This is Part 3 in a series I’m trying to put together that is essentially a summary of the book Total Church, and a plea for balance with both gospel word and gospel community. The first part was about the power of words, the second part was a link between the two, and this part is about the power of community. The ultimate goal is to see the power of the gospel. You may find it interesting (I did) that the video above is created from a different book, The Tangible Kingdom, which I have already said is less balanced. Well, be that as it may, it is a really good video, and probably the best available to demonstrate the power of community in the context of the gospel. So there you go.
I always get ahead of myself when I preview my blog posts. There is no way I could summarize the power of community in anything close to a concise form. There is no way I really could even do it from the perspective of the book Total Church, which I finished and highly recommend still. It is kind of something that you could easily talk about without ever doing, which is what I want to avoid at all costs. Just to give you a little background, my church is experimenting with a house church model and neighborhood initiative that most fundamentally is an attempt to take the church to the people, instead of assuming the people will come to church. From the beginning, I have been cautious and concerned about the lack of emphasis on the centrality of the gospel word, namely the message of the cross, in this model, as well as the negativity towards the institutional church that seems to be the driving force behind it. But all that I have said enough about in previous posts. I find myself now engaging in the concept myself as a leader of a “Life Church”, and am very excited to work through what it means to be the church in all aspects of life, and to experience and proclaim the gospel in the context of authentic community, different from any small group or bible study I’ve been a part of before.
I wish I could just say this and be done: gospel community is not only powerful, but it is essential, and through the local church it is the way God intends for his people to experience, preserve, and model His gospel word, which is the power of God for salvation and the hope of all mankind. We are at a time in our country, and our culture, where this gospel community with a healthy focus on the gospel word is certainly not automatic, and requires our intentionality.
I wish I could just say that and have you understand and experience yourself the same passion and clarity that I have on this topic through the books I have read, sermons I have listened to, conversations I have had, and illumination from the Bible I have experienced. I am overwhelmed right now with resources like this that say I lot better than I am now the ins and outs of this reality. When I started this blog, my original idea was just to lead people to these resources, in a hope that those resources would lead them to the Bible, which would lead them to Jesus. So that’s what I want to happen, ultimately. What I say is going to burn someday, whereas the Word of God will last forever.
But then I realized that if you’re reading this blog you might be utilizing all the extra time you have, and expecting you to dig into other resources is a bit of a stretch (though if you’re reading this in place of reading the Bible, stop! Go read the Word and forget about me). But anyway, I have felt convicted to summarize these things for you the best I can. This has made my job harder and discernment through the Holy Spirit all the more crucial. Much of the below is verbatim from Total Church; I pulled out quotes from each section that seemed to summarize the theme in different aspects of what we consider roles of the "church" (community, not building). My words continue at the bottom with the explanation of the Gospel of the Cross.
"In view of contemporary culture, we should not underestimate the need for authenticity among the people of God. Perhaps this need is greater when cultures are being introduced to Christianity for the first time. The Western world has advantages from a Christian influence stretching back hundreds of years. But this longevity has also brought disadvantages, including a lack of credibility. People have rejected the gospel word in part because they have not been exposed to credible gospel community. Churches have often stood aloof from society. Evangelicals have tended to run away from marginalized urban areas to populate more comfortable suburbs. Christians are often perceived as irrelevant and self-righteous. If these perceptions have any basis, we should not point the finger too quickly at people's spiritual blindness. Jesus gives the world the right to judge the sincerity of our profession on the basis of our love for each other. In other words, we should face with humility the challenge of unbelief. Our response should be one of repentance and faith resulting in lives of authentic corporate existence lived boldly before a skeptical and apathetic world."
"God has a strategy to exalt his Son and magnify his grace. That strategy is to chose the foolish, weak, and lowly people of the world as his own.....The big question is, why is the church in the West failing to reach the poor and the marginalized in our society? If our churches do not reflect the reality Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 1, then we have to ask ourselves, concerning the message we have proclaimed, the way we have proclaimed it, the church cultures we have created, the expectation we have of church members, whether in some or all of these ways we have been untrue to the message of the cross. We have left room for boasting."
