Marks of the Church

As some of you know, I have recently started running a Saturday morning theology course at my church, which will run for five sessions over the next few months. We’ve had the first already, and I am currently working on my talk for the next session.

We will be looking at the "Marks of the Church". The way I am planning to tackle it is to start off by looking at some important historical formulations of what the marks of a true church are. The two main ones I have come up with are:

1. The Nicene Creed

The Nicene creed simply states "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church". These four points or marks of the church seem to be the main focus of Roman Catholic attempts to define the church. They emphasise its oneness, so that churches not part of Roman Catholicism are not considered true churches. Also under the term "apostolic" they include the concept of apostolic succession as well as apostolic doctrine. So while the Nicene creed is an "ecumenical creed" in that Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians will all assent to it, their interpretations of this statement can vary.

2. The Reformers

When I looked through Calvin’s Institutes to see what he said about the church, I was surprised by the simplicity of his answer. He simply defined the marks of a true church as right preaching of the word and right administration of the sacraments. Having spoken to various other people, it has become clear that the reformers did in fact have more to say on the nature of the church than just those two things (e.g. worship, biblical discipline/order, compassionate ministry of deacons, mission etc), but still I find it interesting that those two are picked out as the key marks. The high place of the "sacraments" in their ecclesiology is not matched by most of the modern books on church I have read.

Modern Marks of the Church

Most modern discussions of the marks of the church seem to be more interested in answering the question "what is a healthy church", than "what is a true church". I guess we all take it for granted that our church is indeed a true church.

I have some notes gathered from various sources on what modern church leaders have identified as the marks of the church, but I thought perhaps that some of my blog readers might like to suggest some answers.

If you could list up to five marks of the church, what would they be?

Feel free to give your own answer, or suggest an answer representative of different groups of churches (e.g. charismatic, emerging, reformed, mainline protestant etc).

Book Review – Body Beautiful (Melvin Tinker & Nathan Buttery)

Despite what the title might conjure up in your mind, this is actually another book on the church. The subtitle is "Recovering the Biblical View of the Church". It is written by a couple of Anglican Ministers in Hull, and their approach is to simply take 11 short New Testament passages relating to the church, and briefly expound them.

The book is 125 pages long, and fairly accessible. It was perhaps written with small-group study in mind, as it has a section of question for further discussion. The aim of the book is to present the Biblical model of the church and challenge us as to whether we view church in the same way.

The authors are particularly keen to emphasise the importance of the Word of God in the church, being the basis for what we do, and central to the life of the church. The Word of God, or the Gospel, is the ‘rock’ on which the church is built. Expository preaching and Bible ministry are seen as key to a healthy church.

They examine the "marks of a church" from Acts 2:42-47 arguing that success should not simply be measured in terms of numbers attending, but in being a learning, caring, committed and growing church.

There are two chapters looking at passages from Ephesians on the Call of the Church and Unity within the church. In a chapter on worship, they criticise Catholic and charismatic worship as being "BC" (before Christ) worship – as they go through a "mediator" of a priest or worship leader who draws us near to God. Rather they emphasise that the whole of life is to be worship, and worship should be defined as "engaging with God".

There is a helpful section on prayer. A praying church is a God-centred church and the their prayers will be God-centred. Prayer should be our natural reaction. If it is not, we are not a God-centred people.

In a chapter on the influence of the church, they encourage Christians to engage politically, but more importantly, to make a difference by being different where they are. Christians are called to be a people who leave a blessing wherever we go.

… central to all of God’s plans and purposes for his entire universe is his church.

Overall, this is a very helpful short book on the church. In perhaps a few places, as a charismatic, I might disagree with some of their statements, and a couple of the illustrations were a bit dated or Anglican specific. But on the whole, it is well worth a read, particularly if you don’t want to tackle something too long.

Book Review – The Provocative Church (Graham Tomlin)

I have been reading as many books on the church as I can get my hands on recently, and hearing someone speak highly of this one, I ordered a copy. Graham Tomlin is currently principal of St Paul’s Theological Centre in London.

The subject of the book is actually evangelism. He begins by asking the question of how we can evangelise those who are simply not interested in hearing what it is the Church has to offer. What would provoke such people to want to find out more?

He examines the shift in culture towards postmodernism, and argues that people may not be looking for “forgiveness” but they are often seeking help to live a “better and less superficial way of life”. The question is then, do they find that people who go to church live in a discernibly different way? Are we provocative? Do we awaken a desire for God in people?

