Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Building the Church

What is it that causes the church to grow or wither?  There are many churches around the world that are dying and withering with only a small handful of members. There are other churches that are booming with no space for everyone. There are many views and books written on church strategy, method and vision. I am beginning to read a few books about these things but don't yet have the experience to start talking about those things.

I have been studying Ephesians lately and have been struck by a few thoughts from what I see in the scriptures that speak to church growth. I have also been given a great impression of what the church is by the sermon that Wes Baker preached at my ordination a little over a week ago. He explained that Ephesians 4 is telling us that the unity spoken of with the church is that we are all connected to the body of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one body that we are all connected to. Pastors are called to be image bearers of Jesus specifically in their speaking of the word just as every believer is called to be an image bearer of Jesus in their living out the gospel in life. Pastors are given to the church as slaves who have been captured out of the enemies hands and given to the church as servants to do what Jesus calls us to. The church belongs to Jesus and we are given the role of being his ambassadors and representatives. The point that stands out the most to me in this is that we are united to Christ so much that it is as if Christ were there instead of us. So when I as a new pastor stand in the pulpit it is no longer me but it is Jesus up there speaking through me. But this unity in the body does not only apply to pastors. In the office of preaching and administering the sacraments, it applies to pastors. But in the role of a Christian by virtue of their baptism, all believers are united in Christ's body and when they go out into the world in their daily lives, they are no longer themselves but it is as if Christ where there living out their lives in them. We see this explained in Galatians 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." In our union with Christ, we are no longer ourselves but Christ lives in us and gives us a new life. This new life is not ours to do what we want with it, but it is Christ's to do what He wants with is. The point seems to be that the unity of the church is directly tied to our union with Christ. Since each of us are united to Christ and the church is Christ's body, we are all united to each other as the body of Christ.

Jesus seems to indicate this when he said his body is the temple in John 2:18-22. He made a reference to his own death but described his body as being a temple. Ephesians 2 says that we are being joined into His body and that we are being built together into the holy temple, a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. It is interesting that this indwelling is not talking about a personal indwelling in each individual, though that also happens, but it is talking about an indwelling in the body of Christ. The indwelling of the Spirit in the temple is an indwelling in the whole church as one body. So Paul tells us that we are actually being built into this same temple that is the body of Jesus. Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2:5 that we are the living stones built as a spiritual house. So this is not a temple made of brick and mortar. This is a temple made up of living stones which are actually individual believers. Ephesians 4 says when each part is working properly it makes the body grow so that it builds itself in love.

This is striking that our union with Christ carries a charge with it. We are called to live in a manner worthy of our calling. The church is given gifts to enable it to grow but this growth appears to be contingent on the parts working properly. I am not saying that our justification is contingent on the church working properly but that the growth of the church is contingent on the parts working properly. I think it is also accurate to say that our sanctification is contingent on the parts working properly.

Why does it so often look like the church is weak and not growing? Based on these images in scripture, if it is not being watered, fed or the parts are not working together properly it will not grow.  We are joined as members of Christ himself. We are called to be joined to him and to call others to him. He calls us to live out obedience, not to save ourselves, but because he saved us. He already redeemed us, sealed us and forgave us. Because he already did this for us he calls us to live in a way that pleases him and points others to himself. He calls us to forgive others because he already forgave us.

Part of the spiritual armor to be able to stand against the attacks of the devil is righteousness. When we live in obedience to God's commands he produces growth in our lives but more importantly in the body of Christ, the church. According to what Paul is saying here in Ephesians, if the church is united to Jesus himself and we are living in a manner worthy of our calling  by walking in love and speaking the truth in love, then the church will grow.  If we do not live out our calling by walking in love and speaking the truth in love then the church will not grow and will begin to wither. Jesus says in John 15:4, "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me." I used to think this passage only applied to each individual in his own personal walk with Jesus. With this new understanding of the unity of the body of Christ, I now realize that this passage also applies to the church. If the church is not abiding in Jesus, it cannot bear fruit. You might ask, "how does righteousness connect to abiding in Christ?" I would say that Christ is our righteousness but not only is he our righteousness in our justification by faith but his righteousness also begins to flow out of us in our sanctification by the power of the Spirit working in us by faith. As we abide in Him and as the Church abides in Him, we are enabled more and more to live out righteousness. God has chosen to use our living and walking in righteousness to give growth to the church.

