What Constitutes a Real Church?
There continues to be great confusion today about what a New Testament church is. Richard Jacobson makes an artistic attempt to clear things up a bit in this 4 minute video, employing an analogy of two popular uses for the word "school." Click below. What did you think? Is it a helpful analogy?Posted by James Paul on Friday, October 23, 2015
Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. Lk. 5:15,16
I remember reading these verses at a time when I needed them most. It has been long enough now that I can’t describe the circumstances other than the fact that they were pastoral.
I’ll see if I can communicate some of the personal significance that these verses carry …
Picture people in great need. In the biblical context, I see the friends of a paralyzed man, carrying him on a stretcher for who knows what kind of distance, determined to get him to Jesus. You remember the story. They were so resolute about their mission that they cut a hole in someone’s roof and lowered him on ropes, dangling him in front of Jesus. He was healed. How could Jesus do anything else. I am glad that it wasn’t my roof. This was one of the memorable success stories in the gospels when it came to determination, the power of faith and friendship.
As I read these verses however, I am reminded that there were people who came looking for Jesus and he was nowhere to be found. It wouldn’t have mattered how many friends they had or how dire the situation was. There were times when Jesus was unavailable. We don’t read the stories of those who missed Jesus, those who continued to flounder in their misfortune and hardship. But be assured, they were there and Jesus wasn’t.
You see, Jesus often withdrew … not occasionally … often
Others came to hear him and the service was cancelled. I try to imagine the typical North American preacher tearing her/himself from an opportunity to preach the gospel to multitudes. Ego cannot possible turn away from these kinds of things. People who are mission driven cannot possibly say “no” to invitations to do their thing.
But Jesus did. Often.
Jesus often withdrew … not occasionally … often.
How could he do it …. or not do it?
He said, “I have come to seek and save those who are lost.” So when the lost were seeking Him, it would only stand to reason that He ought to be in the neighbourhood. And if “seeking and saving” was about public gatherings, sermons or a healing ministry, then Jesus missed the boat or so it would seem. But maybe Jesus didn’t see those things to be as critical or important as we do.
What I do get is that Jesus understood His mission. I am certain that he accomplished it. And no matter how demanding it became, Jesus often withdrew … in order to fulfill his mission there were times when he could not “be there” for people.
Have you learned that simple precept as well? As good as your intentions may be, you cannot always “be there” for all your family, friends or the crowd in general. They need to learn that you cannot be omnipresent. You need to learn that as well.
I woke up at about 4:30am the other day. Before I could turn my mind off, I began to fret over my kids, my Mom, Elaine’s parents. I got up and headed for the beach. The fog was heavy and wet. In the thick darkness, I walked next to the ocean, listening to the surf and feeling the slight wind. I watched a boat or two as best I could as it left harbor to do what the fishermen aboard are meant to do.
It was a beautifully lonely place, a beautifully lonely experience. That’s where I go to find him … lonely places. That’s where He went when He needed to get away from His mission and the needs of people. When I look for him and cannot find Him in the busyness of life, I find Him where He often went … lonely places.
There … He prayed.
And like Jesus, there are times when we need to be unavailable as well. For the good of your soul, you need to realize that you can’t always be there.
Often you need to be in the lonely places, with Jesus, … praying.
Someone said, “You can do more than pray, after you have prayed but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.”
I knew an incredible cast of characters in my “growing up” years. (Not sure I am out of them yet.) Most anyone from the Grand Manan of my day would know each and every one of them. The best way that I can describe my childhood to initiated island folk is to say that I had a Huckleberry Finn/Tom Sawyer experience. I think we were poor but I am not 100% sure. Even if we were not, there was nothing that money could have added to our lives.
Rupert was a major player in those early years. I don’t think there were many days when the sunrise didn’t find us running and sundown reminded us that we ought to check in at home just to make sure that everyone was okay. Sequential adventures and mishaps filled our days and the memories bring absolute delight to my soul.
One of my favourite pastimes was brook fishing. I learned a life lesson on the Dock Brook. I call it the “Law of Creek Fishing”.
It began with cutting an alder and wrapping about 25′ of fishing line around the top on one end. We found our way to the edge of the brook, in stealth mode, careful not to cast unnecessary shadows on the water or to make loud noises that might scare the fish. Rupert routinely laid claim to the first deep hole. I would find the next. Apart from an occasional, “Are you getting any bites”, it was relatively quiet. Then the twigs would begin snapping and the bushes rustling. Rupert was looking for some better site after about 2 minutes in the first location.
My mind began to work.
If he gets too far ahead of me, he’ll catch all the big ones. Restless …
Patience would try to advise me to stay where I was just a little longer. I was always a patient person so I would give it another 30 seconds or so. The challenge now was to sneak past Rupert so as not to interrupt his attempt to pull the big one out of that spot under the tree. I was never able to do that. At the last instant he would glance over his shoulder and note the fact that I was now upstream of him.
Barely settled in my new pool I would hear him coming less like a quiet brook fisherman and more like a spooked buck.
A few more forever seconds more in my claim.
Then it occurred to me that I could make better time walking up the brook itself than trying to navigate the heavy bush.
You know where this is going … It turned into a race up the brook and the only fish we caught were the ones that we stepped on. But it was a beautiful boyhood memory.
The lesson for me is that life is best lived right where you are and in the race to get ahead we lose something for whatever dubious gains we might make. What we give away in life is tragic by times. As a general principle, our employers get the best deal regardless of what we are paid. That is just the way it works. The minute they begin to doubt this life gets more difficult. The golden goose is introduced to performance quotas.
