For the last couple of weeks nothing less than an explosion of confusion has manifested itself in my head. Sounds lovely, isn’t it! The funny thing is that although there is much confusion there is much clarity on what the confusion is about. In other words, the confusion explosion is not an all encompassing confusion across the whole line of my life, but is quite focusing itself in one particular area. And that area is called my life with Jesus (no, not my life in Jesus. There is no confusion there). It is my life with Jesus and how it manifests itself in life and what we call the local church (as opposed to the universal church). I am sure by saying this that you are as confused about what I am talking about as I am about what I am confused about, so let me try to explain (hoping that by explaining my confusion the Holy Spirit is able to shed some light).
Several events led up or contributed to my confusion. These are: church structure discussions with the deacons, listening to a missiology teaching by Jeff Vanderstelt, participating in a three day European Church Planting (ECPN) conference, re-reading Neil Cole’s book “Organic Church,” preparing a teaching on being a disciple of Jesus, and a serious look at my own life in reflection to all of the above. The point is actually quite simple. What does it mean to be a true disciple of Jesus? What does it mean to “do” church? These are the two questions that are pounding inside of my skull for the last couple of weeks, forcing its way out the hard way.
What does it mean to be a true disciple of Jesus?
Without giving too much away from the forthcoming teaching, I have been challenged on my definition of a disciple. Maybe I should say that my definition has been stretched or has become clearer in the process of studying it out. It is not that I had a wrong definition at first, just an incomplete one. But I have been challenged by the question to what extent I actually am a disciple of Jesus. Sure, I believe in Him and I make feeble attempts to study His words and imitating His life. But this is not wholehearted submission to Him, right?! It’s a 21st century version, an extract of a lesser kind, customized and contextualized to my convenience, made fit to be part of my life, but certainly not be a starting point or center point from which my life emanates, right?! This is not about trying and failing. This is about not having Jesus at the center of my life. This is about not deeply studying, meditating on, and applying the Bible in my life. This is about about not trying to imitate Jesus’ life, character and ministry in every aspect of my life, regardless of cost. This is about “doing” the 21st century Christian thing: believe in Jesus, read your Bible, go to church, do the programs, get immersed in ministry life, be busy with all these things, and in the mean time Satan is laughing his butt off, because in all the doing you forget about being a Christian, being a disciple of Jesus. This sounds all very similar to a post from little over a year ago, called “I Wanna Be!” I am doing so much. My agenda is completely overbooked with all Christian activities, but because of that my relationship with Jesus is swept under rug for the sake of ministry. I am reading books which count as input to my activities or discussions or meetings (examples: I read “Clusters” for the ECPN conference; I read “Feed My Sheep” as input for ongoing discussions about the necessity of preaching in the church; I read “Vintage Church” for ongoing discussions with the deacons about church structure). Now, these are all great books, but all the hours reading these books are hours I am not reading the Bible. And Satan is laughing. In all the activities which should facilitate making disciples I forget being a disciple. And it’s frustrating the heck out of me… Now, you may ask: “what’s the confusion here?”. And that would be a good question to ask. My answer would be that the confusion is how to change it around. At the ECPN conference I learned to ask two really important questions. What do I need to start doing? What do I need to stop doing? I need to start to center my life on being a disciple. The confusion is about what I need to stop doing in order to facilitate the start doing.
What does it mean to “do” church?
This is a much more confusing question to be sure. Although I have no church background growing up, my input and experience so far has been the “traditional” model of “doing” church on Sunday and “doing” church through means of a small group on a weekday. Both are church, meaning the church gathers on Sunday for preaching and worship and scatters throughout the week for living life in community. Lately I have been really challenged in this whole concept. Why? Simply by asking myself the question about fruit. In other words, the good seed on the good soil. And the point is, I don’t see it. I fail to see fruit on many different levels. And so I am asking the question whether this is because of good seed on bad soil or because of bad seed on bad soil or because of bad seed on good soil. And I haven’t figured that one out yet, but my first guess is that it is to some extent bad seed on bad soil. To some extent. In any case, I feel that my life has been taken over by programs and meetings and is completely void of any form of natural or organic Kingdom living. Everything is planned out, programmed. And I feel it’s sucking the life right out of me. And I cannot imagine that this is what Jesus had in mind.
