Steps To Renewal
We have identified several areas in church practice where adjustments could benefit the denomination and the church community as well. Some reading this material aren’t in a position to make any of these adjustments. However, no matter how far removed you may feel in terms of influence, that shouldn’t stop you from discussing concerns with others. While it may not be an easy road to travel, just remember how small the church was in the book of Acts. As it has turned out, time was on their side. You can help recreate that kind of momentum.
- We have recalled that Jesus stirred up opposition when he challenged the prevailing traditions of his time. Those traditions had been planted and cultivated for hundreds of years. Many advocates were well meaning and devout people. We came across two of them, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. They eventually came to see and believe that in Jesus Christ, God was unveiling his ultimate message to humankind. God was sending his Son to die for mankind’s redemption and be raised from the dead to certify that act. And when they saw Jesus, they understood they were looking at God. Nothing more was needed to confirm that God had spoken.
Even so, Jesus’ disciples were not easy to teach and train. Jesus traveled and taught them for over three years. It was not until they neared the end of his time with them that they finally “got it.” So it may still take time. A good model for us is Philip, perhaps his longest serving student, who remarked to Jesus a short time before his trial and crucifixion:
“Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. (John 14:8-10)
- The Lectionary’s used by Liturgical churches encourages sermons and homilies from all parts of the Bible. Jesus himself taught his disciples that the Holy Spirit would personally guide them into further truth as well as remind them of what he had spoken to them. It would be more than the narrative of his life on earth. Jesus’ conflict was never with Scripture—it had to do with traditions that had become like chains of servitude rather than doors to deliverance and freedom. And what did he say about truth?
Jesus said this work of emancipation would be carried out through the “Spirit of truth.” To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31, 32) Then later, Jesus promised them:
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John 16:12, 13).
- One of the elements of the spreading, 1st Century church was meeting in homes—in “small groups” if you will. This was just a duplication of what Jesus modeled for his disciples—sending them out two by two, being invited into people’s homes as was his own custom. There would be acceptance as well as rejection of them and their message. Yes, Jesus also preached to large crowds, such as the feeding of thousands on several occasions.
As we look into the apostles’ preaching after Pentecost, this is the picture that emerges: the apostles were meeting regularly in homes with small groups. Notice the subject: The apostles’ teaching—much of which you hold in your hand when you pick up a Bible.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42, 43, 46, 47)
- The image of a small group of people meeting with a mature follower of Jesus guiding them is filled with the essential dynamics of a growing and glowing church. Conversation has to be a crucial part of the reason for growth. Conversations were taking place all around Jerusalem. Had to be lots of rumors in the neighborhoods about groups of supportive, kind and generous people—that was inviting to many during that time of cruel occupation by the Romans.
We know this got public attention—even the religious leaders. We find one result in Acts 8:1: On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem. As persecution sprang up, the church continued to grow in size and influence. The church expanded largely because of the personal dynamics within small groups. Seems counter-intuitive in our day of large crowd emphasis, but even today groups of Christians all over the world are regularly demonstrating that principle!
- One of the most significant and overlooked features of Jesus’ preaching and teaching was his training and development of “regular” people. Jesus selected a group of untrained, unlettered individuals (including women) to be the “shock troops” for his new kind of army. There didn’t seem to be any “command” material among this group of professional fishermen, tax collectors and easily frightened followers. There were some exceptions that we have noted, but they were not part of Jesus’ inner circle.
How did Jesus do it? He took the time to train them.
They were given responsibilities and then endowed with spiritual gifts by the Holy Spirit. That gifting was not just a onetime event for the early church. The needs and the gifts of the Spirit to enable the completion of the tasks are still part of God’s plan for the church. The church’s mission and methods must reflect God’s purposes—not our own. As Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 7, Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. In that brief statement you find requirements of purpose and direction that God expects.
Regardless, the Christian church today is entering a period with diminishing resources. Just routine maintenance of buildings, etc., is chewing into available cash. Some denominations are facing the retirement of large numbers of their clergy. Yet, sitting in the pew each Sunday are people who could be trained for ministry. Attending a Presbyterian church, I was astounded to hear a review from “yesteryear” when they had 200 trained Sunday School teachers. Wow! And Amen! But that was 50 years ago!