"It is sometimes said that those committed to church planting fall into two camps. The first camp includes those whose primary concern is mission and who see church (in the form of church planting) as the most biblical or most convenient way to pursue their commitment to mission. The primary concern of the second camp is the church. They see mission (in the form of church planting) as the best way to pursue their radical view of the church......There is a third camp - those whose primary concern is gospel-centered communities, whose priority is the gospel, and who see Christian community as the natural expression of the gospel. The New Testament pattern of church life implies a regular transplanting of churches. This creates a missionary dynamic in which new leaders can emerge and the church can re-invent itself. Church planting is part of normal church life. At present church planting carries a certain mystique. Church planters are portrayed as a unique kind of rugged pioneer. But we need to create a culture in which transplanting is normal. Every local church should be aiming to transplant and raise up church planters."
"At present the military and economic might of Western nations is struggling to counter the threat of international terrorism. It is proving difficult to defeat an enemy made up of local cells working towards a common mission with high autonomy but shared values. They are flexible, responsive, opportunistic, influential, and effective. Together they seem to have an impact on our world far beyond what they would if they formed themselves into a structured, identifiable organization. Churches can and should adopt the same model with a greater impact as we 'wage peace' on the world."
DISCIPLESHIP AND TRAINING
"Let us make a bold statement: truth cannot be taught effectively outside of close relationships. The reason is because truth is not primarily formal; it is dynamic. The truth of the gospel becomes compelling as we see it transforming lives in the rub of daily, messy relationships.....Our lives, individually and corporately, are all too often indistinguishable from those who are strangers to the grace of God. Jesus commanded his disciples to go and and disciple the nations by teaching them to obey all that he commanded. The reason we fail to respond to that exhortation is not that the commands of Jesus are hard to comprehend. The most significant obstacle in the interpretative process is sin! That is precisely why discipleship is essential. In becoming a Christian, I am a disciple, but that is an identity, not an event. I never stop being a disciple, and I never reach the point where I no longer require daily discipleship by the gospel word in gospel community."
"Marriage and self-harming are just two examples that reflect the myriad of issues faced by broken people in a fallen world. Often it is at these points of "crisis" when life is painful, difficult and messy, that the hiding places of our confidence are exposed.....In a community where the Holy Spirit is at work through the gospel, there is no better place to be than among the people of God when the word of God is skillfully applied by the Spirit of God."
"The invitation is to become part of the new people of God, the bride of Christ. It suggests a spirituality with much more communal orientation. Here is a spirituality in which we grasp the amazing dimensions of Christ's love 'together with all the saints' (Ephesians 3:18). We model and embody God's love for one another (1 John 4:12). I have a relationship with God because we have a relationship with God. There are persons of God because there is a people of God. What does this mean in practice? First, it means we should prioritize prayer with others over prayer alone. Second, we must not separate our relationship with God from our relationship with others. Third, we need to exhort and encourage one another daily."
"In Ephesians 4:11-16, Paul affirms the role of teachers, but suggests their role is 'to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the Body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.' Notice that we reach 'knowledge of the Son of God' together. Our understanding progresses as we grow together. My growth as a Christian is in some sense linked to your growth. Only together do we attain maturity."
"Modern Christianity has developed a rational apologetic. We engage modern society with rational proofs of God's existence. We provide scientific data to defend divine creation. We have developed logical responses to the questions raised by suffering. All of these presuppose that modern people find the Christian faith intellectually weak. But the problem is not an intellectual problem. The problem is hearts that refuse to live under God's reign. We reject God. It is a relational problem. And if it is a relational problem, it requires a relational apologetic. What will commend the gospel are lives lived in obedience to the gospel and a community life that reflects God's triune community of love. People will not believe until they are genuinely open to exploring the truth about God. They become open as they see that it is good to know God. And they see that it is good to know God as they see the love of the Christian community. As Francis Schaeffer said, 'Our relationship with each other is the criterion the world uses to judge whether our message is truthful. Christian community is the ultimate apologetic.'
