Monday, March 23, 2015

Preaching: A Kingdom Perspective

John Calvin preaching
An Unexpected Relationship 
Is every sermon preached from the Bible God's Word? What is good preaching?  We find an answer  to our questions in an unexpected place: the Kingdom of God.  Kingdom and preaching are related. The Kingdom of God is robust and its influence ripples across doctrine and practice. Its influence spreads even to preaching. This influence is so significant that in order to understand proper preaching, an understanding of the Kingdom is necessary. To see this relationship, a brief discussion of the Kingdom is in order.

Kingdom
The Kingdom of God pervaded Jesus’ teaching, it was the primary theme of his preaching. In Mark’s Gospel the first words Jesus speaks concerns the Kingdom. “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God,” Mark writes (Mk 1:14). He then tells us what this Gospel proclamation was: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Jesus was proclaiming the Gospel of God and this Gospel of God is the good news of the Kingdom. Jesus Himself states that preaching the Kingdom was His purpose: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). Matthew summarizes  Jesus  ministry this way: “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matt. 4:23). Entrance into this Kingdom is through new birth. Jesus told Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3-5). Clearly, the Kingdom was paramount in Jesus' ministry purpose and preaching.


Not only is the Kingdom of God the dominant theme of Jesus preaching, it is the overarching story of the entire Bible1. If the Kingdom of God is the dominant theme of Jesus message as well as the story of the Bible, it is vital that we understand what it is. At its most basic level, the Kingdom is the reign of God. When someone repents of their sin and puts their trust in God they enter the Kingdom's realm by their submission to the lordship of Christ. Jesus told the Pharisees that "The Kingdom of God is in the midst of you" (Lk. 17:21).  The Kingdom, then, has a present manifestation. But Scripture also teaches that there is a future manifestation of the Kingdom (Rev. 12:10; 20).  There will be a time when the King will return and Heaven will come down to this earth (Rev. 21). In this blissful spring, God and man will be fully restored. Because of the present and future manifestations of the Kingdom, theologians refer to the Kingdom as “already/not yet.”


Unfortunately, the Kingdom of God is a forgotten doctrine among many Christians. In the tradition I was brought up in, the Kingdom is seen almost exclusively as the future, earthly reign of Jesus. The present manifestation of Kingdom as Jesus' reign in the lives of believers is neglected. Because this earth will be destroyed any way, this tradition minimizes God's restoration of His good creation. It views this world as a place where "I'm just a passing thu" and  ignores Heaven's future descent to earth, from which the King of the Universe will reign. In this eschatology churches develop a fortress mentality, hunkering down until Jesus returns. This Christianity tends to be pessimistic about the present and the future, bemoaning the passing of the glory days of Christianity and lamenting society's present and future vice. Missing is the doctrine of the triumphing Kingdom.

The Kingdom is huge and its pristine place needs to be recovered. The Kingdom is our metanarrative--the grand story that gives our own stories meaning. We find our place under Christ’s lordship. When we see ourselves as the subjects of King Jesus, we see that there is no secular/sacred divide. Everything is holy order and everything takes has Kingdom perspective. And that includes preaching.

Preaching as Stewardship and Heralding2
In 1 Corinthians 4:1-2 Paul gives a description of ministers: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they may be found faithful.” Paul describes those in ministry as servants and stewards. A steward is one who oversees one who takes care of something. And good steward is a faithful steward. A minister is a servant of the King. He has been entrusted to deliver the King’s message. Paul tells Titus that his preaching has "been entrusted by the command of God our Savior” (Tit. 1:3).