In some Episcopal churches, many in the parish who are not part of the clergy participate in the reading of Scripture, in the prayers of the people, and even preaching that is sometimes restricted in some churches to the clergy. That is a welcome and wholesome development that needs to be encouraged.
Every church should have an intentional training and preparation plan for members that includes participation in the public worship services. That is how to uncover those with “hidden” skills sitting in the pews—and they need to be brought into a development environment sponsored within the church itself. If you want to read the great classic on the “Jesus’ model” of disciple development, there is none better than one written in the 1800’s by A. B. Bruce: The Training of The Twelve.
- “What We Need Is Involvement” (with apologies to A Charlie Brown Christmas). Most people with interest in Christmas have, at one time or another, watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” That famous line about “involvement” came from Lucy in her “psychiatrist” booth. Charlie Brown was seeking professional help to dispel his depression right in the middle of the Christmas season. Active involvement, Dr. Lucy advised, will get you over your depressed feelings.
Let’s tie participation in with financial support (giving) in Liturgical churches. Lucy’s solution was to change Charlie Brown from an observer to a participant. Being a moving part rather than a bystander would transform his perspective. He now had ownership in the enterprise and he became a leader.
Jesus took ordinary people and trained them. He then gave them amazing authority to carry out the mission of the “church.” And what became their giving pattern? We know that a number of them, beginning with deacon Stephen, gave up their lives. But before that, the work of evangelism and spreading the message of his love had already consumed their possessions and their private agendas. With that kind of “involvement,” giving was not a problem.
With giving averages in the denominations we are looking at hovering around 2% of income, perhaps a look at what “ministry” can be done by “regular people” (with training) is in order. It may eventually require transferring some paid staff to other responsibilities. It could even result in an added financial bonus by following the example that Jesus and the apostles set.
- Getting Started and a Model from Scripture is where we will begin. The picture that is in front of us may appear rather bleak. We have looked at data from a segment of the Christian church that is in decline if measured by normal indicators of organizational health. One might consider these indicators as “false reads” because other markers, more difficult to quantify, may show otherwise. Maybe.
At a meeting of upper-level church officials, the leader of one denomination declared that with their now lean and trim form, they were ready for rapid growth and advancement. That was some five years ago and more recent statistics show continued decline. They are still searching. It seems they keep on doing the same things, but are expecting different results.
The Apostle Paul was without doubt the greatest church planter the Christian faith ever developed. He was faced with incredible odds and opposition, but he prevailed. In his efforts, he even wrote an Epistle to a group of Christians that he had never met. They were in a large pagan city, facing obstacles that seemed impossible. Over half the people in that city were slaves—peoples conquered in war and brought to the capitol to make life easy for its citizens.
Perhaps this Christian fellowship felt they were in a hole. They needed encouragement. So at the end of his writing to these believers in Rome, he offered some suggestions. First you will see that the Apostle wanted them to stick together—to support each other. Then he adds some important teaching:
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. (Romans 15:1-4)
We read these verses before in a different context. But look again at what he wants them to experience: endurance, encouragement and hope! Is it possible those are precisely the need you and your church are feeling today? This great church builder has given us a guidepost, a map if you will, to climb out of holes of despair we may find ourselves in today.
Without preaching a sermon, Paul holds up Jesus as an example of a servant and burden bearer. Very importantly, he also points for us to look into the Scriptures—the Old Testament. You recall that the gospels and most of the epistles were not yet written. It was much later they were codified into what is the New Testament.
For this segment, we will also bring Israel’s experience into focus. They had their difficulties, but they made it through when they followed what was written in the book of the law. In a similar manner, Paul’s words of advice can lead us to be the church for the generation of our time.
From the Old Testament, King Josiah, more than any other ruler of Israel, provides a blueprint for our thinking. His was the same pattern seen in the work of Nehemiah, chapters 8, 9, 10 and 11. The events of King Josiah’s reign are found in II Chronicles 34 and II Kings 22. He had become king of Judah at 8 years of age when his father, King Amon, was assassinated by his own officers.
