Beware the Love of Missions

Walking away from churchLast month I wrote an article challenging the increasingly popular statement, ‘I identify as a Christian but not a churchgoer.’ Numerous reasons are given for that sentiment, with people claiming: ‘The church hurt me,’ ‘Most Christians are too judgmental,’ and ‘I don’t need the church to have a relationship with God.’ In my article I argued that such a view of the Christian life – regardless of your reasoning – is disobedience to Jesus and discordant with the gospel. Theologian Millard Erickson wrote, “Christianity is a corporate matter, and the Christian life can be fully realized only in relationship to others.” The Christian life is inseparable from and unsustainable without Christian community. In this short post I my challenge is not as much to those with an anaemic understanding of the local church but an ungodly attitude towards it, which is hidden behind the pious veil of a love for missionaries.

In my previous post I made the point – Paul’s from Ephesians 2 – that as we are brought to Christ we are inevitably joined to other believers, becoming mutually committed to one other’s faith and spiritual maturity. The decision to withdraw from the local church is therefore the decision to withhold my God-given gifts from other Christians. Obviously, you can still be a part of the local church and contribute nothing to the lives of others; one of the ways to do this, without losing face, is to express a passion for missions. It is after all much easier to love those who are far away, in word (and rarely in deed). You might even pray for missionaries, give financially to their organisations, and insist that the local church remembers those in the field – all worthy efforts – yet overlook the Christians right in front of you.

Please do not hear what I am not saying. The local church must zealously support the work of missionaries; as John Piper says, Christians can either send or go but they cannot be indifferent to missions. That means our churches must be committed to training and sending missionaries (and church planters) or continually giving towards mission. However, I agree with Mark Dever, in What is a Healthy Church?, when he says it is impossible for us to love the church universal without first loving the church local and visible. He writes this, “If your goal is to love all Christians, let me suggest working toward it by first committing to a concrete group of real Christians with all their foibles and follies. Commit to them through thick and thin for eighty years. Then come back and we’ll talk about your progress in loving all Christians everywhere.”

Old people in churchWhat prompted me to write this post was the confusing paradox I have witnessed in some Christians: apathy to the point of spiritual abandonment of the local church alongside a fervency for the missionaries supported by our local church. How can this be? One of the answers is, in my opinion: in practice it takes less effort and personal investment to be committed to the work of missionaries than working in the local church. I fear that some (definitely not all) who pour themselves out for missions might in fact use that as a smokescreen for their unwillingness to get into the trenches. After all, a passion for missions is admirable and desirable, not to mention desperately lacking in most local churches. Therefore we must gratefully receive those with a concern for missionaries, but not if their love of missions is not coupled with a commitment to the life of the local church.

Dever writes, quite probingly, ”Committing to a local body…confirms what Christ has done. If you have no interest in actually committing yourself to an actual [local church], you might question whether you belong to the body of Christ at all.” Though typically sensational, Dever makes a challenging point as we conclude. Jesus insisted on perceptible and palpable love amongst his disciples, calling us to imitate his selfless and self-giving love (John 13:34; 14:15; 15:12), by which the world will know we are his disciples (13:35). Surely such love must begin at the local church.

Rainbows Everywhere

Rainbow flagOf late, everyone on the interwebs has something to say about rainbows. All the major tech companies that run our lives and enable us to communicate have done something and millions of us have have leapt onto the band wagon in our various digital incarnations. I decided pretty quickly that I shouldn’t say anything. “My thoughts are half-formed,” I reasoned, “my mind is too easily swayed,” and what’s more, “how Christianity functions in a post-Christian pluralistic society is too complex to reduce into a blog post, let alone 140 characters.”

But I’ve realised that that’s the wrong response so this is my whole-hearted attempt to speak to an issue that demands the whole of our hearts.

The reality of the rainbow

friendsThe reality is that homosexuality is not something that we can address like global warming or terrorism. It is not impersonal and it is not distant or detached from our day to day lives. Unforutnately it’s also not something that is helped by most of our responses; jokes, trite sayings and fear or anger.

As we each consider the sins that most plague us, there is no doubt that shame and remorse are evoked. When that sin is attached to our identity, “adulterer,” “liar,” “gossip” these feelings are even more pronounced. I cannot imagine a way to read the Bible and argue that homosexual practice is okay with God but let’s be fair; the Bible doesn’t justify any of the sins resident in my heart. I am the biggest sinner I know and I’m ashamed to say it.