He then goes on to argue that our role as Christians is to be signposts to another kingdom. Crucial to our witness is our living under the kingdom of God, and demonstrating a new “style of life”. The church is to be a sign of the kingdom.

The only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.

Tomlin spends a few chapters explaining that Jesus’ message was concerning the kingdom of God, drawing heavily from Tom Wright. He makes a clear distinction between church and kingdom – the church is to live out the kingdom life – how life was meant to be lived. But he is careful to emphasise that evangelism is not merely about the way we live. Just as Jesus explained the significance of his actions with words, so we must explain why we live the way we do when (as it should) it provokes interest.

Without actions, no one listens, without words, no one understands.

He goes on to explore how often Christians confess to feeling guilty about their lack of evangelism. He suggests that if we can simply be what we are called to be as a church, a community characterised by kindness, we won’t be able to help being evangelistic. Churches therefore should not put all the emphasis on persuading their members to invite people to “guest services” but recognise that while some people experience a “crisis” conversion, for many others it is a process. Therefore, church health must be considered higher priority than church growth. A healthy church will grow – evangelism and spiritual growth are inextricably linked and depend on each other.

The priority for the church is neither evangelism nor social action; it is to live under the lordship of Christ.

So a church must be a transforming community, where we are being restored into the image of God that we originally had before the fall. Having established this, Tomlin devotes a couple of chapters to defining an evangelistic church. He encourages cell or house church models as these offer a more “dispersed view of authority” and are therefore more appropriate for a postmodern culture. They allow unbelievers an opportunity to see the kingdom style of life in action.

The book closes with a very practical chapter on how to lead an evangelistic church. There is also a theological postscript which seeks to answer the question “why doesn’t the NT mention evangelism very often?” He works through Ephesians and concludes that the reason is that the church’s primary task is simply to be what we are called to be. If we can do that, we will be a “provocative church”.

This book certainly succeeds in being provocative. I really liked his approach, and while much of what he says is not particularly new, I think he makes some points that are in serious danger of being forgotten by churches all eager to find the latest and greatest evangelistic strategy. Most importantly, it is a call for each believer in the church to live their life increasingly under the rule of God, for in doing so, we will display the wisdom of God to those who look in from the outside.

Book Review – The Church on the Other Side (Brian McLaren)

The thesis of this book is pretty straightforward: the times are changing, and the church had better move with the times. We are transitioning from modernism to postmodernism and the church on “the other side” of this great cultural shift will look very different to the modern church. McLaren therefore offers us twelve strategies to help us successfully navigate the change and build churches that are appropriate and relevant for the new world. “A new world needs a new church.”

McLaren clearly believes there is something very wrong with the current state of the church – “human beings are incurably religious, yet Christianity has lost its power to satisfy us”. His solution is not renewal or reformation (indeed he is critical of these approaches). No the church must be “re-invented”. He claims that there are no “blueprints”. Most evangelicals will be wondering what place he gives to the Bible as the foundation for our ecclesiology. They will still be wondering by the end, and left suspecting that the answer is “almost none”.

Many of the typical emerging church concerns are outlined. The church needs to be more honest about its failures, less dogmatic, less arrogant, less caught up with traditions (and more connected to “Tradition”), less about personal salvation and more about community now. We should focus on what unites us rather than our doctrinal distinctives and embrace all types of Christian spirituality. A nuanced Amen to most of that.

He talks about the need for a new apologetic. “Proofs” of the Christianity to make it more credible are no longer needed for a postmodern world. Rather, Christianity must be seen to be plausible by being a community people would want to join.

McLaren is very hard to pin down on doctrine (probably deliberately). His approach seems to be the politicians favourite “I can neither confirm nor deny that doctrine…”. For example, he speaks of the need to stop fighting against other religions and fight alongside them, leaving you not quite sure of his position on the exclusiveness of Jesus for salvation.

The church needs to find a new rhetoric, which is to say it needs to talk less and do more. He calls for churches to become a lot less attached to their structures, and to reject the models of leadership found in modern evangelicalism such the “Bible answer man” who will fix any doubt with a quick proof-text, or the “successful” mega-church pastor who promises you perpetual victory and prosperity.

