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Reclaiming God's Original Intent for the Church
By Wes Roberts Glenn Marshall
NAVPRESSCopyright © 2004 Wes Roberts and Glenn Marshall
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt's Not About the Old Ways-It's About the Much Older Ways
You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand-shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16
Perhaps you've noticed that things aren't the way they used to be.
Increasingly, the church is becoming marginalized. We're relegated to the fringes of our culture. We struggle to find a voice in the public square. We're rarely taken seriously. The vast majority of people in our society think the church is irrelevant.
As pastors and church leaders, we feel displaced, lost, frustrated. Our ministries don't match the expectations we had when we started. We seem to have lost our sense of direction. Things that used to work don't anymore. Like the ancient Israelites wandering in the desert, we find ourselves in a time of transition.
The good news is that our situation isn't hopeless. The Sovereign Lord of history is at work in the present as much as he was in the past. And he's already waiting for us in the future. Because our hope is in the Lord, we can find encouragement in much of the confusion we currently find ourselves in.
As we grope our way into the future, we'll learn to come to grips with our marginalization. We'll embrace it and see it as an opportunity for the church to return to her ancient roots in order to reclaim God's original intent for the church. We'll recognize that we're engaged in the mission of God. Mission will no longer be relegated to foreign lands or separated from church life. Instead we'll reengage in mission on the local level. While we won't ignore global concerns, we'll begin to see that mission is done across the street as well as across the world.
Our continued estrangement from the center of our culture will actually help us find our identity in Christ. We'll come to terms with the fact that God sent us into the world for the sake of the world. Learning to be servants will become a priority for us, especially for those of us who are biblical leaders. We'll learn to invest ourselves in the lives of our neighbors and our local communities.
We'll understand that proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom is the responsibility of all Christians, not a few professionals. We'll proclaim this gospel not only in word but also in deed-demonstrating to the people of our local communities what it means to live under the reign of God. We'll acknowledge that not only what we believe but also how we behave-the way we belong to one another in community-makes a difference in how we proclaim the gospel.
We'll realize that we need to identify church membership with discipleship. Growing in Christ will become the expectation of all who belong to our churches. Because this doesn't just happen automatically, we'll learn to train and nurture one another to follow Jesus Christ as Lord in the continuing transformation of our souls.
As Christ becomes our identity, we'll see the need to disengage from other identities of the world. We'll begin to think instead out of our Christian identity and critique our culture from that perspective. We'll learn to disengage from the power structures of this world in order to serve in the power of weakness. Christ's incarnation will become our way of life. We'll learn to break our conformity to this world and live as the aliens and strangers that we are.
As the new community of Jesus Christ, we'll learn to practice reconciliation as we become one in Christ. We'll celebrate our ethnic, gender, age, and socioeconomic diversity. We'll learn to minister to gays and lesbians with love, hope, and compassion rather than with hatred, fear, and condemnation. We have great hope that the church can actually set the standard for racial reconciliation as well.
We'll engage in the practice of community, our alien status molding us together as a body. We'll find common purpose, ministering in a common place, sharing our personal property for the good of the kingdom. We'll learn to better care for one another in love.
The role of pastors will be remolded according to a more biblical perspective. We'll become postpragmatists, no longer driven by the so-called "proven methods" that promise success in the consumer-driven church business. After we realize that there's more to ministry than finding and employing the proper techniques, we'll repent of our reliance on them and learn to rest again in our dependence on God. We'll learn to become equippers rather than program managers.
Church leaders will learn to suffer and sacrifice for the sake of the flock. We'll continue to lose our positions of status and power within society. We'll no longer be seen as professional managers of religious institutions. Instead, we'll become holy men and women transformed into servant/leaders who will fulfill God's purposes in each generation.
* * *
Perhaps you've tried the "church growth" methods. You've likely been to seminars that got you pumped up about trying new techniques and programs, only to find a less than lukewarm reception to these new ideas. Or maybe your church received the ideas warmly, but the results were far less exciting than you'd anticipated.
The problem is that much of our church growth focus is out of touch with the post-Christian, postmodern world. Of course we want our churches to grow. But understanding the times we live in can help us shift our focus to other areas of concern that are more important.
The goal is to help you quit banging your head against a wall. If you've found church growth material to be helpful to you and your church-great! But if you've tried to emulate other growing churches, put new programs into practice without success, and followed models that don't really fit your situation, there's another direction. You don't have to be continually frustrated as you try to make it all work.
That's not your calling.
In order to gain a new perspective, you need to travel into the history of the church to see how the way we've learned to think about church is now out of touch with the reality of our changing world. As you see how the church developed into what it is today, you'll be able to understand why things aren't working the way we expect them to and what we can do about it.
Very simply, the church began as a movement but ended up as an institution. And because the institutional church has lasted for some 1,500 years, we've grown overly familiar with this way of existing. It's ingrained in us. But this institutionalized way of church-what has been called Christendom-is deteriorating. Because of the way things are now in the context of history, the old institutional mold can't be rebuilt, and it would be unwise to attempt to rebuild it. Biblical Christianity will move on and thrive without it.
In reality, much of the resources, time, and energy now spent by the church are an attempt to rebuild the crumbling ruins of Christendom. For example, we spin our wheels trying to get prayer back in public schools, or we try to keep the Ten Commandments posted in public places. Within the church, we define success in terms of attendance, budgets, programs, and buildings. We don't know what else to do or how else to measure success because we don't know any other way to operate. Christendom is all we know.
