The Cross and Engaging Culture

I was reading a book last week called Church Without Walls, A Global Examination of Cell Church edited by Michael Green; the various authors were talking about church history, how the church began, why it grew, how it grew, and why the Church has been shrinking in the West in the last hundred years at an alarming rate and why the Church in Asia and Africa is growing exponentially.

To summarize the book points out that the Church grows when all its members are unified together in forming Christian communities and engaging in evangelism.  Growth in numbers generally stops at around 200 people when the emphasis is on the clergy doing the ministry.  But when the clergy focuses on leadership training and delegating to lay leaders the task of shepherding small communities to come together in community for discipleship and care of one another and for the purpose of evangelizing together as a small group, it is then that churches grow.  The book points out that a healthy church comes together for regular worship, celebration, and edification (usually on Sundays) and then divides into small groups (usually in homes) during the week for care and evangelism ministry with intentional efforts of outreach of their friends and neighbors.

If I could summarize in two basic words what the book is saying about church it is that Christians should focus on community and mission (i.e., missional community being Christ-centered).

This is a method of ministry that has proven to work in the first 300 years of the church; it has proven to work in Ireland in the 5th-7th centuries; it has proven to work when the Church in Europe was falling apart in the middle ages and when Ireland sent missional communities to evangelize Mainland Europe; this is a method proven to work amongst the Waldensians in the 12th century, the Moravians in the 15th century, and in the ministry of John Wesley and the Methodists in the 18th century; and in modern times it is working in Singapore, China, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

This is a form of ministry that is decentralized and which focuses on Christian principles, not top down authoritarian structures.  This is a form of ministry that expects every Christian to be involved, equips leaders to equip groups of people to do ministry together, and which gives a lot of freedom for individual groups to creatively figure out how to reach people for Christ.  This is a form of ministry that is ideally suited for the next generation culture of Seattle.  Why?

“The use and abuse of power is increasingly seen as one of the key questions facing Christian theology today.  The case against Christianity argues that it became the dominant religion of the Western world not because it was more true but because it was more powerful than its pagan rivals [this is re-written history, but this is what is taught in schools and Universities].  The Christian church’s record in the use of power is not exactly spotless when we remember past scandals of crusades against Muslims and heretics [at least this is the perception of our culture], and more recent abuse of children and ethnic minorities.  Contemporary postmodern people are much more sensitized than previous generations to power games and how they operate, and are likely to pick up much more quickly when power is abused by those in authority, whether teachers, doctors, politicians or priests [this is true about the next generation and we need to listen to what the author is saying and heed his advice, which follows].

“God, the most powerful being in the universe, achieves the most difficult thing in that universe – the redemption of sinful humanity – through the weakness of the cross.  He exercises power by surrendering it out of love for his creation.  As we saw above, if the church is to ‘make known God’s wisdom’, it will need to reflect in its own life the nature of God himself.  This will mean the kind of outward looking community life we noticed in the Trinity.  It will also mean a community marked by this same surrender of power and ‘rights’, and that exercises power through love.”

And, “The cross therefore represents the characteristic pattern of God’s work in the world.  He works his purposes through what the rest of the world regards as weakness rather than strength, foolish-ness rather than wisdom…A Christian use of power is to give it away – to surrender rights and privileges for the sake of others.” (Graham Tomlin, Cell Church: Theologically Sound?, found in Church Without Walls, chapter 8, pp. 105-106).

There is much to think about here related to politics and how we try to get our way in this culture.  What is interesting is that the way the world operates is to pull a power-trip, and yet the next generation rejects these methods of manipulation just as Jesus and His followers should.  And so if we are living authentic Christianity, our message should be compelling to the next generation.  And if we are living in Christ-centered community that is missionally focused, I believe the world will be won and God’s Church will grow, not be coercion, but because our posture is such that the Holy Spirit can use us to speak Jesus’ message to the world in word and deed.

GODSPEED

What is GOSPEL centrality – peering into a better life

We, evangelical Christians, often think the gospel is the A, B, Cs of how to become a Christian. The truth is it is the A to Z of the Christian life:

Timothy Beougher, in writing about Richard Baxter’s perspective on conversion said,

“It is the very drift of the gospel, the main design of the whole Word of God, to convert men from sin to God, and build them up when they are once converted.” 

Baxter continues,

“…if you be not converted, you are not true Christians.  You may have the name, but you have not the nature. 