The truth of the rainbow

I have nowhere to hide my sin and homosexuality is no different. Before God, the US Supreme Court can send a delegation of their finest lawyers and every tongue will hang in silence. So politics will not protect us from the judgement of God. That’s something a lot of Christians seem to think we should remember at this point but let’s not forget that legalism, theological acumen and erudition and, yes, even “being loving” won’t protect us from God either.

noahs ark people drowningThere is a story about a rainbow and a promise in the Bible that is preceded by the most violently destructive event the world has ever known. The flood was God’s response to a sinful world. It was his response to people who lived in rebellion against him. The truth behind the rainbow at the end of that story is that God judges sin whether he’s given you the ten commandments or your conscience or two thousand years of Christian witness. We answer to him and he doesn’t take sin lightly.

The promise of the rainbow

In spite of human sin, after the flood God points to the rainbow and promises never again to flood the world. In other words, from this point on there will be no interim judgement: we await only God’s final judgement.

To my homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ I say, let’s fight the good fight together: I’ll encourage you to fight your desires that are in rebellion against the rule of God and I pray that you will do the same for me.

To those who practice homosexuality, I say what I say to the Athenians in ancient Greece, to the South Africans in 21st century Pietermaritzburg and to everyone in between:

God now commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

I don’t know what I would do if I ran the world. However, I do know that homosexual practice is sinful and I do know that, along with all those who take advantage of laws allowing gay marriage, I will stand before a holy God in shame. The rainbows I keep seeing remind me that God is patient but certainly not that he will tolerate our rebellion.

Can I be a Christian but not a Churchgoer?

Old empty churchI recently read an article by a Christian blogger, Wendy van Eyck, explaining why she identifies as a Christian but not a churchgoer. This is not the first time I have encountered this statement and others like it. Despite the linked author’s voiced anxieties over insensitive responses, I felt I had to write this post as more and more Christians are viewing the local church as an optional extra for the Christian life. I fear for Christians belonging to the subculture that self-labels itself ‘post-church’ and I believe that this shift reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel and God’s purposes in the world today. The church is a display of God’s wisdom (Ephesians 3:10), to bring him glory (3:21), but this is only accomplished when people are united by the gospel and their pursuit of a mature faith. So in this post I will offer a few caveats, interacting with the linked post, before arguing that Christians must belong to a local body, for their own Christian walk and the health of the church.

A few caveats

Wendy writes, “Jesus is still the most dear and precious thing in my life.” This is a wonderful assertion, and all Christians should resolve to adore Jesus and consider him more valuable than anything we possess or desire. Unfortunately, while the author professes that Jesus is most dear to her, I think she has failed to recognise what is most dear to Jesus, namely, the church he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Wendy also writes “Jesus plus nothing is the only math I need.” This too is a delightful, if not a little misleading, statement. Tullian Tchividjian recently wrote Jesus + Nothing = Everything, picking up Paul’s mantle in Galatians to remind us that Christ’s work is sufficient for salvation. But I would like to point out another sum in Paul’s writing: the blood of Christ has brought those who were far off near and in the gospel God has made two into one (Ephesians 2:13-14). Towards the close of her article, Wendy writes, “I just want you to feel free to live in such a way that daily you find yourself being pulled into an embrace by God, that you find yourself so close to him surgeons would have a hard time cutting you apart.” Once again, the picture painted is evocative, a great thing to pray for others – indeed, Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1) – “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (5:13), “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, especially those who are of the household of God” (6:10). It is a grave mistakes to detach individual salvation from God’s work in the world, reducing it to something private and unrelated to God’s people. And I hope to convince you of that below.

1. God saves us to belong to a local church

Agape feastPeter writes, in 1 Peter 2:4-5, ‘As we come to Christ we are built together as living stones into a spiritual house,’ with the language of priesthood (2:5, 9) being implicit of ministering to each other. Mark Dever, who has written extensively on the church, argues this point convincingly in What is a Healthy Church?, “Never does the New Testament conceive of the Christian existing on a prolonged basis outside the fellowship of the church.” Dever adds, drawing on Ephesians 2:11-22, that being committed to a local body is the most natural outcome of being a Christian because it confirms what Christ has done. I would add that committing to the lives of other Christians is also indicative of how Christ has treated us. Dever claims, with even more force, that in respecting the New Testament it is impossible to answer the question, ‘What is a Christian?’ without ending up in a conversation about the church. The pattern reflected in Scripture is of God drawing people to himself and in doing so establishing new and unlooked for relationships amongst his people. This result is not arbitrary, but purposed by God so that we will minister to each other and receive the ministry of others. Without other Christians in your life, many whom who would not have chosen, but God has, you will bury the gifts (or “talents”, Matthew 25:28) that God has given you and cut yourself off from the abundant blessings of belonging to a local church.

