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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Re-imagine

In Western society today (Namely Western Europe, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, and even South Africa more-so in the last 5 years) there has been a major shift in Christianity. Christendom as we have known it no longer exists. We are living in a Post Christendom era. Congregations in the West are in the decline. In the USA there are around 1500 Pastors that lose their jobs each month and around 5000 churches that close their door every year. A survey done in Australia showed that 70% of Australians despise hearing celebrities talk about their faith publically and 80% of Australians dislike hearing Christians tell testimony about healing. Around 80% of people said they want nothing to do with religion but are interested in some form of spirituality. It is very unpopular to be a Christian, and mentioning that you are one can stop a conversation quite quickly. In Western Europe (especially in countries like Germany and France) they are practically atheistic. The average size congregation in France and Germany is around 15 people, in USA and Australia its around 50 people. These statistics are alarming. The question we need to ask ourselves is: ‘Have we been trained to reach a generation that no longer exists?’ In many cases, to enable the church to survive pastors have had to resort to satisfying the consumerist society that we now find ourselves living in. People get bored with a phone within 6 month and there is always a newer, better one that comes out each month. The same with cars, toys, games, TV’s, computers, ipad’s etc. So many churches have resorted to entertainment programmes to keep “bums in seats”and money flowing in. They have had to resort to this in order to keep the system running. The bigger the system is the harder we try to keep it running. Eventually we become a slave to the system that we created. We can’t stop it because what if the church down the road upgrades their programme, music equipment, lights, building, kids programme, and then advertises it (which is seen a lot here in Australia and in the USA), then we end up losing people to the church down the road.
In the past 25 years we have used the Sunday service and homegroup/cell group model. This model seeks to get people to come to these weekly “events” as well as invite people we know to come along to them as well. I believe that this is still incredibly valuable, and corporate gatherings like this play an important role in church life. For the more “integrated/mature member” the weekly prayer meeting will be another one of those “events” that they add to the week. Social times have been bi-yearly events set up by a deacon in the church in order to show that we are a “relational” church that values “friendship before function.” While this is a great sentiment, I am not sure that we actually lived out relational/family to the degree that we see in scripture; particularly in Acts 2:42 -46
Reaching our communities was reduced to handing out tracks, hosting a yearly event (normally around Easter or Christmas), and for the adventurous, a trip abroad to a leadership conference or to a Third World Country to support a Pastor in his ministry.
Now, there is nothing wrong with these things in and of themselves, and they are important, but only within the context of the bigger picture; which is to make disciples of people, for Jesus. The attractional way (meaning: getting people to meetings) causes us to judge the success of the church through how well a Sunday service goes; did we have lots of people today? How was the atmospherics in the meeting? Did all the equipment function well? Was the message not too long and not too short? Was the offering collected a reflection of how many were in attendance? Was the music played well. I understand that a well-run Sunday service can show a level of excellence that reflects kingdom, but I do think that in our western nations these things have become the focal point of our church life. In fact I think we may have become a little over obsessed with this once a week meeting, which only reflects less than 2% of our times spent together. We also end up needing to bring on staff (normally a deacon) who will work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week (and 3 hours on Sunday) to ensure that this 2 hour meeting is well run. The larger the church grows the more of these staffed deacons we need to make the meeting run well. We are generally not happy when everything doesn’t “work”according to plan and then need to have a meeting about it during the week because we don’t want the folk in the church to become upset or distracted by the minor mistakes that we make. (I know that many may not agree with what I have just said and I know that I am pressing some buttons on the way we have been and are “doing” church. My intention is not to break down these things but rather to get us to ask ourselves some honest questions as to where we placing most of our value and therefore where we focus most of our efforts. This is also by no means a call to end these types of meetings, as we here at Crossing Point will continue to meet in such ways. We can also all meet differently and have different settings in which we meet and how those meetings look. This should reflect the environment that we are in as well as our own personal styles as this reflects the diversity and creativity of God. What I am saying is do we place more emphasis on these meetings than on “Doing life together”)
I also believe that we may have placed an over-emphasis on leadership that scripture itself does not do. We have had leadership training times/conferences, leaders meetings, leaders courses etc. Now, again, these things are not the issue, but don’t you think we might be undervaluing the priesthood of all believers. And while I know that this has been a value that we say we have, I think we may not be modelling it out. What if someone is not called to be a homegroup leader, a deacon or an elder? Do we sometimes through over-emphasis on leadership make those who are not called feel unimportant and inadequate in the community and kingdom.
When I look at the Jerusalem church in their early days, they had around 15000 to 20000 people. This was led by 12 men, who were the apostles that walked with Jesus. There was no lead apostle, nor lead elder/lead pastor. Some may say that Peter was, then James, but there is no way of knowing for sure (this can be a later discussion on the dynamic of how these guys worked). However, even with this large group of people they only chose 7 men to assist in the social wellbeing and administration of the church. This must surely raise some questions? Why only 7? How can 12 apostles and 7 others look after the leadership of so many? For me the key is found in Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 2:32-36, this community of people were so involved in each other’s lives that they took care of each other. The point is: family was being formed.
