Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Teaching Summary (5/12)

Rediscovering Church:
Being a Team
Acts 6:1-7

Last Thursday, we spent some time on the question, "What is ministry?"

It's a tougher question than you might think. An easy answer is that ministry is what a church does (or should do). But what does that mean? Is it teaching the Word? Is it counseling? Is it having small groups or bake sales?

We had some good discussion and some good definitions. Someone defined it as, "meeting people's needs". Another volunteered that it's, "being the hands and feet of Jesus." Someone else said it was "doing things according to our core values." (A classic teacher's pet, that one.)

All of those definitions are good, and I think ministry is all of those things and more. The ministry of the first century church was (among other things) feeding the hungry, prayer, teaching the word, sharing meals, growing in community, worshipping with reverence, and proclaiming Jesus to the unbelievers. But the answers lead to a secondary question: "Who's responsible for that ministry?"

The temptation we all face in the church is to view the staff as being the "ministers", and the congregation as being the "receivers". This shows in the comments of church shoppers: "Well, I liked the music, but I just didn't get anything out of the sermon," or "I just didn't feel like I was fed there," or "I really like this one because it has the programs I want." This is one of the by-products of the "come and see" model of evangelism, where Sundays become a production to win "seekers". While it's a great way to make Christ appealing to the unchurched, it lends itself to the "minister-receiver" relationship and a consumer mentality of church. We need to fight against that tendency, even as we try and attract non-believers to church.

The way to fight against that tendency is to stop worrying about ourselves so much, and focus more on how we can meet the needs of others. It is the job of the leaders to equip the believers for ministry. But all of us do the actual ministry. We need to function as a team in order to accomplish all that God has for us.

In Acts 6, there was a controversy because some of the widows in need weren't receiving the provision that had been allocated for them. It wasn't corruption in the system, it was simply that the growth of the church made the administration of the system more difficult. When the Apostles were informed of the problem, their reaction was strange: they decided not to get involved. It wasn't that they didn't care, it was that they knew other people were better suited for that type of ministry. They were called to prayer and teaching the word, and if they had to take time away from that, the church would suffer. So they called together ALL the believers, and gave them the freedom to appoint 7 men to lead the "distribution center" for the needy. While they gave the believers parameters for who they could pick (good reputation, full of the Spirit, and wise), they didn't micro-manage the selection process. God led the people, and they picked godly men. Throughout the process, everyone was involved. When it was over, there were almost twice as many leaders, and everyone had a taste of "ministry".

While we currently aren't faced with the same problem as the early church (namely, administrating rapid growth), we will be at some point. And it's while we are still in these early stages that we need to put the foundation in place that Harvest will be a church where everyone plays a part. God has given all believers supernatural gifts for the benefit of the church, and we can only reach our potential as a church when we all use them.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Teaching Summary (5/5)

Rediscovering Church:
Being a Reverent Church
Acts 5:1-11

In the last 20 years, nothing has changed the face of the church in America more than worship. Especially worship through music.

Worship has gone from being dry and ritualistic to being exciting and "contemporary". From songs written by Bach to songs that sound like the Beatles. From 4-part musical writing using dots on a page to karaoke "words-only" writing using PowerPoint and 3500 lumens. It used to smell like dusty hymnals and oaken pews, now it smells like Starbucks and stagelight gels.

Books have been written by the hundreds about how worship is central to the contemporary worship service "experience". Seminal among these is Sally Morganthaler's Worship Evangelism: Inviting Unbelievers into the Presence of God (see here for a great review). Many have modified her theories and believe that the musical portion of the church service is the main access point for "seekers" and therefore should be a primary evangelism/outreach plan.

So worship has become a production. A show. A hook. In an attempt not to offend people with outdated styles, many churches try to attract people with updated styles and call it worship. As if worship is for the seeker. Indeed, there are additional books arguing that worship is not for the seeker, it's for the believer. (Actually, they're both wrong- it's for God).

I've read a lot of those books. Interestingly few (if any) quote a central Bible verse on the subject: Hebrews 12:28-29.

Modifying the style, feel, personality, look, and overall aesthetics of the church in an attempt to reach more people with the Gospel is one of the best things churches can do. Making worship about the people is one of the worst. The author of Hebrews uses an interesting word when describing worship: Acceptable.

If we were to ask the question, "What describes acceptable worship?", we might come up with adjectives like, "heartfelt", "celebratory", "personal" or even "inviting". The author of Hebrews gives us adjectives that defy popular convention: "reverence and awe." It's not that the other adectives are wrong- they all are important, they're just not central to what worship is. Worship is dealing with God as He truly is: Not Us.