2. Christians need the church

In his short, must read, The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller writes, “Many people who are spiritually searching have had bad experiences with churches. So they want nothing further to do with them. They are interested in a relationship with God, but not if they have to be part of an organization.” He admits that churches can be unpleasant – indeed essential to his work is the critique of judgmental, inhospitable, and self-righteous Christians, or “elder brothers” – but Keller firmly states, “There is no way you will be able to grow spiritually apart from a deep involvement in a community of other believers. You can’t live the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place…Only if you are part of a community of believers seeking to resemble, serve, and love Jesus will you ever get to know him and grow into his likeness.” Not only is the Christian life incomplete without the community of a local church, it is also dangerously lacking in accountability, loving correction, and challenging aspects of our faith raised by those who are different to us. I am sure that Gentile Christians were tempted to quit the predominantly Jewish churches of the 1st century, yet Paul wrote, ‘You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, a holy temple’ (Ephesians 2:19-21). Whichever analogy from the New Testament you favour regarding the church – from body to family to building – God unequivocally states that we are joined together as local churches, and that our growth and faith will be stunted outside of the church.

3. The church needs Christians

CCUOne of the grey tops in my church recently said to me, ‘If everyone came forward with their gifts in local church we would have all we need.’ Now, you may partly disagree with that wise saint, and I am not sure the church will be fully functioning and healthy this side of heaven, but her point is worth considering. In Ephesians 4:11-12, we read that God gifts the local church with speaking and teaching offices so that the whole church is equipped for ministry, to serve each other. When I decide that I can no longer be part of a local church for fear of not fitting in or further hurt I make the conscious decision to withhold my gifts, ministry and service from other Christians; basically, I am putting my comfort ahead of others. This seems contrary to the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). Commenting on both the Pauline epistles and Hebrews (see 3:12-15; 10:24-25), David Peterson writes in Engaging God, “There is an emphasis on gathering for the benefit of the believing community…The giving and receiving of exhortation is undoubtedly a key factor…of the Christian assembly.” He goes on to argue the obvious: we cannot forsake the local gathering of believers, as many professing Christians do. Christians exist for the benefit of other Christians and the growth of the local church. Peterson then concludes, “Christians ought to gather together regularly to give in ministry, and not simply to receive.” Those cruising as comfortable passengers within the church along with those who have already jumped ship need to be reminded that the church needs them and their service if it is to make headway.

Conclusion

Presbyterian pastor, Philip Ryken asks in The Church, “How could anyone be ambivalent about the church? Its sin notwithstanding, and in spite of all the people we find hard to love, the church is the holy people of God.” Surely there is nothing more important for us to give ourselves in service of, even in suffering for, than the church that Christ purchased with his own blood. Our decision to belong to a local church cannot be dependant on what it does for us and how safe we feel, rather we should model our lives on Christ who made himself nothing and became a servant (Philippians 2:6-8). Self-preservation over the wellbeing of the local church is not how Jesus lived, in fact the cross demonstrates the polar opposite, therefore it is not something I imagine he would endorse.

Doodle: Blogs, Theology, and Woolworths

Woolworths FoodThere are hundreds of thousands of Christian blogs out there, reflecting the wonderfully broad spectrum of our faith; you are reading one of those right now. With the advent of the digital age more Christians from across the globe are able to share the truth in love, engage in meaningful conversation, pursue theological enquiry to the praise of our God, and encourage one another to persevere – well, that is at least how Christian blogging could be done. But with the overwhelming number of options available where should we start, which blogs should you frequent (apart from Rekindle)?

Before answering that question I would like to speak about Woolworths, with the hope that its significance to our question above will become apparent. Woolworths Food has revolutionised the middle class South African’s kitchen, mostly in demanding more fridge/freezer storage and less counter space for preparation; “Eat in for under R150,” “Heat and eat in less than 20 minutes,” and “Organic” cry out from the aisles of our local Woolies, adulating their lord and ours: convenience. As you can tell, I have enjoyed my fare share of Woolworths’ food and will unashamedly continue to do so. But it is undeniable that convenience has supplanted cooking, and by cooking I mean more than heating the oven to 180˚C while you defrost a readymade lasagne in the sink. Preparing meals from recipes and working with raw ingredients is a dying art in many homes, though my numerous attempts at actually cooking – with varied degrees of success – have nearly always resulted in something tastier than what I get out of a container. And though we hate to admit it, we know that culinary effort does not only produce better meals but much healthier dishes too.