“It is all one to be a man, and not to to be born; as to be a true Christian, and not to be new-born: for as our conception and birth is the passage into the life and world of nature, so our conversion or new birth is the passage into the life of grace.” (Richard Baxter in, Richard Baxter and Conversion, by Timothy Beougher, p. 11)

To be born again is to truly be converted.  The Gospel of Jesus was intended to change us from within and to cause us to turn from resisting God, to working with God as new creatures in Christ renewed to actively participate in God’s design for the world (Ephesians 2:10 and Philippians 2:13).  This begins with personal conversion, being born anew by the Spirit of God to partake in the Kingdom of God (John 3:3; 2 Corinthians 5:17; & Galatians 2:20).  There is an end goal in mind, and a journey along the way.

Repentance is the beginning; the changes that you see as a result of conversion are the evidences that you have converted as a result of repentance onto new life in Christ.  When you mess up and feel ashamed and question your salvation, this is an opportunity to turn again to the grace God supplies in the GOSPEL centric life in Jesus rooted in God’s love for humanity (John 3:16).  For,

“True repentance does not come from fear alone, but also from the love of God.  The heart is not changed to God without love.” (see Richard Baxter and Conversion, p. 90)

Love is what causes us to melt and appreciate what the Lord has done for us.  Receiving this love, acceptance, and grace from God as a result of repentance and belief in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord brings about a renewed attitude in the converted:

“The difference between true assurance and blind presumption is that the former will cause men to hate sin more, while the latter causes men to sin with less remorse, because they sin with less fear.” (Beougher, p. 92)

Such was the case of a dying Lutheran Pastor in the 1990s; he had brain cancer and was on his deathbed in the hospital for several weeks.  My wife had the privilege to visit with this man and noticed as he was facing death he felt the searing pain of guilt for minor sins that he knew offended his Lord.  He prayed constantly, quoted scripture with every breath, and was a loving joy to be around.

Such was also the experience of Richard Baxter in his 30s when he thought for several mother that he was on his deathbed.  As he suffered, he experienced more pain in minor sins than the physical pain of the maladies of cancer.  He wrote in his journal what he was experiencing, which became a book, The Saints Everlasting Rest.  He did not die during this time, but he learned the meaning of suffering and the joy of preparation to enter eternity.  From this he learned to “preach as a dying man to dying men.” (Beougher, p. 99)

Baxter listed the desire to see others converted as one of the marks of genuine conversion.  Beougher summarizes Baxter’s thoughts,

“A converted person eagerly shows others the way… Christians should not focus solely on the benefits of conversion which they receive, but should recognize that a major benefit of conversion is that it will make them useful to others.” (Beougher, p. 102)

Baxter also believed,

“Evangelism will be crippled so long as those outside the church can see no difference between believers and unbelievers. …lack of discipline in the parish churches had cause godly believers to ‘fly from our churches…because we will not yield to the healing of our own diseases.'” (Beougher, p. 131)

In other words, the Gospel must take root in a person with Holy Spirit bestowed grace coming on an individual in such a way that they are compelled to change out of a love for Jesus.  “God will not be mocked.  He knows the difference between head faith and heart faith.  True faith results in action.” (Beougher, p. 89)  And the result of GOSPEL centrality in the life of a true Christian is a better life:

‘The poorest member of the household of Christ,’ Baxter exclaimed, ‘is in a better condition than the greatest king on earth, that is unconverted.’  What benefits might a converted man [or woman] expect? They are numerous: he now has the special love and communion of the people of God, he is delivered from the power of Satan, he is united or joined to Jesus Christ, he has a pardon of all the sins that ever he committed, he is reconciled to God, he becomes an adopted son [or daughter] of God, he has the Spirit of Christ within him, all the promises of grace are his, all his duties are pleasing to God, the angels of God are commissioned to attend him, he becomes a true member of the catholic church, Christ is constantly interceding on his behalf, all things will work together for his good, he is prepared for death and judgment, he now can live a life of peace and joy, he will become useful to others, and finally, all of heaven will rejoice over his conversion.

“The unconverted lose far more each day than the pleasures of sin can ever repay.  ‘Ask any of them that have escaped out of that condition that you are in,’ Baxter challenges, ‘whether they are willing to return?’  Preachers are not calling sinners into a miserable life.  Quite the contrary!” (Beougher, p. 84)

You might have money, but in Christ are greater riches! You might have pleasure, but in Christ is the Master’s joy! You might be happy, but in Christ is eternal happiness! This is all offered to you, but if you refuse it, remember that you might have been happier if you would have accepted Christ Jesus by faith as Savior and Lord.  And remember eternity is forever.

GODSPEED