He lists many reasons why traditional “missions” are running out of steam, and suggests new models where we think more holistically about “mission”.

The book finally closes with three chapters on postmodernism. He is convinced that it is the future, and that we should not only understand it, but embrace it. He sees it as the future not only in western culture but worldwide.

It is not hard to see why Brian McLaren is so popular. He certainly identifies a number of real problems in the church, and suggests many good ideas for improvement. However, this book left me feeling uneasy for a number of reasons.

First, while I do not claim to be in any way an expert on culture, it seems remarkably simplistic to subsume everyone under one new umbrella of “postmodernism”. I see a world containing many diverse cultures, and though “modernists” may indeed be dying out, they certainly still exist and need to be reached with the gospel.

Second, after identifying many ways in which the church has unfortunately embraced the negatives of modernism, it seems bizarre that he should be so eager for the church to reconfigure itself to be exactly what post-moderns are asking for. He somewhat cheekily suggests that he need not critique postmodernism because (grumpy old) D A Carson has already done enough of that!

Third, while making clear that he does not accept relativism, it is almost entirely unclear what he believes the basis for knowledge is. He wants to encourage creative and “messy” thinkers, to re-invent the church, to embrace new paradigms. But how will he judge these ideas? It certainly does not seem like he would offer the Bible as any kind of objective standard.

Maybe McLaren would say that this question reveals that I am stuck in a “modernist” mindset. And perhaps it does. But when one of his messy thinkers suggests that all religions lead to God, or that we should all dance round naked at the church worship service, on what basis will he accept or reject their proposals? Is the church on the other side able to detect heresy? Or is the only heresy the idea that heresy is even possible?

I would only recommend this book to those interested in understanding the emerging church’s ecclesiology. The good ideas he proposes can also be found in books by those far more rooted in Scripture. Jesus has already “invented” the church. We do not need to re-invent it, but maybe we do need to re-discover his original intentions for it, and re-configure the way we speak and act so that we are truly able to communicate the unchanging truth of the gospel to a post-modern world.

Book Review – The Purpose Driven Church (Rick Warren)

The main thesis of this book is that a local church needs to know what its purpose it, and then ensure that all it does is directed towards accomplishing that purpose. Rick Warren is of course founder and pastor of Saddleback church in America that has grown to over 20,000 attendees. He has a particular passion to reach the “unchurched” with the gospel, and this book details how he goes about this.

He is aware that “mega-churches” come under heavy criticism, which he seeks to refute early on in the book. You can grow without compromise. Indeed, he would say that a church that is not growing is actually dying. He also reports that Saddleback has not grown through “transfer growth” (Christians changing churches). In fact, 80% of their membership were baptised at Saddleback, and they saw 7,000 conversions in their first 15 years. This is certainly impressive, though sadly I imagine that not many mega-churches would be able to offer statistics anywhere close.

Another “myth” he attempts to debunk is that you can’t have quantity and quality. Of course they are not mutually exclusive, but McDonalds teaches us you can have quantity without quality. There is a real danger that the church grows wide and shallow.

One of his key strategies is being “seeker sensitive”. This involves two things. First of all, he simply means that churches should not do things that make visiting unbelievers feel awkward, confused, unwelcome or embarrassed. The language should be understandable, the welcome should be warm, the music should be of a good standard etc. In many ways, he is arguing for things that most evangelical churches have now taken on board (the book was published in 1995).

But there is a second side to being “seeker sensitive”. The Sunday meeting is actually specifically designed with unbelievers in mind. They still have worship and a sermon, but of primary importance is that the visiting “unchurched” will enjoy the worship and find the sermon useful. Saddleback run services directly targeted at believers on a different night.

It is worth considering the unique culture of America here. Rick Warren got over 200 people to attend his first meeting simply by mailing invitations and promising a church that would not be boring and irrelevant. And these were not Christians who came. Such a thing is unheard of here in the UK, and this fact should give pause for thought for anyone who would seek to copy his methods (Warren himself is insistent anyway that it is only the principles that should be copied – the particulars will differ). Evangelism in a “post-Christian” culture will look very different to this.

Warren claims that though the sermons are aimed at people’s “felt needs” this does not mean that the gospel is watered down. He argues that Jesus himself used this method. While I agree that Jesus was a good communicator, I was not entirely convinced that his messages were all as upbeat as Warren makes them out to be. For example he portrays the Sermon on the Mount as starting with “eight secrets of genuine happiness” and ending with a nice story about the importance of putting the teaching into action. It strikes me as a remarkably positive spin on some very challenging teaching!