It appears that if the church ceases to proclaim the mystery of the gospel based on the foundation of the scriptures and if the church ceases to walk in a manner worthy of her calling then God withdraws his presence from dwelling in her midst. Romans 1 tells us that God passes judgment on our rebellion by leaving us to ourselves. When the church ceases to worship the Creator and begins to worship the creature (i.e. comfort, entertainment, humanity) then God leaves her and turns her over to herself. I recognize that there are many complicated reasons why some churches are ailing and that there may be many churches that are bursting at the seams who are not being faithful or worshiping God. I don't claim to understand all situations of church growth. All I am saying here is that the Bible gives us clear teaching that if we forget about Jesus in our religion and are not united to Jesus Christ in faith then we will not see growth. If we are in union with Jesus Christ and are listening to Him and are living in a manner worthy of the gospel by proclaiming it, helping the poor, healing the sick and pursuing peace then we will see true growth. What I am trying to get at is that it is no surprise that many churches are withering and dying who have abandoned their first love and that this should give us all a wake up call to repent of our sins and seek the face of God, revealed to us through Christ in the Scriptures and applied by the Holy Spirit in our hearts. If we do that, I am certain we will see growth. It may not be the growth that many expect but it will be true life-changing growth.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ordination

This Sunday at 6 pm, I will have the humbling privilege of being ordained into the gospel ministry.  It will be at Plains Presbyterian Church in Zachary, LA.  Rev. Wes Baker will be a guest minister to preach the word for this worship service.

I appreciate several of the elders who will be participating in this service who say they look forward to the worship service.  I like that they said it this way, it reminds me that this is not about me. I am excited to get to be a part of what Jesus is doing with His church and that He is including me in His work. This will be a worship service where we come together and worship the Triune God; God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit who is accomplishing His plan of uniting heaven and earth through the church. I am privileged to get to be a part of this.

This is not exactly a new thing, it has been clear for some time that God has called me into his service. I hesitated to pursue ordination for a while out of fear and lack of confidence. I have always been painfully aware of my weakness and unworthiness to this call. However, I have also known for as long as I have been a Christian that Christ is my worthiness and that his strength is perfected in my weakness. Even still, somehow I failed to make the connection that Christ supplies the strength and ability to fulfill this calling.  Forgetting to look to him for strength and looking to my abilities I focused on the fact that I am not particularly gifted at being outgoing or charismatic.  It does make sense that if someone is qualified in a majority of ways but is not able to speak clearly or teach, then he is not gifted to be a preacher. He may be gifted and called by God for other worthy and equal callings in ministry but not as a preacher. I was content to accept this as my calling. I knew I was called to ministry and was compelled to give my life to the advancement of the gospel but just thought it would be in small group settings and discipleship. Over the last couple of years in teaching the word daily, I found myself getting more and more comfortable in teaching. I saw God work through the lives of those I taught. I saw God bless my weak efforts at teaching. I also found that I enjoyed it and that it is my first desire to communicate God's word, even if I am not super eloquent or charismatic. It became clear that God had indeed called me to teach His word.

Another reason I shied away from this call was, quite frankly, sin. One of my seminary professors at RTS, Dr. Elias Medeiros, taught the first class of the course Biblical Theology of Missions by preaching a warning from Psalm 51. He pointed out that David's prayer of confession and prayer for cleansing and restoration was followed by,
"Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. 
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. 
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise."
He pointed out that David's mouth was shut until he confessed and repented of his sin and was restored to fellowship with God. After confessing and repenting and praying for forgiveness and restoration to God, he is confident that his mouth will be opened and he will be free again to proclaim the wonders of God's grace. Dr. Medeiros warned us to be vigilant in pursuing purity. Satan is always seeking to knock us down and prevent us from speaking freely of the gospel. What better way to keep us quiet than by tempting us into sin. We must be vigilant to fight for purity but also diligent to run to the cross when we fall.