As you can see, things were out of control. In addition, idol worship was rampant throughout the kingdom. This first Scripture selection from II Kings chapter 22:8-13, explains what happened as they were cleaning up the Temple on King Josiah’s orders.
8 Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it. 9 Then Shaphan the secretary went to the king and reported to him: “Your officials have paid out the money that was in the temple of the Lord and have entrusted it to the workers and supervisors at the temple.” 10 Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.
11 When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. 12 He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: 13 “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”
What jups out right away is that on getting the Book of the Law from Hilkiah the high priest, Shaphan, the king’s secretary knew what to do: he read the Law. He then took the Book to the King and read portions of it to him. King Josiah also knew what to do: seeing the discrepancy between the Law and the behavior of the people, he tore his robes (a sign of sorrow and grief), and asked the leaders of his kingdom to inquire of the Lord what further they should do.
He, as the King of Israel, knew that God had spoken and what God had said was being ignored. He was in the position to correct that: he set in motion a series of actions, taking Judah from a position of weakness, disobedience and disfavor with God to restoration of worship as it should be. His court officials went to Huldah, the Prophetess, to get confirmation for what King Josiah was doing (See 22:15-19).
King Josiah wasn’t through. He took actions that can be applied as a template for any church or group wanting to turn things around. Our mission is spiritual in nature and it requires purpose and direction from Scripture. The King took the first steps to covenant with God, showing the way to his appointed leaders to do the same. From there, he followed up with the entire nation, including parts of the Northern Kingdom that were under his control.
1 Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. 2 He went up to the temple of the Lord with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets—all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the Lord. 3 The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant. (II Kings 23:1-3)
Any church, priest, pastor, bishop or spiritual leader can understand and follow this pattern. It begins by recognizing that God has spoken and that we as members of his Kingdom have confidence in what he has said. King Josiah used the book of the law as the straight edge against the practices into which his kingdom had fallen. Regardless of what rational had been put forward earlier to “adjust” those standards, he was courageous enough to return to God’s pattern. And during his reign, God rewarded King Josiah.
Notice as well, that while he called together his people beginning with his own counselors, he first took the step of committing himself to obedience to God’s laws. Little use, of course, of expecting others to travel where leaders refuse to go. Read again that final sentence, “Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant.” It was a personal commitment by everyone as it should also be today.
Read the next chapter, II Kings 23, to see how Josiah followed through with his plan. It was total commitment to the revelation they had. In today’s world where just about anything goes, people are looking for genuine commitment to what is permanent. God himself provided that for us. It is our opportunity to put God to the test by following through with was he has said.
Most importantly for us, just get started. Select some area that can be done without a major problem—perhaps something you can do on your own. People have gotten into the traditional habits because of teaching they have received. Gently bring them back into ways you see will revitalize your congregation, using time, teaching and example. Remember the route Jesus took with his disciples over a three-year span. Trying an overnight fix probably won’t work.
8. Setting our sights on the right horizon.
Maybe you can’t see the way you should travel through the labyrinth of church rules and the magnet of culture. There is a certain way to arrive at your desired destination: keep your eye on God’s horizon. Look at Jesus as he traveled to Jerusalem during his last weeks on earth. Yes, he knew what was going to happen on that Friday we call good. But he knew that Sunday was coming. Resurrection was waiting after the trial and passion he would go through.
Just days before that Friday, Jesus knew the disciples were apprehensive—they saw bad things behind the storm clouds in the distance. Nonetheless, Jesus looked past the obvious. Beyond the trial and crucifixion, his eye pierced through to the horizon of resurrection. He had to direct them to the ultimate goal that lay ahead. He reminded his disciples where God’s plan from eternity was headed. That is the perspective that needs to be seen in our time.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:1-4)
While we will not have “peace in our time,” we have the unique opportunity to introduce people to the Prince of Peace. He is preparing an eternal home for us. Since we are headed there, we can devote our full energies towards that horizon. It is worthy of our best efforts.