Saddleback are very intentional about who they are targeting. They even have a name for their ideal customer (yes Warren even calls church attendees customers at times!) – Saddleback Sam is a well-off, middle-class, professional, husband and father. They design their services to be exactly what he wants. If someone objects that this is pandering to his ego-centric consumerism, Warren responds that these attitudes will be challenged after they become a believer. If people came to church with the mindset that it was merely a dispenser of religious goods and services, then we would hope that that idea would be challenged almost immediately as they find the church not to be a mirror of their culture, but a counter-cultural community.

We might also wonder why such a “nice” person was chosen, when the gospel is surely for all races and social classes. Warren seems to think that other churches can target other types of people, but that you can’t simply try to reach everyone, so you should go for the people you “most easily” reach. I found this approach uncomfortable – if every church thinks like this, who will reach the poor, Muslims, alcoholics? The fact is that the Christian population is predominantly white middle class both in the UK and in America. We cannot avoid “cross-cultural” mission even in our own cities. Having said that, it does appear that Saddleback has developed some other ministries to reach different types of people, even if the seeker service is not aimed at them.

Also slightly odd was their discipleship program. This involved people graduating through four stages, each complete with its own covenant (for example the first one is to tithe, have a quiet time, and attend regularly). This sounded a little formulaic and even verging on the legalistic, but it has to be said that it is way beyond what most churches require of new members and does at least demonstrate a genuine commitment to spiritual growth rather than merely an infatuation with “numbers” that many mega-churches are accused of.

In fact the chapters on helping members mature and minister to others are perhaps the strongest in the book. They take seriously the importance of commitment, and one of the things I liked best was his aversion to bureaucracy and committees. He would much rather people spent their time in ministry. He also believes that members should be empowered to initiate new ministries as they have a heart for them, rather than leaders coming up with ideas and looking for staff.

Rick Warren is certainly a pragmatist. This will leave some readers wondering whether he puts results before uncompromising faithfulness to the gospel. This is the first of his books I have read, and to be honest I wish he had taken the time to articulate what he understands the gospel to be. I appreciate his passion to see people saved, and to see them become mature. There is undoubtedly much to be learned from this book. But at the same time there is much that should not be copied, even if it is working at Saddleback.

Big Problems? Big Solution

Justin Taylor posted a link to a YouTube video in which Pete Du Pont gave a brief lecture on how we should tackle the “world’s biggest problems”. He said that rather than prioritizing the problems, we should be prioritizing solutions, according to how cost-effective they were. This meant that projects preventing AIDS and malnutrition should be prioritized above reducing global warming as they allow us to make a much bigger difference, for a comparatively small financial cost.

His approach seems to be common sense enough, although no doubt there will be plenty of counter-arguments from those who don’t like his suggested priority order. What interested me is that the world’s biggest problem and greatest solution were (unsurprisingly for a political / economical talk) not mentioned at all.

I am of course referring to sin and the gospel. Sin is not only our biggest problem, it also is our only problem, since it is the root of all other problems. Of course I am not saying all suffering is a direct consequence of someone’s sin (or even someone else’s). But from a Christian worldview, we can and should assert that sin is, whether implicitly or explicitly, behind all suffering and evil in the world. Because of “the Fall”, everything is broken.

But if sin is our biggest problem, then throwing money at the problems of our world isn’t going to fix anything. Thankfully we have a better solution. In economic terms, this is the most cost-effective solution imaginable! In the gospel we genuinely have good news that touches on all the problems in our world. Problems that didn’t even get a mention in the lecture such as loneliness, greed, selfishness, hatred are directly addressed by the gospel as lives are transformed and people placed in community. Even the most severe consequence of sin, our impending judgement by a righteous God, is dealt with by the gospel as we are forgiven, made righteous and given the gift of eternal and abundant life.

But does the gospel address any of the problems that were discussed in the lecture? HIV, malnutrition, poverty, global warming, all may be alleviated in some way through political and economic solutions, and this is good. But if the gospel really does address the root of all human problems, then we should expect to see it making a difference even in these areas. The church should therefore be at the forefront of addressing these issues. In part, that will be through simply giving and serving those who are needy, and encouraging governments to make wise and effective policy decisions. It is this kind of social engagement that many in the emerging church are rightly calling evangelicals back to.