John Wesley Preaching
A minister is a faithful steward to the King, but he is also the King’s herald. A royal herald's job was to  deliver the King’s message to the subjects in the realm. Here, the Old Testament prophet provides a precedent for the New Testament teacher. These prophets would stand before the people of God and begin their delivery with “Thus says the Lord.” They were spokesmen for God. The prophet did not deliver his own opinions or message, he simply communicated His king’s address.  In this way, the New Testament teaching elder or pastor is the spokesman of God. Peter writes: "As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen" (1 Pet. 4:10-11).
If the one publicly teaching Scripture stands as the spokesman for God, what he says is dangerously significant. James warns, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1). Most crucial for the the spokesman of God is accurate, faithful heralding of God's message. Faithful handling of God’s message is done most effectively in expository preaching. In expository preaching a text is expounded—each word, phrase, sentence or paragraph is analyzed and the message of the whole unit is communicated. The pastor does not have his own message to give or his own axe to grind. In expository preaching, the steward submits to the authority of God’s Word. He labors to find the Scripture's meaning, accurately interprets it, and then faithfully communicates it. After studying and rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15), the spokesman can get in the pulpit and faithfully deliver God’s message. If His message is God's message he can say authoritatively, “thus says the Lord.” This why extra-biblical application is so dangerous. If a pastor stands before a congregation and makes application not present in the text under the guise of the "thus says the Lord" he leads people astray. He limits the Holy Spirit's application and shackles the congregation's consciences with his opinions and convictions. Preaching is a dangerous thing.  Right preaching, then, is both stewardship and heralding. 

Preaching in Kingdom Perspective
Because the Kingdom is the metanarrative—the story our story fits into—everything we do fits underneath its vast arch. We live our lives entirely under the lordship of Jesus. His lordship encompasses everything, even preaching.  As such, good and right preaching is guided by the King and His reign. Good preaching is not revivalistic excitement. It is not theatrical gesturing or pulpit pounding or shouting. It is not comedy hour or story time. It is not allegorizing biblical narrative, it is communicating why God included the narrative. Good preaching is the faithful, accurate, proclamation of the King’s message. The pastor doesn’t preach his own message to the congregation; instead, he submits to the message of the text and heralds it. Preaching in Kingdom perspective is steward's faithful heralding of the King’s message.

“Preaching is only authoritative as it accurately communicates God’s Word”~Mark Minnick



1 For excellent treatments of the Kingdom as the storyline of the entire Bible see Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story and Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments.


For a powerful argumentation of preaching as stewardship and heralding see Jason C. Meyer, Preaching: A Biblical Theology

Monday, March 16, 2015

Godly Living and Universal Witness

Grace, Appearing, and Salvation
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people (Titus 2:11).
"Close of the Crucifixion" by Gustave Doré
Initially the last phrase, "bringing salvation for all people" seems out of place within in its surrounding context. Titus 2:11-14 provides the foundation for the Christian life. Paul begins his letter to Titus with qualifications for elders and then he opposes to false teachers (Titus 1). He  moves on to describing consistent, right, living birthed out of proper doctrine (Titus 2). The Cretan false teachers were by their  lifestyles denying their own teaching. In contrast to these false teachers, Genuine Christianity lived out conforms to the Gospel message. Titus 2:11-14 gives the basis and rationale for the kind of life Paul has sketched out earlier in the chapter (Tit. 2:1-10). Finally, Paul further describes godly living inside and outside of the church (Titus 3).

Immediately significant in verse 11 is the connecting word, “for.” This ties the entire paragraph (Tit. 2:11-14) to the earlier verses (Tit. 2:1-10) where Paul sketches a picture of godly living. Godly living pervades every gender, age, and social class: older men(Tit. 2:1), older women (Tit. 2:2), younger men (Tit. 2:6), younger women (Tit. 2:4), and slaves (Tit. 2:9). The reason why every person, regardless of their gender or age or social class should live godly is because of the appearing of God’s grace. Grace as we commonly define it, is God’s unmerited favor. In this instance, however, Paul is giving a more exact specification of grace. This grace has 1) appeared and 2) brought salvation for all. Clearly, the grace Paul is referring to is the Gospel work of Jesus: His life, death, resurrection and ascension. In Paul’s day the word “appear” (Greek, epiphaino) was used to describe the arrival of a mythical hero, or god, or the emperor. Here, Paul refers to the triumphant appearance of Someone greater than the emperor: the Lord of All and the King of Kings.