"We need to persuade people that our story, the story of God, is true. But they will only explore its truth if we can first persuade them that it might be a better story. We need to address their hearts before we can begin to address the questions in their heads. We have a better story than any of the alternatives. We need to awaken a desire for God. We need to make people want Christianity to be true. Then we might be able to persuade them that it is true."
CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE
"Mutual responsibility between the generations is normative for family life and the way in which values are transmitted. Should that not be normative for church also? As those relationships develop and grow over the years, and as the child moves into adolescence, the strength of those inter generational friendships can be powerful means of grace. In the purposes of God they can be ways of keeping the young adult from becoming one among the hundreds who leave our churches each week never to return."
"On the final day, what is unseen will be revealed (Mark 4:21-23), and what is small will fill the earth. But in the present, God's kingdom is secret. It grows unseen. It is small in the eyes of this world. We need to trust God's word and God's reign. Success is not defined in terms of what can be seen, for God's kingdom is unseen. The crown of righteousness is given not to those who have led large congregations, but to those like Paul who can say, 'I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.' (2 Timothy 4:7-8) Success is to be faithful to Christ and his word.....The future of mission does not lie in grand strategies or meta structures. Christ is building his church, for the most part unseen, in the shape of thousands of small congregations. This is the future of the church - the sovereignty of the risen Christ and the 'church of the poor'."
THE GOSPEL OF THE CROSS
(Back to my words) As I have been reading all these books and articles, and going through this journey with other Christians about how to balance the gospel word and authentic gospel community in a way that brings glory to God, joy and transformation to people, and a glimpse of God’s Kingdom on earth, this has become my prayer:
Lord, please do not let the problems I have with some of these approaches to or presentations of community (which you have convicted me are legitimate), become an excuse for me to avoid the challenges in these approaches and presentations that will make me whole and gain people access to your presence and the reason they were created.
For example, many definitions of “the gospel” in emerging and incarnational community literature are confusing, which is the same as saying they are inadequate. I do not believe that the gospel is salvation in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone, and anything else. The Gospel is not of Jesus Christ and. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Period. I believe in social justice and kingdom community and morality (etc.), but these things are not the gospel. They are the fruits and implications of the gospel, without which the gospel has no impact. But they are not the gospel. If they become the gospel, we lose the gospel; the fully sufficient work of Christ will be mixed with our own works (Mark Dever). We are saved into community; we are not saved by community. We are saved by Jesus. We are saved into a life of love towards others; we are not saved by our love of others, or their love towards us. We are saved by Jesus. We are saved into the Spirit-led process of holiness and sanctification; we are not saved by our holiness. We are saved by Jesus. The reason it is important to distinguish between the gospel and implication is that the gospel is most fundamentally about the cross of Jesus Christ. And if it is most fundamentally about anything else, it leaves room for pride.
Only the cross ultimately removes all boasting and leaves us helpless at the feet of Jesus. Only the cross completely destroys our pride and self-reliance and conquers our sin. Only the cross offers a sufficient answer to and hope for the question of suffering. The cross shows us not just touchy feely love for our neighbor, but sacrificial, radical, offensive love that enables us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Only the cross completely saves us from both younger brother rebellion and elder brother religion. Preaching the message of the cross builds a culture of confession in churches and communities instead of an environment where hidden sin destroys from the inside out (Matt Chandler). Without the cross, how can love be anything but self-centered and works-based? Without the cross, the rock that Christ is building His church on will not be centered on the true character and nature of His person and work, but on our good deeds (which aren’t that good). As Ed Stetzer says, the church is not the Kingdom of God, but it is birthed by the kingdom and in its wake. The church exists, he says, to be a sign and instrument of the kingdom, so that when people look into your church (not the building, but the community) they see what the kingdom is like. But if this is centered on us and not the person and work of Jesus, than what they see will be just sinful human beings making an inadequate effort at love and good deeds.