But it must go further, because the gospel is only really good news if lives are transformed. We all know that even if we could somehow make everyone healthy and wealthy, we would still have the problem of sin spoiling things for us. We also know that it is ultimately futile to try to persuade people to behave like Christians, without the Holy Spirit’s empowering.

What does this mean for the church? It means that if we really care about the problems of our world, we will want to give people the gospel, because it is the gospel that addresses not only their spiritual but physical and emotional needs. It is when lives are transformed by the gospel that we will see progress on issues such as AIDS, poverty, and even the environment.

This means that the church cannot content itself with merely lobbying politicians to do the right thing. We must freely give what we have been freely given. Even so, we must be careful. There are three ways we can short-change people with the gospel.

First we keep the gospel to ourselves, enjoying the worship, fellowship and fun of our churches. This is all too common a failing of churches and Christians of all varieties, no matter how good a talk we talk. It is not enough to expect the needy to come to us. We must go to them.

Second we reduce the gospel into a set of propositional truths, which, if believed, will indemnify us against hell, and secure our entrance into heaven. This is the over-simplified gospel that the emerging church has rightly critiqued the evangelical church for.

Third, in reaction against the purely eschatological gospel, we turn the gospel into simply being nice to people, as though it were of little relevance whether or not they come to be born again. In effect it turns the gospel into another political / economic solution. This is where I fear some in the emerging church are heading.

Jason Clark has been asking whether the emerging church is a passing fad or a paradigm shift. There are many things about it that I hope are fads that will quickly pass. But we do need a paradigm shift about the gospel. It offers more than new beliefs – it offers new life. It is not about religion but a restored relationship with God himself. This is a gospel that is worth sharing and will make a genuine difference in our world.

If we really do have the greatest solution to mankind’s greatest problem, it is time for us to unleash it on the world, proclaiming the gospel in word and deed.

Plantational Cell Groups

Missional Christians

The word missional seems to be rapidly working its way into the vocabulary of all Christians. While the concept seems a little odd at first, once understood, it makes a lot of sense. One way of explaining it runs as follows.

Imagine you are a “missionary”. You are living in a culture that is closed to Christianity. People don’t flock to hear you preach the gospel, you have to work hard to find opportunities to speak of your faith. What’s more, you have to get a regular job to support yourself as funding is simply not available. Your strategy in this situation would be to slowly work at building friendships and loving people, trying to understand their culture, and praying that one day you will be able to share the gospel meaningfully.

Of course, by now you should have realised that you don’t need to imagine this scenario at all. It is the context that most Christians find themselves in, as we live in an increasingly secular Western society. We are those missionaries. And that is what being missional is about – realising that our whole lives are to be devoted to participating in the mission of God. All Christians are missionaries, not just those who travel abroad. Being missional is becoming conscious of this fact.

Missional Communities

Now imagine another scenario. You are part of a church planting team. There are ten to twenty adults, some with children. You don’t have a building to meet in, you simply meet in a home, worshipping, praying, breaking bread, studying the word together. But there would also be a very strong outward focus. You would be considering how to reach out to people in the community, and build bridges. Though your resources would be small, you would look for ways in which together you could invite others to share in your community in order that you can share the love and truth of God with them.

But again, isn’t this actually the exact situation we are in? Most evangelical Christians already belong to a house group (or cell group, life group, etc). The only difference to a church plant is that we don’t feel the urgent need to reach others (the “church” can do that), and we don’t necessarily feel a strong need to form deep community amongst ourselves (because we have other friends in the “church”).

But what if we encouraged our small groups to have a “church plant mentality”? Or to coin a word that will never catch on (because its too silly), to be plantational? This would give a number of benefits:

  • Increased Faith – church plants are faith-filled places because they know they need to step outside with the gospel if they are to survive
  • Increased Prayer – church plants acutely feel their need of God. They know their limitations.
  • Deeper Community – church plants have to work through personality differences to learn to love one another – because they are all there is
  • Discipleship – church plants have to take responsibility for discipling one another because there is no official “program” to send people on
  • Evangelism – church plants simply get on with evangelism, because they know that without it they will die

Of course, if small groups started operating this way, it may actually mean that the “main church” needs to organise less events, in order to free up people to be involved in creating deep community and reaching out in their individual small groups (church plants).