This grace has brought salvation for all. Before we understand what this phrase means, we need to clarify what it doesn't mean. God’s Gospel provision for all does not mean that all will be saved. Christ closed His Sermon on the Mount this way, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13-14). In a terrifying passage (Matt. 7:21-23) Jesus describes some who believed they were His followers. They declare their good works before Him and He replies by saying, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matt. 7:23).  Although God’s saving grace is made available to all, not all will be saved. Even some who think they are saved, are not. In light of this perilous reality, Paul urges us to examine whether our faith is genuine (2 Cor. 5:5-10). James further adds that faith without works is a dead faith (James 2:14-26). Genuine conversion always manifests in changed living.

What, then, does God’s universally appearing, saving grace accomplish? Its accomplishment is that Jesus' Gospel work has been made salvation available to every person throughout all ages. We know this because God “is not willing that any should persist but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). He “wants all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).  His love is for all: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). Jesus died, “tasting death for everyman” (Heb. 2:9) so that His death wasn't for the elect alone, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 Jn. 2:2).

Where the Future is Already Taking Place

So in this conversation of genuine Christianity marked by godly living because of God's grace, why does Paul include a phrase affirming the possibility of salvation for all? Paul has already described what godly living accomplishes. Godly living ensures “that word of God may not be reviled” (Tit. 2:5). It protects against accusation, “that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us” (Tit. 2:8). Those who live godly lives “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Tit. 2:10).

That last phrase from 2:10, is the key to understanding why Paul includes the universal hope of verse 11. We live godly lives to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. When we showcase the Gospel before all people, we are adorning, showing the Gospel’s beauties to all. We function as a telescope pointing curious observers to a huge, stunning, beautiful galaxy. We live godly lives in front of all men because all men are savable. When old men (Tit. 2:1) and old women (Tit. 2:2) live godly lives, it adorns the Gospel to old men and old women. When young men (Tit. 2:6), and young women (Tit. 2:4) live godly lives it adorns the Gospel to young men and women. When slaves live godly lives (Tit. 2:9) it adorns the Gospel to other slaves. There is a totality in the scope of witnessing present in godly living. We are to live godly lives to showcase the Gospel. Our living godly lives stirs the hungry appetites of unbelievers. The Gospel life is the changed life, adorning and commending the Gospel’s power.  This right living is the visible expression of right belief. Everyone longs for more than they have. That’s why we stuff ourselves with food, drink, sex and play and come up empty. Though these things are good and right, they cannot satisfy. They were never meant to. Only Jesus can satisfy. Only He can fill our cravings.

"Paul is not trying to persuade Christians to see their life as attractive, in the sense of being easy. Instead, he expects that unbelievers will be attracted to this new life in Christ. Paul is saying that unbelievers will find life in Christ compelling, even though that life is often counter-cultural and frequently costly…If people are attracted to our lives, they may start to show an interest in our message"~Tim Chester 1

At the Last Supper after He washed his disciple’s feet, Jesus made a stunning claim, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”(Jn. 13:34-35). Love is an amazing witness. By Christian's love for one another, all people see the wonder of the Gospel. The church, the assembly of believers, should be marked by love. Christians should be the most loving people because they have been loved by the One whose love matters most. A loving Christianity creates compelling community. The world desperately needs to see this loving, Christian witness. The world needs to see the love of Christians for them and for each other. Tim Chester writes: 2

The resurrection of Jesus was an eschatological event: it took place in the past, but it was also the first act of the coming age. The church is an eschatological community: we live under the reign of the future coming King. We're the place on earth where the future is already taking place
The church is a foretaste of the age to come when this world will be under the earthly reign of the good King. May we live our lives godly and lovingly as "worthy of the Gospel" (Phil. 1:27).


Below is a sermon I preached on Titus 2:11-14 called, "God's Grace: Foundation of the Christian Life"


God's Grace: The Foundation of Christian Life from Desert Heights Church on Vimeo.



