There is, I believe, a basic and simple set of Biblical ideas, principles and truths which the Western Church needs to hear and put into practice.
We are doing many things right, and these things need to be continued, strengthened and celebrated. There is very little that is wrong in our theology, teaching and practice; but, despite that, the way we do Church is not working for many people. With few exceptions, the institutions are failing or barely holding their own; and the individuals are stressed and guilty. We are not seeing the Kingdom of God built; and we are not experiencing the abundant, joy-filled life which Jesus promises.
We need to recognise that, alongside the many things we are doing well and right, there are a few other aspects of belief and practice which are either off-centre or largely missing. It only takes one thing to go wrong in your body to make your body sick and unable to function as it should, and the same is true in the Church.
What I offer in the practical training is not complicated, but it is significantly different from what most Christians grew up with and were taught in Bible College and Theological Seminary. But, as Einstein pointed out, if you do what you’ve always done, you will get what you’ve always got. If the current system is not working, something has to change.
Many people will tell you to pray more, immerse yourself in the Word, and consecrate your life fully to God: it is my conviction that these are all great things to do, but if this advice worked (if it was sufficient), we would all be enjoying Revival right now. Something different is needed.
In truth, there is nothing new under the sun. It is all there in the Bible. But most Christians do not see it, or do not appreciate its significance. And most church leaders are so busy keeping everything going and holding everything together that they do not have time to step back and look at the bigger picture. Most of us need help to remember what is important, to focus on the big things, and to see the familiar territory of Biblical truth from a new perspective.
These principles can be approached from several different directions: it doesn’t matter where you start, as they are all connected. Here are a few possible starting points.
|Make a difference|
|Every member ministry|
|Christian social action|
The principles, I believe, are universal; how they work out in your life, and in your church, will be unique to you. Helping people to make that connection is what I do.
We want to make a difference, to have our lives count. I want the world to be a better place because I was here. I want to love and protect and provide for my family, but I also want to do something bigger, which means I need to be a part of something bigger.
The Church is the obvious place where I can be a part of something bigger, something which is about making the world a better place. But despite all the prayers and prophecies, most of what I find myself doing – most of what I see the people in the Church around me doing – is to keep the wheels spinning. We work hard to keep the institution going; but – if that is all we achieve – in the long run it is not enough.
We are all encouraged to work harder so that we can see our church grow, and this works for a while: new people join, and things change. But after a while, we sit back, reflect on what is happening, and recognise that this is not enough. After a while, adding more people to an organisation which is not making any difference starts to feel pointless. Simply getting bigger is not the type of change I need to see and be a part of: I need to be involved in change at a deeper level.
I want to be a part of something which is changing things for the better – changing things which matter, and changing them in a deep, long term, sustainable way. It is clear that we need to change, to grow spiritually just as much as we need to see things change in more obvious, measurable ways. Spiritual growth is just as essential as numerical growth.
Church growth is normal. The gospel seed naturally produces fruit. Growth should happen in two ways: size and maturity. Both are important.
Some growth in size can usually be achieved for most churches through improved management techniques: more relevant services, worship which better connects with the people, improved publicity, more effective pastoral care structures, and the rest. There is nothing wrong (and a lot right) with doing any of this, but it is limited.
Organic, sustainable growth comes with growth in maturity, as every member does (and learns to do) its part. This aspect of church growth – individuals growing in maturity in their faith – comes about as every member plays their part.
Most churches understand that every member is called to play their part, that every member of the Body of Christ has a vital contribution to make to the whole. Every one is called to Christian ministry – to serve others in the name of Jesus. Most churches recognise that failing to do this is a simple waste of resources.
Few churches see what the members ‘playing their part’ could involve: most of the time, we only see activities within the church (sometimes, only the activities actually within the church building) as Christian ministry.
Building the individual members of the church in their faith is the task of discipleship.
Mostly, in the Church, we try to teach people through teaching; and, mostly, it does not work. We do not learn through listening: we learn through doing; we learn to be Christians through doing Christian things. When we hit problems with the doing, we are open to being taught, and at this point teaching becomes useful. Teaching in the Bible is primarily teaching about how to live, not what to believe; the things we need to believe are the things we need to understand so that we can live the way God wants us to.
Normal church life gives ordinary Christians very little opportunity to do Christian things: to love and serve Jesus and the people around them in a way which makes a difference; and what little they are allowed to do requires little (if any) faith.
‘Discipleship’ is the usual term for what we are talking about here. I have serious problems with the word and the way it is generally used: please see the page on Forget Discipleship (make disciples) for more details of what I mean here.
Discipleship does not happen by accident, or as a normal by-product of ordinary Christian activity – ‘ordinary’ as in the things we ordinarily do, such as attend the meetings, sing the songs, put something in the collection and take communion. The Disciples are commanded to ‘make’ disciples – it is a deliberate activity we are commanded to engage in.