In reality, a small group can do all the things a church plant should be doing. Worship, prayer, discipleship, preaching, Bible study breaking of bread, evangelism, social action, even baptising. Possibly the only difference would be that a small group typically would not have an “eldership”, although in the context of the early church, which met in houses, an elder’s role may not have been hugely different from a modern day house group leader.

Comments are welcome. Have I gone mad? Or am I onto something?

Book Review – Total Church (Tim Chester, Steve Timmis)

There seems to be a glut of books on new ways of doing church recently – liquid church, provocative church, deep church, messy church, intelligent church, relevant church, deliberate church, positive church, and here “total church”.

Total Church is co-written by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, who are leaders in the “Crowded House” in Sheffield. The unique thing about them is that while being very conservative doctrinally (I’m pretty sure they are Reformed and cessationist), their approach to church is quite radical.

Their contention is this – churches should be built around gospel and community. The “gospel” part of this breaks down into two aspects – they are word-based, and they are mission-focused. Both of these must be done in the context of community, so the word is taught and applied in community and mission is done in community. They note that many churches are trying to be both faithful and contemporary with their presentation of the gospel, but ultimately find that there are very few opportunities for unbelievers to actually hear that message.

They argue that churches have got so much going on that they transition from “mission” mode, to “maintenance” mode. We need to run fewer evangelistic events, youth clubs and social projects to allow more sharing of our lives with unbelievers. This means starting new congregations rather than growing existing ones.

The type of “sharing of lives” they seek to cultivate in their house churches is one in which the church itself adapts to changes in peoples lives. So when a family have a baby, for example, it is the whole churches responsibility to help them and support them in practical ways, not just that family who have to adapt themselves so they can remain part of church life. And while avoiding “heavy shepherding”, they stress the importance of people making decisions (such as moving house, changing job) with regard to the community and in discussion with them, because they are family, just as a husband would discuss with his wife and family.

By becoming a Christian, I belong to God and I belong to my brothers and sisters.

Having laid a theological foundation for word and mission centred community, the second part of the book moves on to look at some practical topics. The authors do not insist that you give up your existing church models and do things their way, but lay down a challenge to “make community infectious”.

Become a blessing by offering hospitality, showing practical care, dropping in on people. Create around you a group of Christians who will share their lives and encourage one another in the faith. You might start with your home group. Often home groups are little more than a meeting. Make yours a community by acting like a community.

Having laid down the principles of “gospel” and “community”, the book shows how these two strands should run through everything we do. So evangelism must be done in community, sharing our lives rather than seeking out “evangelistic opportunities” to hit people with the gospel message. The conviction is that “our love for one another, to the extent that it imitates and conforms to the cross-love of Jesus for us, is evangelistic”. Evangelism involves sharing our lives and sharing the word, and so we need to introduce people to loving a community, not just to church meetings.

There is a challenging chapter on social involvement, which warns that we tend to build churches aimed at professionals. We may not be racist, but are we truly open to those of a different social class to ourselves? The authors encourage us to move beyond “hit and run” social action, to a model where we offer the poor and needy a genuine place of welcome and community.

Church planting is strongly encouraged as the mode of church growth. “The household model is in some way defining of church. The church is the household of God. … For New Testament Christians the idea of ‘church’ was synonymous with household and home.” The authors do not however give any indication of what they consider an ideal size for such a congregation before a new one is to be started. They try not to be too dogmatic, especially concerning the relation of these households to one another. “It matters little whether these small groups are called churches, home groups or cells, as long as they are the focus for the life and mission of the church.”

Discipleship and training is also worked out in the context of community. New leaders are trained by a leader sharing their life and ministry with others. The conviction is that “truth cannot be taught effectively outside of close relationships.” Pastoral care, too, is to be handled in the context of community, not by simply passing people on to “professionals”, nor by becoming amateur “counsellors”, but by the conviction that as we live in community, applying the word in ordinary situations we will see lives transformed.

A chapter on spirituality takes a bold swipe at ideas of “solitude, contemplation and silence”, arguing that these are the luxury of the spiritual elite. Actually we are called to community, meditation on the word and prayer. The authors encourage that Bible study and prayer (and even sermon preparation) should be done in community, not in isolation. Theology too, “is also the task of the church, because the only theology that matters, and is worthy of the name, is practical theology.”