 1 Tim Chester, Titus For You (
Nottingham, England: The Good Book Company, 2014), 73-88.


2 Tim Chester, Ordinary Hero: Living the Cross and Resurrection in Everyday Life (Nottingham, England: The Good Book Company, 2013), 8.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Wisdom and the Dignity of Vocation

"Solomon" by Gustave Dore'
Platonic Christianity
In an effort to not love the evil of the world (1 Jn. 2: 15-17) Christians have admirably sought distance from its vice. Unfortunately, Christians have gone so far as to be living life in a dualistic state. This dualism is seen in divorcing the physical and the spiritual with the physical being subjugated to the spiritual.  The best activities are those that belong to the higher, spiritual realm. All activity is split between the sacred and the secular. So worship is seen as higher than recreation, reading the Bible as more dignified than sex, and being a pastor more noble than being a lawyer. The highest calling for Christians, then, is full time vocational service. Secular employment exists only for the good of the church. Because this kind of thinking is so widespread many Christians who are not called to full time vocational service feel less. They feel as though their significance to the Kingdom is less than the noble Christian worker. This dualistic, platonic, worldview is not Christian, coming from the ideal forms philosophy of Plato and Plotinus and not from Scripture.

Scripture gives us a corrective to this platonic, dualistic Christianity. This corrective is found in an unexpected place: Old Testament Wisdom.

Wisdom 

In order to understand wisdom we must first consider its relationship to creation. Through wisdom, Yahweh founded the earth (Prov. 3:16). Wisdom herself tell us about her presence at the world's forming: 
The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work,
 the first of his acts of old.
Ages ago I was set up,
 at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
 when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
 before the hills, I was brought forth,
before he had made the earth with its fields,
 or the first of the dust of the world.
When he established the heavens, I was there;
 when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
 when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
 so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
 then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
 rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
 and delighting in the children of man  (Proverbs 8:22-31)
She tells us she witnessed the emptiness before and God’s amazing work during creation (8:23-26). We also read that she saw God’s establishment of the heavens, drawing a circle on the face of the deep (Prov. 8:27); His establishment of fountains of the deep (Prov. 8:28); His assigning the sea’s limits, and marking of the earth’s foundations (Prov. 8:29). She was present in the very shaping of existence. She intimately knows its pattern. She wants to guide us in this journey of life. She knows the way. That’s why she cries out:
“And now, O sons, listen to me:
 blessed are those who keep my ways.
Hear instruction and be wise,
 and do not neglect it.
Blessed is the one who listens to me,
 watching daily at my gates,
 waiting beside my doors.
For whoever finds me finds life
 and obtains favor from the LORD,
but he who fails to find me injures himself;
  all who hate me love death.” (Proverbs 8:32-26)
What, then, is wisdom? Wisdom is the ability to successfully navigate the course of this complex world. It is rooted in God’s created order. As such, wisdom pertains to all of life.

The foundational book of wisdom is Proverbs. Here, we are exposed to an elementary course in wisdom. Job and Ecclesiastes provide further, more in depth courses in wisdom. All of them affirm that Wisdom’s origin is the fear of Yahweh (Prov. 1:7; Job 28:28; Eccles. 12:13). In brief, fearing Yahweh is devoted reverence to God(Ex. 20:20) and obedience to Him (Eccles. 12:13).  There is a relationship component to wisdom. Proverbs begins by praising wisdom’s benefits. If wisdom is concerned with successfully navigating this complex world, her value is indeed above riches (8:10-11). This first collection of Proverbs spans from chapter one through nine. It teaches us the basics of wisdom. Chapters eleven through twenty nine are collections of wise sayings. They provide a framework for fitting wisdom to diverse situations. Chapters thirty and thirty one end the book. Chapter thirty one closes this foundation wisdom book with a heroic hymn to the virtuous woman.