The less we talk about the cross, the more confused the outside world becomes between the gospel message and the peace corps message. The less we talk about the cross, the more confused and crippled the Body of Christ becomes in the preservation and proclamation of the power of God unto salvation. Paul said he resolved to know only one thing: Jesus Christ and him crucified. He talked about other things, yes, but never in any direction other than towards the centrality of the cross. Why aren’t we talking about it more? Are we really worried about what the world will think? Are we trying to please men or please God? Do we think that God’s word will come back to Him empty?
Turning the Gospel into anything more than the substitutionary death and supernatural resurrection of Jesus Christ and resulting grace for those who believe, completely apart from works, will inevitably and eventually lead to works-based righteousness. If we bank our life on anything other than the unmerited gift of God through Jesus Christ, which destroys all pride and removes all boasting, then we are too sinful to prevent any alternative or additional hope from becoming self-centered and therefore devastating. I believe this deeply. It is not an assault on community or evangelism or mission to our culture, but it is a clarification so that our community, our evangelism, and our mission isn’t missing the most important thing, which is the only thing that leads to authentic conversion and reconciliation with God, and as implication, to kingdom community. The Kingdom of God is not people just doing life together without an understanding and experience of the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross. I’m sorry. It just isn’t.
NOT A PLACE TO HIDE
But!!! I don’t want my issue with confusing gospel explanations to become my excuse to ignore the biblical and profound challenges of living an incarnational and missional lifestyle. The Gospel of the Cross is not a place to hide, it is a place to live. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, and if I don’t account for that in my posture and proclamation, than I am beating at the air. Many have articulated this differently, but a full understanding of the human condition as presented in the Bible shows that people do not reject God out some kind of intellectual obstacle, but because of a moral resistance to live other than the way they choose. If I ignore the heart issue of unbelief, and only focus on the head issue, than my hearers or readers (you) will never want to believe, which means they will never be able to believe. The way they will want to believe is when they see an authentic gospel community that embraces them and loves them without any pretense, the way God loves us and demonstrated to us in the sacrifice of His Son on the cross. Jesus told the church in Ephesus to repent of their aspiration for truth that didn’t affect their heart, or He would remove their lampstand. I am very convicted by this.
I don’t want to remain in my comfort zone of books and blogs and sermons and not go across the street or downtown or overseas to help and love people who are searching for God. I don’t want to not listen to people at coffee shops because I am too busy writing and reading about theology. I don’t want to not live among people who are sinners, as if I was not a sinner myself. I don’t want to not love others unconditionally, or only love them when I think it will benefit me, because of my obsession with sound doctrine, as if the implication of sound doctrine was not love. I don’t want to neglect the relational aspect of communion with God, and miss out on the insight and transforming power of witnessing God working through others. I don’t want to eat meals by myself in a hurry so I can finish a book or go to a church service or watch a game or go to bed, and miss the fellowship and presence of the Holy Spirit when people gather over food. I don’t want to spend all my time at home and at work, and miss out on the spontaneous and authentic community that is experienced at a “third place”. I don’t want the time I do spend at home and at work to be any less intentional in my expectation of gospel community than at church events or meetings. I don’t want to excuse myself from mission and service out of selfishness, or busyness, or cowardice, and miss out on the front row seat to the coming of God’s kingdom that is seen by taking care of someone who is hurting.
I hope I can maintain my vigor for the gospel word and the centrality of the cross of Christ while experiencing the balance with, and power of, authentic gospel community. If I can’t, than I don’t think I’ll be the person God created me to be, or the living sacrifice He intends to use for His glory. I’ll just be either another religious hypocrite or another heretical peacemaker. Neither honors our Lord or models His grace for our dying world.