A fascinating chapter on apologetics asks whether we have mistaken the symptoms for the cause. We have assumed that people reject Christianity because of an intellectual problem, rather than because they don’t want God. Thus our attempts to prove Christianity to be rational, while helpful, may miss the mark. A relational apologetic is required. “Christian community is the ultimate apologetic.”

Equally controversial is their chapter on youth work. They argue that much effort is spent with little fruit in running large scale youth events. Rather, it would be better for Christians to invest their time in community with a smaller number of young people, effectively discipling them. Also, the youth are to be included in the church community, rather than being filtered off into “youth church”. It is certainly an idea worth some reflection, but not without some serious practicalities to be worked through.

Finally, the criteria for success is of course faithfulness rather than numbers. Success is being a gospel-centred community. “It is judged in terms of growing Christians and gospel opportunities.” Ultimately, the authors close with a reminder that “Christianity is not a strategy or a set of principles. It is a relationship of love with the triune God.”

I can wholeheartedly commend this book to anyone wanting to shake up their thinking about church. I didn’t agree with all of it, and was left in some cases wanting to know more (for example eldership was not discussed). But this book stands as a fine example of how we can have a radical ecclesiology without losing our biblical moorings.

The church, … is not something additional or optional. It is at the very heart of God’s purposes. Jesus came to create a people who would model what it means to live under his rule. It would be a glorious outpost of the kingdom of God: an embassy of heaven. This is where the world can see what it means to be truly human.

Read more quotes from this book on underlined bits

Book Review – Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (John Piper)

In this provocatively titled book, John Piper urges pastors of churches to focus on what is truly important and be radical in their ministry. He is concerned that so many pastors are getting so caught up in learning professional business techniques that will help them run their churches more efficiently that they lose sight of what they are really supposed to be doing.

But rather than critiquing trends in the modern church, John Piper prefers to write 30 short chapters each giving pastors something to be passionate about. His own remarkable fire and earnestness shines through this book, and you cannot fail to be stirred by it.

He starts off as we would expect with his typical emphasis on the glory of God, calling us to live in “Christian hedonism”, seeking to glorify God by delighting in him.

He controversially urges pastors to tell their people not to serve God. Why not? Because of the potential for a legalistic “debtor’s ethic” – where we attempt to repay God out of gratitude. He states that:

The gospel is not a help-wanted ad. It is a help-available ad. Nor is the call to Christian service a help-wanted ad. God is not looking for a people who to work for Him but people who let Him work mightily in and through them.

Piper moves on to cover a broad range of topics. He makes a plea for the learning of Greek and Hebrew, for reading Christian biography, and for serious study of the biblical text. He urges that we feel the truth of hell, and lead people to repentance through their pleasure, by which he means to point people to God as the source of real pleasure. He warns against fighting sin with “pea-shooter” regulations.

While many of the chapters are about things that a pastor should preach and teach his congregation, the focus is much wider than the Sunday morning meeting. Piper calls his readers to get a passion for mission, to defend the cause of the unborn, to love their wives, to stand up against racism, and to reject materialism.

This book ranks right up there with the best of John Piper’s writings, and I pray that many pastors and church leaders will read it, and heed his call to radical ministry, refusing to be sidetracked by the latest strategies and technologies, and focusing on being who God has called us to be, and doing what he has called us to do.

A Secular Church?

Dave Bish posted an interesting link to a lecture by Mark Dever on why Jonathan Edwards got fired. In it he quoted J H Thornwell, a Southern Presbyterian Theologian who wrote in 1832 concerning his denomination:

Our whole system of operations gives an undue influence to money. Where money is the great want [i.e. need], numbers must be sought, and where an ambition for numbers prevails, doctrinal purity must be sacrificed. The root of the evil is in the secular spirit of all our ecclesiastical institutions. What we want is a spiritual body, a church whose power lies in the truth and the presence of the Holy Ghost. To unsecularise the church should be the unceasing aim of all who are anxious that the ways of Zion should flourish.

(quote is 32 minutes into the MP3)

Surprising how relevant it seems to our own day (perhaps the ‘church growth’ movement is not as novel as some think). I also like the way he goes beyond a mere diagnosis of the problem to highlight the need of the church to be one whose power is found in “the truth and the presence of the Holy Ghost”. Or as we might say today – a church of “the Word and the Spirit”.