ReadingBut what does that have to do with blog posts, or theology for that matter? Am I going to answer the question from our first paragraph, listing recommended theological blogs? No. I want to make another point: blogs are indicative of our bondage to convenience and resistance to putting the time or energy into thinking about theology. What you can find on blogs, is not that dissimilar from the aisles of Woolworths: already packed and par-cooked thoughts; microwavable musings; and Calvin’s entire theology in 5 simple points. Do not mishear me. Please keep reading Christian blogs (especially Rekindle). But do not leave all of your engagement and interaction with deep, rich theology to someone else that will neatly pack it for you online, replete with eye-catching images. Do some hard work, delve into doctrinal ideas, tackle theological tomes, and invest intellectually in reaching your own conclusions. Sure, sometimes you will have to grab something off the shelf and gobble it down. But that cannot be your staple: it is unhealthy, lazy, and the opposite of thoughtful Christian discipline.

Three Ways to Encourage Prophecy in Church Gatherings

Passive worship

Two weeks ago I posted arguing that many Christians have lost the biblical and benefical role of prophecy in the life of the local church. In that post I did not set out to challenge the abuses of prophecy in Charismatic traditions but to address its absense in my own Anglican tradition, and no doubt in the broader Reformed church. It is ironic to belong to a tradition that firmly opposed Medieval Catholicism – with its over-distinction between lay people and church leaders, amongst other errors – unwittingly falls into similar traps today, restricting public speaking ministries to the theologically trained. I wonder if part of the reason for this is that our engagement with 1 Corinthians 14 does not go deeper than using it as a proof-text against the misuse of tongues and to highlight the importance of intelligible worship. Interestingly, Paul writes that prophecy is not only prefered to tongues (14:2-3, 19), but should be practised in the local church (14:5, 24), for it is a desirable gift (14:1).

A note on the word ‘prophecy’

Before getting onto our three points below, a brief discussion about the word ‘prophecy’ is necessary. Robert Doyle, one of my lecturers at college, described words as suitcases that can have their contents changed over time. Unfortunately, the word ‘prophecy’ has been crammed full of misplaced and misfitted clothing, or concepts. If you ask a non-Christian what it means to prophesy they will most probably answer, ‘Predicting the future.’ Many Christians will, I fear, give a similar answer. But that sort of prophecy is very infrequent in Scripture; in fact, most of the Old Testament prophets merely warned Israel about the outcomes of improper worship, hard-heartedness, and idolatry, which they were well aware of in the Pentateuch. This has led many, such as Tremper Longman III, to name Old Testament prophets “covenant enforcers” and resist the common misconception ‘fortune tellers.’ As I wrote in my previous post, when we arrive in the first century the authoritative prophetic office is replaced by the apostles appointed by Jesus (John 16:12-15); so our task requires us careful study of the New Testament’s teaching on prophetic ministry, which avoids both loading it with an unbiblical emphasis on supernatural foresight and tying it too closely to the Old Testament office and authority. Therefore, instead of shying away from the word ‘prophecy,’ we should repack it with its biblical content.

Three pointers for rediscovering and practising prophecy

1. Create the culture

FCA_Meeting_-_MainThis must be where we start for we have created a church culture, compounded by our Anglican tradition, that encourages “spectator worship” (Grudem) and limits congregational input to responses scripted by our liturgy. Few of us understand church gatherings as meetings where we can be actively involved in the edification and encouragement of others (1 Corinthians 14:3), even the conversion of non-believers (14:24-25). I quoted John Frame in my previous post, and it is worth highlighting his point again, “We should go to church to do something: to bring praise to God and to minister to one another.” In creating this culture, of active involvement in corporate worship, we must rid ourselves of the present culture that has an almost entirely passive attitude towards church gatherings. We must cultivate the understanding that we can contribute to one another in profound and Spirit empowered ways: speaking words of encouragement, issuing challenges, and applying the gospel to specific needs and circumstances. Sermons and the subsequent conversations about them will not suffice to mature believers and grow the body. We must create the culture where each person is ready to speak the truth in love and thus join and hold the body together, with each part working properly (Ephesians 4:15-16).