Somewhere along the way we forget that we are the commodity and we begin to behave as dependents on those that we serve. Once that happens, we lose, regardless of what we gain. We lose our heart and souls when life becomes little more than an exchange of labor for pay checks. We stop believing in ourselves and even more we lose sight of the fact that God has created each of us uniquely, to live … uniquely.
What are your passions? What would you do in life if money were not a factor? What are the things that you always find time for? What makes you sing or dance? What grieves you most deeply? Somewhere in the midst of these kinds of questions is the thing that your life ought to be most about. And it is always possible … rarely easy … perhaps not always something that may bring riches … but always possible.
You get to keep your soul when you pursue the things that matter. You get to enjoy loved ones when you pursue the most important things.
Lily Tomlin said, “The problem with the rat race is that if you win, you are still a rat.”
Jesus said, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul.” As Lifers, lets give ourselves to the things that matter … I think we are on that track. Be patient. Isaiah 40:31
It’s been five years now … beautiful years since we stepped away from church as we had known it for our entire lives. I joked with people saying, “You’ll never guess what they have every week between Friday and Monday. There are two days, Saturday and Sunday. Many people don’t work on those days.” And in those five years, free from pastoral responsibilities, we enjoyed Sabbath rest, perhaps for the first time ever.
I don’t think I was ever a difficult person to live with but when the weekends came, the pressure of a Sunday morning sermon intensified. I didn’t want to waste people’s time. I imagined that a poorly prepared, 30-minute sermon, in a church of 400 people, wasted about 200 hours. I manuscripted every sermon that I preached for 11 years. In many ways it was enjoyable because I love to write but I was largely unavailable for my family on weekends, the only time they had “off”, so to speak.
I justified my pastoral preoccupation easily, exercising great faith in the power of a Sunday sermon. Now I realize that all a pastor brings to a pulpit is a sermon. God however has a message. It is not the sermon that makes a difference. Not what I have to say but what God has to say. My extreme commitment to a sermon is best described in an adage that my Dad used quite regularly whenever we were “overdoing” things. He used to say in more descriptive terms, “There is a difference between scratching an itch and tearing it all to pieces.”
We moved home to Grand Manan for the summer as quickly as the school year ended. A tired pastor friend asked me to fill in for him as he went on a 3-month Sabbatical. I didn’t even have to pray about it and quickly agreed. His Sabbatical became a resignation. I began to fall in love with the church (people) that he was leaving. They asked us to stay. There was no reason to say “No” and Elaine and I sensed God changing our hearts toward the pastoral role.
I still know two wonderful days between Friday and Monday. Sermons have become less important to me. The message however is more important than ever. But that is what God does, not what I do. What it amounts to is that I am taking myself a whole lot less seriously and God a whole lot more seriously. I have no delusion about the ministry life. It is difficult and demanding … impossible in our own strength. But God is enough, if I follow rather than lead.
That’s my job.
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)
I am a follower. The scripture doesn’t suggest that we follow leaders but that we follow followers. Someone has said that everything rises and falls on leadership. In Kingdom living, everything rises and falls on our willingness to follow.
And that is exactly where I unexpectedly find myself. In following, I find myself somewhere that I never thought I would be again. And it’s okay as long as I know that He is out in front. Five years ago I told my wife,
“When I look down the road, all I see is Jesus. I don’t care what is ahead of Jesus. I just care that He is ahead of me.”
Something beautiful has returned to my heart and spirit … something I thought I had lost forever. The joy of following.
I am so grateful.
It is the work that never ends …
Every single day of life
He is on site, on task, faithfully doing His thing
Sometimes the gains are obvious
Most days I struggle
to see what has been accomplished
There are days …
When the noise is unwelcome
The mess is overwhelming
There is no end in sight
Some days I hope He doesn’t come
Others I join Him zestfully
Most of the time He is on His own
I forget He is even there
I never imagined it would take this long
It seemed like minor renos
But He began a work
A long time ago
And he won’t stop
Until the job and is done
He is eternally, tirelessly relentless
I love Him for that
- Karl Ingersoll
God has been into multi-site church gatherings from the very beginning. It is nothing new. He has been the only omnipresent entity from the very beginning. It likely never occurred to him that one man was so good that he needed to be present in more than one meeting at a time.
And why would God think otherwise?
He can raise anthems of praise from a pile of rocks. All creation declares the Glory of God.
If need be he can write messages on the walls (Divine graffiti). He can inscribe commandments on stone tablets. He can communicate through speechless jackasses when we don’t have the inclination to hear what he has already tried to say in a thousand other ways. He chooses the weak to shame the strong and the foolish to confound the wise. So it’s really no big deal in terms of personal importance to stand in front of a group of people and declare a message. It can be the greatest message in the world and utterly lifeless if it is our message. It can be the feeblest of attempts on our part and dynamite if it is actually God speaking.
But we think it is our innovation … our creativity, our indispensability and our good intentions that legitimizes the virtual vicar.
“Be Thou my Vision O Lord of my heart …
Thou my best thought by day or by night … “
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with multi-site gatherings … as far as I know. But there is something sad if we worry more about the digital dissemination of one pastor than the manifest Presence of our One and only Omnipresent God.
He is building his Church which cannot possibly gather in one location on planet earth. You’ll be relieved to know that it is on His shoulders not yours or mine.