Discipleship is vital, it is even commanded by Jesus, but most of us don’t know how to do it. I have a small section on my web site which starts to address this question ( hazelden.org.uk/discipleship).
One vital point to remember: discipleship is all about learning and living, but the point is not to get things done, or even to get things done Jesus’ way. The point is that in the learning and the doing, the living and loving and serving other people, we all (both the people we serve and we who do the serving) are blessed and encounter God.
We grow up today in a secular world, pragmatic and mechanical. Many – inside the Church and outside it – feel a deep longing for a real encounter with the Eternal. Outside the church, people use many different words to describe what they are looking for; inside the Church, we recognise that this longing is a desire to know God – not just to know about Him, but to know, to experience, to encounter – and to know that we are fully known and accepted.
Many Christian traditions make much of the fact that, as children of God, we have a living relationship with our loving Heavenly Father; but many Christians either do not feel this to be the case, or feel that the relationship is too distant. We want – we need – an immediacy of connection.
We want our lives to be transformed. We want a new life which shines and attracts others, but instead we fear we are living just like everyone around us (only, we hope, a little bit kinder and more generous).
When faced by this gap between our desire and our experience, most modern traditions can only tell us that we need to pray more and read our Bible more regularly. Other traditions can offer a wider range of spiritual exercises; but while most of them are good and helpful (as are praying and reading the Bible!), they do not in themselves meet the need.
A real connection with God, a real relationship is a two-way thing, but He rarely steps in unless He is both wanted and needed. We usually plan our activities to ensure that everything will work without His active involvement, and then we are disappointed when we do not experience it. The answer is to discover how to live in a way which depends (in reality, not just in theory) upon God’s presence and power to make it work. This takes faith.
Faith is about doing what God tells you to do. Faith is like a muscle: as you use it, it grows. Growing in faith is very simple:
As the old saying goes, ‘Faith is spelled r-i-s-k’. You cannot grow in faith if you don’t risk failing, but introducing risk is alien to our modern day culture, and alien to the culture of the Church.
Doing what God called you to do is the essence of Christian ministry; all Christians are called to be ministers of Christ, not just the special chosen few.
All Christian ministry is a calling to do the impossible.
Actually, we are only ever called to do the possible, but we are called to do it so that the impossible will be achieved. We are called to proclaim the Gospel, but only God can grant salvation; we are called to pray for people to be healed, but only God can heal them; we are called to teach people, but only God can enlighten them.
The nature of Christian ministry is a call not only to do the work, but also to equip others to do the work: ‘He gave some … for the equipping of the saints for the work of service’. Training others is a non-negotiable part.
As we have already noted, ‘Faith is spelled r-i-s-k’.The main difficulty in providing effective training lies in creating an appropriately risky environment in which people can learn: risky enough that it can’t be done without God, but not so risky that it will not be attempted.
Loving people is what the Church is called to do. Love is what it is all about. You cannot love God if you do not love your neighbour.
We have traditionally seen Christian ministry as ministry to Christians, when it is supposed to be ministry by Christians, and the people we are called to minister to are our neighbours.
Loving our neighbours means serving them – helping them in the ways they need and will accept. This involves talking with, listening to and learning from them before we start to attempt to do anything for them.
Following the example of Jesus in the way we engage in Christian social action – loving our neighbour – will involve a radical re-think of many of our assumptions about the way we run our churches. The ‘ Helping Vulnerable People’ course can help individual Christians engage with Christian social action in a Biblical way, but the church leadership usually needs some outside help and input to work through the implications if the whole church is to benefit from this: the danger is that ‘discipleship’ (or any new plan or programme) becomes the province of a few particularly enthusiastic and dedicated individuals, and the rest of the church decides it is too hard and not for them.
We have to admit that our ideas of how to do Church are different from God’s ideas – and we might be the ones that have it wrong.
The LICC have done quite a bit of work in this area, in their ‘Imagine Church’ project, which re-frames the issue of discipleship by introducing the concept of ‘whole-life disciples’ ( www.licc.org.uk/imagine-church/).
Almost all of us have the problem of ‘old wineskins’ – structures in our churches which served God and worked well for many years, but are now old, inflexible and no longer meet the need. But just changing or replacing them is not the answer: adopting systems and structures which worked for other people in other places will probably not provide the benefits we expect, and may prove to be worse than what we left behind. We have to make the changes Jesus wants us to, in a way which is sensitive and loving, as well as radical and challenging, and which brings people with us rather than alienating them.
It’s all about Jesus: loving Him, serving Him, following Him, becoming like Him.
The things that matter to Jesus have to matter to us: a deepening relationship with the Father a dependency on the Spirit to guide and empower, a commitment to build the Kingdom of God, a sacrificial love for every child of God, and an acceptance that I am absolutely secure in my Heavenly Father’s love.
It is easy to agree with all of this in the abstract: the challenge is to make it real in my life, in the lives of the people I touch, in the lives of all God’s people and in the world Jesus loved and died for.