2. Plan “celebration slots”
One of the ways to create the above culture is to invite congregants to share prepared reflections and testimonies at designated times in your service. This will encourage people as they hear how God has been working in the lives of others. In my own church we do this – though infrequently – and have had people share their conversion story, how God has been convicting them through the preached word, something they have been reading that they would like to challenge the church with, an aspect of God’s goodness they are praising him for, or a major shift in their understanding that they want others to hear. In my previous post I suggested that our church gatherings should be slightly more ‘democratic’; planning celebration slots and calling God’s people to pray in response shows that churches are not run by a ‘dictator’ but are in fact a group of pilgrims making their way forward together. This will not only help create the culture of sharing, ministerial worship, and offering encouragement but forms an important step towards my final point.

3. Allow unplanned sharing

TestimonyUnfortunately called “us and us,” whatever that means, here I am not referring to three minutes in your service where you stand up and “greet each other in the name of the Lord,” prompting terrified visitors to break out in a cold sweat, shut their eyes, and (miraculously) pray that no one comes over. What I am calling for is an informal time allocated in church gatherings where people are invited to share spontaneously how God has been at work in their lives. To risk sounding harsh, I think that if you ask a Christian how God has been at work or what they are grateful for at that moment then they should have an answer ready. I say that because Jesus taught, ‘The branch attached to me will bear fruit’ (John 15:5). Christians understand themselves as those whom God has made alive, ‘springs of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14). Christians cannot be dried up branches or stagnant pools but should be pictures of abounding life, so that when asked how God is at work their minds will be aflood with causes for celebration. It is this spontaneous sharing that – in my mind – comes closest to what Paul is writing about in 1 Corinthians 14.

Conclusion and challenge

We have a challenge before us. The word ‘prophecy’ is embattled. Our church culture suppresses spontaneity and sharing. Platforms for congregants to publically celebrate God’s work are in short supply. We are fearful of opening up the floor and well aware of the abuses of prophecy. But we must begin, as I have set out, to address those challenges and concerns in our local church gatherings and rediscover a place for prophecy.

Why the Rainbow Nation is Good for the Gospel

The Rainbow Nation BridgeThere are plenty of things that can be said in favour of our Rainbow Nation here in South Africa and I don’t think what you are about to read is even most poignant. What I would like to focus on does, however, cut to the heart of the sacred/secular divide that Western culture seems bent on inflicting on our societies.

Why The Rainbow?

Let’s consider, for a moment, the intent behind calling ourselves a “Rainbow Nation”. Desmond Tutu is credited with the term which “intended to encapsulate the unity of multi-culturalism and the coming-together of people of many different nations, in a country once identified with the strict division of white and black” (thanks wikipedia).

The significance is partly in what it does not mean: we are not a group of people that come together and lose our diversity and multi-culturalism. When I had the misfortune of attempting to mix paints, irrespective of my objective, I somehow always managed to produce an unusable colour I affectionately remember as “vomit brown”. This kind of mix into a homogenous mass is not what it means to be a rainbow nation. We retain our colours, cultures and creeds and we find a way to live with all those in harmony.

Vomit Brown PaintIn America, diversity becomes vomit brown – everyone wants in on the American dream and so the diversity that once existed is slowly eroded as everyone succumbs to the demands of the dream or is crushed under its weight. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that America wants a secular public sphere – what better way to harmonise our differences than deny them and pretend none of us have any convictions at all?

In an article I read recently Richard Neuhaus is remembered as “almost single-handedly” challenging that idea – the idea to reduce “religious belief to private worship”. In essence he argued,

Separation of church and state could never mean the separation of religion from public life. The most deeply held beliefs and values of American citizens could not and should not be quarantined from the life of the contemporary polis.

That sounds great but in America it has been far from successful. The lack of success is because diversity in America means anyone can come but you have to conform. In South Africa, however, when secularism raises its vomit-brown head, we can cry “rainbow nation” – a term that means my Christianity is an essential part of my identity and not something I will cover up when in public like some embarassing tattoo.

Colourful FaceThe “Rainbow Nation” means we have to learn to live with each other – a potentially perilous task – but it also means that my convictions don’t have to be swallowed up into the amorphous mass of cultural uncertainty; they are colour in the rainbow. More importantly, rather than being a mere band of colour passively reflecting the light thrown onto us, Christians wearing their Christianity in public are themselves light in a dark world. This Rainbow Nation opens the door to light, hopefully as Christians we will not forego the opportunity to shine.