Wisdom begins in the fear of Yahweh (Prov. 1:7). Wisdom promises to give understanding (Prov. 1:2), instruction in righteousness, justice and equity (Prov. 1:3); prudence, knowledge and discretion (Prov. 1:4); and an increase in learning and guidance (Prov. 1:5). In a way reminiscent of Psalm 1, wisdom teaches us to avoid the company of the violently wicked (1:9-19). It warns us to avoid the adulteress, adultery (Prov. 2:16-22; 5; 6:24-29) and indulge in marital bliss of our wife (Prov. 5:15-20, 18:22). It covers familial relationships (Prov. 4:3-4; 20:7; 30:17). It teaches about alcohol consumption (Prov. 20:1; 23:19-21). Wisdom gives us life guidance (Prov. 2:1-15, 3:1-12). It teaches principles about business practice (Prov. 6:1-5; 11:1) and work ethic (Prov. 6:6-11; 26:13-16).  Wisdom discusses government (Prov. 8:15-16; 20:8, 26). It has instruction concerning our communication: it forbids lying (Prov. 6:16-19; 12:22; 24:28-39) and foolish speaking in rumor, gossip and slander (Prov. 25:8-10; 30:10), it encompasses prayers and vows (Prov. 3:9; 7:14-15). It discusses listening (Prov. 8:6-9). It even talks about emotional expression (Prov. 12:16; 14:29-30; 17:27).  Clearly, Wisdom is concerned with all life has to offer. It is not restricted to the "sacred" realm. Instead, it teaches us that the whole of life is sacred.

What we’ve covered in our survey is only a taste of wisdom’s basics from Proverbs. We haven’t covered wisdom’s riches in Job, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. What then should be gleaned from this brief study? In wisdom we see that there is no dualism in God’s ordering of life. There is no divorce of the physical and the spiritual, the secular and the sacred. All of life lies under God’s reign. In the Old Testament, the people of God submitted to the Yahweh’s lordship as their King. His presence was seen in His tabernacle and subsequent temple. Law and worship, service and recreation, His rule pervaded all of their lives. In our New Testament Christianity, the people of God enter into relationship with the King by submission to His lordship through repentance and faith. The lordship of Christ over all of life, even vocation, is something we desperately need to grasp. Wisdom cries out for it.

Wisdom scholar Raymond C. Van Leeuwen writes, “Wisdom is difficult to define because it is a totality concept. That is, the idea is as broad as reality and constitutes a culturally articulated way of relating to the entire world. The absence of wisdom is 'folly,' which like 'wisdom' is expressed in a variety of Hebrew terms…Thus, in the OT good sailors, metalworkers, weavers, counselors, scribes and builders—all may be described as 'wise'." 1  Craig Bartholomew and Ryan O’Dowd agree with Van Leeuwen’s description of wisdom. They write that “wisdom is not just about activities like sewing, farming, building or reasoning on their own. It is about how all such activities find their meaning in the whole of God’s created order. Mending a garment, cooking a meal and plowing a field are wise when they are in harmony with God’s order for the world.”2


"Wisdom" (Hebrew, hokma)
Proverbs 31: Wisdom in the Everyday
The last chapter of Proverbs is most understood as a separate, unattached poem celebrating the virtuous woman. This understanding, while certainly not wrong, is incomplete. Proverbs 31 is not an unconnected poem of praise, but a closing heroic hymn demonstrating what a life of wisdom looks like in the every day. Whereas Woman Folly (Prov. 8:13-18 ) is fleshed out in the Adulteress Woman (Prov. 5; 6:20-7:27), Lady Wisdom is fleshed out in the  Virtuous Woman (Proverbs 31:10-31). This is a woman who lives wisely in the fear of Yahweh. She is a woman we are called to emulate.