In the early church, things were happening. Power was flowing, people were changing, and there was a favorable reputation going around about these "Christians". It was just a matter of time before someone tried to fake their way into the group. Maybe Ananias and his wife Sapphira were really a part of the group, but most likely they saw the reputation of people like Barnabas and wanted a piece of the glory. Especially if they could get it at a lower cost.

When they misrepresented the amount of their land sale to Peter (and to the Holy Spirit), the hardness of their hearts quickly spread to their other major organs. And arteries. And extremeties. God's judgment was instantaneous. And purposeful. Not just for Ananias and Sapphira, but for the whole church. Twice in the passage, Luke mentions that "great fear came upon all who heard." (vv. 5 & 11) I'm sure any sense of entitlement in this new movement disappeared pretty fast. Flippancy and self-promotion became rare. The church was marked with a clear sense of reverence before God.

Reverent doesn't mean boring. Reverent doesn't mean stern and overbearing. It can be celebrative, joyous, and thankful. Inviting, even. But it means that we take God seriously, and that we remember our place before Him.

Hebrews 12:29 calls God "a consuming fire". Lamentations 3:22 reminds us that, "Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed." This is a terribly wonderful paradox: Our God is a consuming fire who loves us. That is why we revere Him and yet love Him. We worship with awe and yet thankfulness. We worship with honesty and yet relief. We worship with fear and yet confidence.

True worship is reverent worship. Will that attract "seekers"? Maybe. Most likely the ones who will believe. Will it feed believers? Sure. Most likely not the ones who are faking it. But it's acceptable before God. And that's the most important thing.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Teaching Summary (4/28)

Rediscovering Church:
Being a Bold Church
Acts 4

"And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12)

Peter and John were arrested and threatened because they were showing compassion. Their response? An exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way. How intolerant of them. And it wasn't exactly the best legal strategy to employ in front of the same council that killed Jesus only months before. But they didn't back down from the bold message, telling the council that, " we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."

The persecution and martyrdom of first century Christians wasn't political. It wasn't cultural. It was because people were offended by their message that Jesus is the only option for salvation. Well you know what they say- the more things change...

Today, the culture is demanding that we back off from such bold rhetoric. We're told it's it's arrogant. It's self-righteous. It's insensitive. It's intolerant. It's offensive. Whether or not it's true is inconsequential. As Christians, we're told we need to stop pushing our beliefs on others and strive to find middle ground with other faiths by compromising what we believe. You know, back down from a bold message. As if it's more respectable to not really believe what you say you believe.

The reaction to the new Pope is a great example of this. The backlash against his "conservative" policies and the smear campaign against him in the media shows how offensive boldness is to our culture. Apparently, he would be a much better Pope if he wasn't so doggone Catholic.

It's is the same for us Bible-believing Protestants: Apparently, we'd be much better Christians if we just weren't so "Jesus-y". Tragically, too many Christians have let this message influence them. Instead of churches proclaiming Jesus is the only way, some have "muti-faith banquets" where they celebrate the commonalities between Islam and Christianity (that would be a very short meeting). Instead of proclaiming the Word of God, they build series around pop-psychology and self-improvement messages and talk about how that one episode of "Desperate Housewives" had that cool depiction of the human condition.

I'm all for using the language of the culture to proclaim the message. But we need to make sure we're not using the church to proclaim the message of the culture. Jesus is the only way. Period. The Word of God is the only authority that can change our lives. Period.

After Peter and John were released, they returned to where the believers were meeting. Upon hearing what had happened, the church prayed. What did they pray for? A more favorable environment to talk about Jesus? No. Religious freedom so they could practice their faith without opposition? No. That their hearers would have softer hearts? No. That they'd know how to make the message more culturally relevant and hook seekers? No.

They prayed for boldness. They prayed for more power from God so they could boldly proclaim that Jesus is the only way. In response, the Holy Spirit shook the room and people came to faith in Christ at an astonishing rate.

Peter and John had proof of their message: the healed man. Their compassion gave them an audience for their boldness, but it also validated their boldness. While we must stand firm for the exclusive message of Jesus, it must always be accompanied by selfless compassion for the hurting. Truth and Grace. Boldness and Compassion. They always go hand in hand. Too many churches and famous Christian leaders are doing more harm than good by being bold without being compassionate.

We at Harvest are committed to proclaiming the Word of God with boldness and without compromise. But always in a spirit of love and compassion. I am convinced that most people are hungry for truth and are attracted to boldness. The relativism and "whatever works for you" mindset in our culture is utterly empty. And even if people can't explain why, they know there's something missing. Our response is to boldly proclaim the Word of God.

"I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." (2 Timothy 4:1-4)