So what am I saying really? Well, let’s go from big scale to small scale. On a big scale there is the “church” gathering (traditionally on Sunday). Why do we have these gatherings? What’s the purpose of the “church” getting together? Is it not to raise up holy hands worshiping the LORD our God? Is it not equip, edify, correct, encourage the local body of Christ? Is it not to experience the body at large? Then why do we program it all? Why is there a worship band practicing to “perfect” the songs instead of musicians getting together to simply worship through music? Why is there a professional teacher/preacher in the pulpit who spend 15 hours preparing his notes, based on preaching schedules and series, in order to share instead of those leaders (read: elders) who are gifted at teaching naturally arise to teach the body (for “let the elders who rule well be considered of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17))? Why are there serving teams and greeting teams and cleanup teams, etc., instead of a natural outworking of these things for if we disciples of Jesus we are servants of all and thus each other as well. Why is there so much programming needed and so little natural or organic outworkings because of who and what we are in Jesus?
On a smaller scale there is the outworking of what are called community groups or gospel groups or cell groups or home groups or something like that. These are groups of people coming together based on either geographical location or based on missional focus or just based on existing friendships, and experience the Christian life together. Here again I ask the question. What is the purpose of it? Does it need to be programmed or should it be naturally flowing out of our identity and desires in Jesus? By that I mean, it is clear that the early disciples of Jesus came together in houses to “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42), but was this not something natural that happened instead of something programmed? By programmed I mean there is a designated leader or facilitator who prepares a teaching on some occasions, and on other occasions there is an evening of prayer and worship and communion organized, and on another occasion we organize an evening which focuses more on sharing our feelings, etc. How did the early disciples in for instance Corinth organize themselves? I find it hard to believe they planned and programmed it all out. My guess instead is that they naturally came together in houses, based on geographical location – because why travel all across town, and did whatever the Holy Spirit led them to, and just lived out community together, seeing each other every day because they were simply neighbors or co-workers etc. I doubt that all the “leaders” of these house groups would gather themselves for mutual edification, but that it found its outworking in city-wide gatherings (in temple courts), and that these leaders where actually the elders/pastors/shepherds/overseers which is talked about in the New Testament. Not a hierarchy of leaders, but apostolic leaders, like Paul, instructing his apprentice apostolic leaders, like Titus, to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5).
On an even smaller scale, there is what Neil Cole calls “Life Transformation Groups” (LTGs) which are same-gender groups of two or three people who come together regularly (read: weekly) to hold each other accountable for reading the Bible, confessing sins to one another, and pray for there non-believing friends. Excellent principle and very much needed in itself, but why turn it into a program that has to occur on a weekly basis? Are LTGs nothing more than friends getting together and having fellowship with each other. Should Bible reading not be something you want to do out of a passion for Jesus and His Word instead out of necessity or guilt for not wanting to disappoint your LTG buddies? Is confessing sins to one another not a natural outworking of your life with Jesus (James 5:16)? Is praying for non-believing friends not something you are doing out of a passion for Jesus and a desire to share this with others?
All of this should be happening out of a love for Jesus and a love for your neighbor. If it needs to be programmed because otherwise it doesn’t happen then there is something terribly wrong and I dare say that if the latter is the case then maybe it is better to just stop it all and start from scratch (meaning, becoming a disciple of Jesus, and out of that let Him be the one who runs the program. He is far better at it for He is the only one who has the grand overview.
I must that I have no clarity yet on a couple of things in particular: a) how did true leadership and leadership gifting (E4 gifts – apostle,prophet, evangelist, shepherd, teacher) work itself out in biblical times (within a city, for a city, and for a region)? b) what about preaching and teaching – especially dealing with false doctrine and church discipline – in an organic structure? c) what about the mission and vision of the local church (i.e. should their be)? d) what about paid professionals – for the Bible does talk about financial enumeration for elders only.
So, what does this all mean? I don’t know. I don’t have the answers (hence the confusion explosion), but I have stopped being afraid of asking the questions for the sake of “tradition” or “because it is like it is” and instead put Jesus above it all and right in the center of it all, for He is my prophet and my priest and my king. Programs and structures are not. Does this mean I stop/drop everything I am doing for the sake of organic outworkings? No, but there is an order to things. First, I am a son of God, second I am a husband, third I am a father. Only after these come other things. And if either of these are lacking or failing for something which is outside of the top 3, then will not hesitate to have the order restored.