She is more precious than jewels (Prov. 31:10). Her husband entrusts his entire being to her, she fights for her family, bringing them good (Prov. 31:11-12, 28-29). She is a craftsman (Prov. 31: 13, 24), and a hard worker (Prov. 31:14-15, 27). She is a strong business woman ( Prov. 31: 16-19). She is charitable, caring for the poor (Prov. 31:20).  She provides warm clothing for her family (Prov. 31:21). She enjoys the good things in life and rightfully indulges in them(Prov. 31:22). Her renown is well known, she uplifts her husband (Prov. 31:23). She is strong, honorable, and pious (Prov. 31:25). Her speech is filled with wisdom (Prov. 31:26). All she does she does because she fears Yahweh (Prov. 31:30) and she is worthy of praise (Prov. 31:31).

Earlier we saw that wisdom covers all of life because all of life is under Christ’s lordship. In Proverbs 31 we see what wisdom looks like in the everyday. This woman is the very picture of wisdom. Wisdom is entirely pervasive: business, family, pleasure. She shows us that there is no sacred/secular divide. All of her life is lived as a holy calling. Obviously, this has some huge implications for our discussion. If all of life, lived in fear of Yahweh, is a holy order then for the Christian all of life is the Lord's work, even vocation. 

Unfortunately, God's good created order in vocation can be abused. A word about this must be said. Bartholomew and O’Dowd write, “The cultural background of the song reminds us that good callings often go wrong: artists who produce pornography, athletes and businesses dominated by greed, and politicians motivated by narcissism and power. Today, humanist and individualist ideals are often cherished over values like justice, humility, peace and service. But like the resurrected Christ, this woman calls us into our broken cultures to pursue a renewed order in the world where all of God’s creatures are freed to flourish and develop their own creativity.”3 


The Proverbs 31 Woman lives a life of wisdom. All she does is wise because she lives in the fear of Yahweh. She teaches us that there is a wise way for every aspect of life, even its menial tasks. This woman’s renown was well known. She stood out as hard working, kind, charitable, and a lover of good. Undoubtedly the wine of her vineyard was the finest. Surely this kind of wise living is the kind of life that causes others to ask of the hope that lies within (1 Pet. 3:15). This kind of wisdom life is intrinsically missional. 
 
Vocational Dignity

What, then, does wisdom teach us about vocation and its dignity? In our brief study we learned that the secular/sacred dualism that is rampant in Christianity is unwarranted. Christ’s lordship is over every area of life. Wisdom demonstrates this entirety, whether it be worship or relaxation, Bible reading or sex, full time ministerial vocation or having a law firm. If there is not a divorce between the sacred and secular, then all vocation is “sacred.” All vocation, lived in wisdom, is noble. It’s dignified. The Proverbs 31 Woman, wisdom in flesh, demonstrates to us what wisdom looks like in the various, even menial details of life. The fast food worker or the the oil field worker, then, need not feel inferior to a pastor or missionary or Christian school teacher.  One vocation is no higher calling than the other. For the Christian, every occupation is the Lord’s Work, every calling a high calling, every life a holy order. 

 

1. Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, "Wisdom Literature," in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 848.

2. Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O'Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 24.

3. Ibid., 124. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

What to Look For in a Church

The Complexity of Searching
Looking for a new church is difficult. Sometimes painful. Excruciating.Unless you're leaving your church because of a move, the process is going to hurt all the more. It is no coincidence that one of the primary images for the church in the New Testament is the Body of Christ (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor 12:12-27). When members release themselves from a local expression of the body, it makes for a season of agony.

After being at the same church for more than twenty years, I began the arduous and discouraging search for a new church to call home. The journey spanned two summers—roughly six months. The first thing I did in my church hunting was review a church’s doctrinal statement. Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Charismatic, Non denominational—I looked at every protestant church website within an hour’s drive from my home and read their doctrinal statements. Some churches didn’t even bother to post one on their website. After reading the statements and marking off some from the list, I emailed the pastor with further questions.



The next stop in the process was meeting the pastor and talking about family, theology, ministry and relationship with Christ. After that, I would attend the church. Sometimes a pastor didn’t respond to my email and we didn't meet, but I attended the church anyway. I wanted to visit as many churches as possible. Some stereotypes I had of churches and denominations were warranted, and as I experienced these churches myself, I saw that some were not. It was a season of learning and growth for me.

