, is a violation of the second greatest commandment (Matt. 22:39).
It is not political for a pastor to criticise or oppose a government’s proposed legislative agenda. It is love. It is also their prophetic responsibility for the office to which God has called them. This is why more pastors must write to politicians and legislators expressing reasoned concerns about legislation dressed up in soft buzz words like – ‘equality’, ‘dignity’, ‘compassion’, ‘health’, ‘reproductive’, ‘justice’, ‘fairness’, and ‘right’ – which are in fact concealing a deadly and harmful poison concocted from an attempt to legitimatise: abuse, misuse, and even murder!
Too many pastors are afraid to use their pulpits to pastor their people! Congregations need pastoring when it comes to understanding God’s view of the sacredness of life, the sacredness of sexuality, the sacredness of marriage, and the sacredness of Scripture. The story of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood Clinic Director, is one marked by the tragic fact that although she was raised in a church, she never once heard abortion addressed from her church’s pulpit. Before Abby came to see firsthand what abortion truly was, she had overseen 20,000 abortions in her clinic. She is now a Pro-Life campaigner whose story became a best-selling book and more recently was depicted in the movie, Unplanned.
The fear of man lays a snare,
but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.
Recently polling in America among young Evangelicals shows that they have become less committed to the inerrancy of Scripture because in their minds it is now outdated about its views of sexuality. While this is concerning and even alarming, it is sadly not surprising when many pastors refuse to openly explain what the Bible teaches about sexual purity and why it teaches it!
But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.
A SERENDIPITOUS CHURCH
Serendipity means unexpected, surprising, fortuitous. This is exactly what I am calling the Church and each church, to be! The grace that we have for the world is exactly what it is needed by this mixed up, broken, dysfunctional world. Even though the world scorns us, as Christ said they would, we still persist in loving them and proclaiming the grace that can redeem them in the midst of their brokenness. The Church is always at its finest when it best presents the healing grace of Christ with acts of serendipity. A great example of this today is the work of Dr. Kent and Ruth Hodge in northern Nigeria, our missions partners there, who up until recently have been labouring in an extremely dangerous part of the world blighted by radical Islamists. Kent and Ruth have reached out to the Islamic leaders in the surrounding villages to their College by offering medical assistance, and vocational educational for the young people of these villages. He recently wrote-
Bringing the poorest Muslims and Christians together to form relationships, providing both with educational opportunities, vocational skills, paying school fees for destitute orphans, whose Muslim and Christian parents killed each other, helping forsaken Christian and Muslim widows… all goes a long way to breaking down enmity, atoning for community bitterness, providing hope that changes behaviour, and sharing Christ where once the door was shut. These are the kind of responses that are needed, rather than complaints about the faults of others. These are the things we and others are doing, reaching thousands, which studies and our own experiences show work. If we don’t want Christians persecuted, then this is what needs to be done.
THIS is Jesus’ response to terrorism, from any source.
A world where 1% percent of the population own 50% of the world’s wealth, wealth safely tucked away, while 10.5 million kids, just in Nigeria alone, are out of school because their damaged families can’t afford school fees, points us to the underlying issues that are at the heart of our problem. The fact that a school is cheaper to build than the cost of one bomb dropped from a drone, must say a lot about the world we live in. This must impact us.
I recently heard a professor of Philosophical Theology describe the message of the Church, as entrusted in the Gospel – the Scriptures – as, “high comedy”! I was shocked to hear such irreverence from such an eminent professor of a respected Seminary – until he explained what ‘high comedy’ was. We live in a world where the only comedy we experience is low comedy. He explained that ‘comedy’ originally meant unexpected. He went on to explain that “high comedy” meant ‘something so surprising and unexpected it was shocking‘. He declared that this was indeed what the Gospel was! The God who created us had been betrayed us, and even though He warned us what the penalty for doing this was, we defiantly resisted Him and His plea – and despite this, He gave up everything to rescue us and adopt us as His privileged children for all eternity! High comedy indeed! Serendipity indeed!
A CHURCH FOR EVERYONE
One of the most pleasing things about what God has been doing in our church lately is how He has been diversifying it. One of the challenges that all churches are facing at the moment, and we are particularly struggling with, is helping people to realise the priority Christ has placed on gathering together to worship together, to heed together, to pray together, to minister to one another, to be pastored together, to reach out together, to pool our time, talent, and treasure together, so that the whole body of Christ is built up and together makes Christ beautiful in the eyes of the world. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters, if the devil was serious about undermining the cause of Christ, the first thing he would do is to distract believers from assembling together. It will be a sure sign of the church’s battle-readiness when most of its soldiers are not AWOL and make assembling together each Sunday a sacred priority. It will be then, that the Church of the Living God may well become who Christ died to build and we may get a glimpse of heaven on earth – especially the bit mentioned in Revelation 7:9!
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