I think my slowness to repent and confess sin led to my shyness and hesitance in speaking.  God began working in my life through the things that I have been teaching and he began to enable me to be quicker to confess and repent. The funny thing about learning to repent and confess is that it always leads to more freedom. There is a weight of bondage in guilt. When I remain silent and fear confession because of fear of hurting others who might find out how bad I am, I actually suffer the separation and disconnect that I fear.  But when I confess and repent of sin, I find the wonderful grace of forgiveness and restoration that brings me to the fellowship that I was afraid I might loose by not confessing. Learning to be quicker to surrender to God and confess and repent has lead to a new sense of freedom and confidence that I only occasionally felt. I am still just as much of a broken sinner as before. But now, God has given me a sense of joy, freedom and confidence in His grace that actually compels me to flee from temptation much more effectively than the sense of shame and fear ever did. I cling to the cross and promise of restoration and keep pressing forward. There are still many times when I am at a loss of words and would rather just sit there and be quiet, but these times are fewer and far between. I am still weak and disgusted by my sin, but by God's grace I run to the cross a little quicker than before and find the grace that he promised. It is sufficient for me. I am even, by his grace, finding it easier to confess to others and ask for forgiveness. Oh what sweet joy to receive forgiveness from my wife and be restored to a closeness that began to fade when we remained silent about our sins against each other. Oh what sweet joy to hear my children learn to say, "please forgive me" and "I forgive you." Oh what sweet joy to hear forgiveness and be restored to God's people.

Now, I am blessed to feel an internal sense of call to the ministry of the Gospel of my Lord Jesus Christ that is confirmed by an external call by the church and friends and family members that tell me I have grown. It is exciting to see what can happen to anyone who will submit to the Word and seek to immerse oneself in it. If you water a plant with water, God will make it grow. If you feed an infant milk, God will make it grow. If you feed a soul with the Word, God will make it grow. There is nothing special in me. I am not holier than anyone else. It is just that God has brought me to my knees before the cross more than before and He is causing me to grow. There is nothing I desire more than to seek to communicate the wonderful joys of His grace in the Gospel.  I look forward to seeing what He has in store for our family as we prepare to continue serving Him in Peru.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Ephesians 2 The Mission of the Church

How is missions connected to the church? Here is a little bit of what I have been studying in preparation for a missions conference.

 In Ephesians 2 Paul reminds us that it was the power of the resurrection that gave us life out of death. We are united to Christ in his resurrection by grace through faith. He emphasizes that it was by grace and that God is the one who saved us not by anything that we have done to earn it but that God did it so that we could do good works. In other words, we were not saved by our works but we were saved by grace to do good works. We were not saved from our sin to sit back and be comfortable but we were saved to be incorporated into the work of the kingdom in building Christ’s body, which is His Church. Jesus Christ was raised up to all authority and given as “head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”(Ephesians 1:22) That is an amazing statement. God raised Christ from the dead and exalted him to have authority and power and dominion above everything and gave him as head to the church. I think we often forget what the church is. So many times we look at the church in all of her weakness and think that it is just a dying institution with very little power to make any real change. We just keep trying to do what we can but have no real hope for lasting impact in the world around us. That is not the image that we get from Scripture. The Almighty Powerful God of the universe has exalted his Son Jesus Christ with all power and authority and has given him to the church as head. Then he tells us that the church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. We as the church are the body of this powerful and amazing King. The end of chapter 2 tells us that not only are we incorporated into his body in being united together as the church but also we are being built together into a temple as the dwelling place of God. What an amazing God! He glorifies himself and demonstrates his fullness by dwelling in us as a community (not only in us as individuals) by His Spirit. He gave us peace, He made us family and He is building us into His church.