Whether the pastor wears a tie or not, the church has pews or not, Bible translation, and worship style (traditional or contemporary) should not be the deciding factors in finding a church. Below are the principles that guided me in my church hunting. They provided a framework for me in my searching.

Doctrine
Doctrine is word referring to Christian teaching. This term is tied to theology. Individual sections of theology are usually called doctrines. For more explanation concerning theology you can read an overview here.

What a church believes theologically is a monumental consideration. Maybe it is even the consideration. It is no secondary issue. When a church doesn’t even post their doctrinal statement that says something about them. A church’s doctrine is its foundation. What they believe about God, His Word, and His people will effect every area of their practice. Everything is determined by beliefs.

Community
Having been in the same place for over two decades, I was very comfortable in church. I was accustomed to seeing the same people usually three times a week if not more. Because I attended the church’s Christian school, I saw some people six out of seven days a week. That all changed when I began searching for a new church. It’s hard to articulate the vulnerability I felt when I walked into a building entirely foreign to me filled with people I didn't know.

For a visitor, someone in the church making a real effort to meet them and get to know them makes all the difference. Often, a person’s expression of love in conversation or a pastor’s gentle, welcoming hug means more to people than what is being said in the pulpit. Lived life is always a stronger testimony than spoken word.

Is the pastor welcoming or is he aloof? The pastor sets the tone and usually the church will imitate its pastor. If the pastor is not meeting people, taking them to lunch, or having people in his home it is likely that the congregation will follow that example. People stay in churches because of people. Christian community drenched in love is what Jesus attributes to powerful witness—real identification with Him (Jn. 13:25). The community of Christ, if loving, is essential to a church’s health and should be something you're looking for.

Missionional Mindset
Part of shepherding is guiding the sheep. A pastor should be leading his congregation towards a destination or a goal.  A church that has no defined purpose and no objectives for mission will plateau before slowly withering away.

A church should have a vision for its community. If a pastor or church body complains about their place of service or makes degrading remarks about its local people and culture, serious doubt about that church’s missional heart is warranted. We’re supposed to reach our community(Mt. 28:18-20) not ridicule it. Churches should have a missional mindset, actively seeking ways to share the Gospel and make life long disciples of Jesus.

At Desert Heights our mission statement is “Desert Heights Church exists to reach people with the life giving message of Jesus that they might become fully devoted followers of Christ.” Clear. Succinct. Missional. It nicely communicates our purpose as a local expression of Christ’s body. The mission statement is on the wall on the lobby next to the entrance and we recite it nearly every week during the worship service. It is essential to remind the church why we do what we do.

Church Discipline
A church that disciplines its unrepentant members is a church that takes the Bible seriously even if it is extremely uncomfortable. It speaks volumes about their integrity and their view of Scripture’s authority. They are willing to do the unpopular because that's what the Bible commands. Corporate discipline is a mandate implemented by Jesus Himself:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)
This concept of discipline is carried even further by Paul. He further describes incidents calling for discipline and its process throughout his letters: 1 Corinthians 5:1-11; Gal. 6:1; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; Tit. 3:9-11. A church that disciplines its members who are living in blatant sin and refusing to repent is a healthy church. Discipline is not comfortable or even desirable, but it is thoroughly biblical. It should be the practice of the church.

Plurality of Leadership 

Although a case can be made for a pastor-deacon governmental structure, I believe plurality of leadership found in elders is most faithful to the biblical texts. The early church church pattern definitely had a plurality of leadership (Acts 14:23, 20:17). Paul instructed Titus to appoint multiple elders in Crete (Tit. 1:5). The writer of Hebrews instructed his readers to “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Heb. 13:17). After surveying the biblical data, theologian Wayne Grudem writes1
Two significant conclusions may be drawn from this survey of the New Testament evidence. First, no passage suggests that any church, no matter how small, had only one elder. The consistent New Testament pattern is a plurality of elders "in every church" (Acts 14:23) and "in every town" (Titus 1:15). Second, we do not see a diversity of forms of government in the New Testament church, but a unified and consistent pattern in every church had elders governing it and keeping watch over it (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17; 1 Peter 5:2-3).