But there is another way.
We need to go back to the much older ways-to the time before the church became an institution. This was a time when the church was marginalized, persecuted, and alien-much like it's becoming today. Returning to these much older ways will seem quite new. But if we begin to see that our current situation is similar to those early days, we'll see great opportunities for the present and for the future.
We now have the opportunity, like the early disciples of Jesus, to live in the world like the resident aliens that we are and to demonstrate God's love in tangible ways to the people in our communities. We have the privilege to suffer and sacrifice like the early disciples in order to serve each other and the world. We have the chance to demonstrate love to our enemies, to humble ourselves before others, and to live in such a way that shows we care more for our treasure in heaven than our material possessions on earth. We have the opportunity to live our faith authentically before a watching world.
However, because we're so familiar with the Christendom form of church, we sometimes don't have the capability to see ourselves as resident aliens in this world. It's questionable whether we want to adopt this mindset. We seem far more concerned about building systems of power and structures of permanence on this earth. Much of what we do seems incompatible with the way of Jesus-the way of the Incarnation, the way of weakness and humility, the way of the Cross.
We need a shift in our thinking, and we need to know that it's legitimate to make this shift. If we can recognize that the future we're headed to is similar to the early days of the church-before the church became an institution-then we can form our ministries according to those much older ways. And we don't need to feel threatened, because this much older way is our birthright-our ancient heritage.
Let's look at these two ways of doing church. The first is the "much older way" of the apostolic period. The second way, Christendom, is more familiar to us. The terms apostolic and Christendom distinguish the ways the church operated, existed, and functioned in different eras.
Maybe you're familiar with those wooden puzzles that form a ball or some other shape. When the ball is disassembled, you can put it together if you have the patience and time to do so. But imagine what that task would be like if some trickster sneaked in and, finding your puzzle dismantled on a table, switched some of the pieces of your puzzle with parts from another puzzle. You could work on that puzzle forever and never put it together.
Think of the two ways of doing church as two puzzles. The old, familiar ways of Christendom are one, and the much older ways of the apostolic period are another. Many of the pieces are not interchangeable.
* * *
We begin our journey by going all the way back to the much older ways of the apostolic period-the time before the church gained the favor of the power structures and became institutionalized. Let's look at the pieces that make up this puzzle.
In terms of self-identity, the church at that time had a collective awareness of being the ecclesia-those called out from the world. They saw their calling as being set apart from the world-and indeed they were set apart. Others viewed the members of the early church as a bunch of weirdos and strangers. But these weirdos were authentically sold out to Jesus. That's why they were weird. They refused to accept the world's value system. Instead, by grace, they chose to live under God's reign. These early church members refused to participate in the Roman government's pagan rituals; they wouldn't allow Jesus Christ to be assimilated as one of the gods in the pantheon of Roman deities. They could have done so and gained acceptance in their society. But their insistence that Jesus Christ is the Lord went against the grain of the culture. The early church was the true countercultural force.
This environment in which the church sprang to life was hostile. Christians were outlawed, persecuted, hunted down, exiled. Some were thrown to lions as a form of entertainment, and others were impaled outside the city of Rome and lit as human streetlamps. It was a crime to be a Christian-an act of treason to declare Jesus Christ as Lord.
Needless to say, becoming a Christian under such circumstances meant making a serious commitment. Discipleship to Jesus Christ was a necessary priority within the church. There was an expectation that to be in the church, a person must undergo conversion. Sometimes this waiting and instruction period lasted as long as five years before the convert was considered a part of this new community. While we might think this excessive, it shows how discipleship defined what it meant to be a Christian in those early days.
These early disciples had a sense of mission. They saw themselves as sent by God into the world for the sake of the world. Wherever Christians were, that was their place of mission. Local congregations became intent on ministering in both word and deed as witnesses of Jesus Christ. Because the members of this new community were often persecuted and exiled, their witness to Jesus was spread throughout the empire. Mission wasn't the job of a few professional clergy. God gave spiritual gifts so that each member could do his or her part.
The early church's leaders didn't carry on with an air of professionalism. According to the book of Acts, these leaders were common men and women who were called and gifted to shepherd the flock of God. The example of Paul demonstrates that it wasn't uncommon for these leaders to work with their hands to support themselves and their families (see Acts 20:34).
Early Christianity was radical-far more radical than the bland, conservative product we call Christianity today. Early Christians seemed to understand that their faith involved a radical commitment to a wild God who would often lead them to dangerous places.
This new community learned through the hardships of persecution to care for one another's needs. Although they came from different social and ethnic groups, they were bound together by the common purpose of the kingdom of God. They served their local communities with good deeds. They sacrificed and gave of themselves for the service of the kingdom of Christ. They had the conviction that they were a part of God's continuing story of the unfolding of redemption.
* * *
Things began to change rather dramatically after the conversion of the emperor Constantine in A.D. 313. Not only did the persecution of Christians cease, but Christianity also gained the official endorsement of the empire.
This began a new chapter in the history of the church and set in place the development of Christendom. This form of church will look familiar to us because it's still around. Let's explore its distinguishing features.
When Christianity became the official religion of the empire, the church became an institution.
Excerpted from Reclaiming God's Original Intent for the Church by Wes Roberts Glenn Marshall Copyright © 2004 by Wes Roberts and Glenn Marshall. Excerpted by permission.
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