Feeding the flock through preaching, practicing care, and managing business are responsibilities that are just too much for one person. A one man show pastor is an exhausted pastor. Plurality of leadership allows for the elder/s teaching the time necessary to devote to himself/themselves to “prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Plurality of leadership safeguards the congregation from one man’s weaknesses because it is filtered through the grid of plurality. It allows for variation of opinion in the shepherding of the local body. Plurality of leadership allows for gifted men in the church to exercise their corporate gifts to the body—teaching and preaching among them. When one man teaches exclusively, it robs gifted men of their opportunity to edify the body through their gifts.  Eldership is both biblical and practical.

Mark Dever recollects, “Probably the single most useful thing for me in my pastoral ministry has been the recognition of a group of men in our church as elders. Knowing that these are men that the congregation has recognized as gifted and godly has helped me immensely in my pastoral work. We meet and pray and talk over matters and, by so doing, they greatly supplement my wisdom. So my own experience attests to the usefulness of following the New Testament practice of having, where possible, more elders in a local church than simply a lone pastor—and of their being people rooted in the congregation, not simply church staff hired from outside.”2



Heartfelt Worship
We express excitement, or praise, in what are are passionate about. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge Dallas Cowboys fan, even through twenty years of mediocrity. I do ridiculous things sometimes, like proudly donning a ginormous foam Cowboys hat, or making sure the tennis shoes I buy are silver and blue, or throwing a chair when we lose a close game. When I was at Cowboys Stadium, I joined the chorus of nearly a hundred thousand people screaming out, cheering for our team. Why? Because I love the Dallas Cowboys and I’m passionate about them.

I was raised in a tradition that is solemn in worship—not in intent, but in practice. The songs were written predominantly in the 1800s up to the 1950s. They were folksy lyrics, with folksy tunes from another generation. It made it difficult to worship with such distracting, foreign sound. People should be excited in worship. That doesn’t have to mean hand raising, or clapping. People are all different and express themselves differently. In worship, there should be some expression of adoration and praise to God. When you visit a church and a congregation is excited about their God, that is a wonderful thing.

Expository Preaching
One of the most discouraging things I discovered while visiting was the prevailing lack of serious, careful explanation of biblical passages.  I heard an entire sermon about being God's friend from James 2:23. The entire surrounding context of works proving genuine faith was completely ignored. I was shocked. Sustained, solid exposition of Scripture was replaced by superficial life coaching. Missing was the power of God’s Word.

The danger of topical preaching is that both the topic and proof texts are chosen by the pastor. The messages, then, will reflect his strengths (what he’s passionate about) but it will also showcase his weaknesses (soapboxes and oversights). While topical preaching can be done well and it is sometimes necessary, it shouldn’t be the normal practice of a church. It will lead to a malnourished congregation.

Expository preaching should be the homiletical philosophy implemented in the regular, weekly unfolding of a text or book. What amazing riches are gleaned in sermons that begin at the beginning of a book and weekly unpacks the text word by word, paragraph by paragraph! This kind of preaching demonstrates to the congregation that the Bible is a cohesive whole. It is not all like Proverbs 10-29 where mostly unconnected verses are placed next to each other.  In expository preaching the pastor submits himself to the lordship of Christ. He is only a messenger delivering the herald of the King. The congregation needs this kind of meaty preaching.

A Place to Serve
Finally, when considering a church and weighing all of the different factors above, it is essential not to approach the situation with a consumer mentality. Churches are not places to only take, but to give as well. Both giving and taking are involved in body relationship. In worship—in song and sermon—we give God praise and eat the rich feast doing so provides. We give and we take. The two are not mutually exclusive. While looking for a church you should be looking for a place to serve.

 

1 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 913.

2 Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013),241-242.