The above points out where we, in the Western church, might have drifted to. Now it’s easy to point out the error, flaws and misdirection’s that we might be living in; but we need practical solutions. The problem with the “consumerist-satisfying” method, is that we aren’t really concerned about where the people are at; as long as they come to our “stuff” we are happy, because momentum in our services is created when people are there (this could be a false momentum, because we don’t actually know if people are connecting with God or each other. They could just be attending).
For me the practical solution is always found in discipleship; the model we see Jesus use. He wasn’t after numbers (although he did value and speak to the crowd, and we need to make room for the crowd. But at one point we see him challenge the crowd and 3000 leave, which shows that his main concern was not for fans but for followers.)
He was after making disciples, He was after creating family. Family do life together. They live in each other’s space. They challenge each other. Many say that the optimum church size is 150 people, because you can still retain a family, relational feel and people can comfortably be disciple and not fall through the cracks. Obviously as growth occurs we need to allow that community to grow to whatever size it can be. I think this means that we need to possibly rethink the way we administrate this. We need to ask ourselves the questions about the role of elders and deacons in the local church and how and who are appointed, as well as the role of ascension gifted men based in the local congregation. We might also need to rethink, biblically, who sets direction, makes decisions on vision etc. (Just some questions we need to ask of ourselves and open the scriptures around this.) The reality is, that although we might be able to lead a group of 300 people, we could probably only disciple a group no larger than 20 to 50 people (depending on our personal capacity.)
In a church of say 500 people with 4 elders, the reality is that not everyone in the church is going to be discipled by every one of those elders. The truth is that one of these elders will have, let’s say 30 people that see him as a ‘father figure’/leader. They are going to connect with him, ask for advice on matters of life, play golf, have meals etc. Let’s says that each of the 4 has a capacity for 50 people with the help of 2 deacons as part of that group, each of them being able to effectively handle 16 people each. This means that 4 elders can handle 200 people, with the help of 8 deacons (the deacons themselves being discipled by elders.) As you can see there are now 300 people that become fringe and are not sufficiently taken care of. Now some might say “that’s why we have more deacons!” Granted, but who disciples those deacons? Is a monthly deacons meeting sufficient to disciple those deacons if we established that “doing life together” is the best method of discipleship?
The method used by Jesus was this: To invite people into his life, and then challenge them to live kingdom. This method cannot be used through simply having home groups once a week, a Sunday meeting for 2 hours, a prayer meeting once a week and a deacons meeting once a month. People will have to actually live life together as a community within a community in order for true effective discipleship to occur. Remember that our goal is to get people to be like Jesus in the world (1 John 4:17) in every sphere of influence they have. Remember what I wrote at the beginning, that we need to effectively reach a post-Christendom society. The way Jesus did it was to embed himself in community and teach his followers to do the same. The most effective way to disciple is through immersion (being totally imbedded into a culture). It was intended that we would integrate into society yet stand out from it (a skill we will need to learn.)
He said things like “when you go into a town find the man of peace and stay there.” The man of peace was a person that we will come into contact with that will be open to receive the message that we carry. This person will also be the door into others’ lives. This process could be slow, but it is an effective way of building. Paul followed this same pattern.
When I have spoken to people in this country many of them have said that they are over church. Many have said that they used to go to church but all they saw was a lot of talking about stuff but never any action to the teaching. They never had any practical application that they could put to what they heard. Many have said that they didn’t care about the fancy building, music, lights, videos, and programmes. All of them desired two major things: 1) To encounter God and be able to practically take Him into their spheres of influence. 2) They longed for real authentic community relationships.
These two things are what we see Jesus living out with his disciples.
I believe that these two basic things is what a Kingdom community does. All of our life’s lessons can be learnt through effective kingdom community. Young men can learn to become solid men through rubbing shoulders with older, wiser, more godly men. The same goes for young girls with older ladies. We can learn about finances from those in the communities that are dealing well with their finances, sexuality and so on. In the past we have mainly sought to get this type of teaching through on a Sunday from the pulpit, but I’m not so sure that this is the most effective way anymore. The Sunday preaching achieves many things, but discipleship at the level that is required to make Jesus followers, I’m not sure it does. There is a lot we can learn from the Hebrew rabbinical way of teaching and living (although we do not become Jewish rabbis, but we can learn from their style, which is in fact the style Jesus used. We can adapt it to suit our current culture.)
This type of reimaging of the way we are doing church can cause us to become a powerful missional community that reaches people on a level that we haven’t seen since the early church. After planting this church into this environment and after following the journey of many other who are in a similar culture (some planting, some replanting, and others having led churches for many years) it has caused me to re-look at how we do things. For those who have been going for a while or those who have taken over churches that were planted by others you might be noticing the shift within your current community, however this might be a bit slower because there is already an existing group of people that have been in the church for a while. But looking at the trend in the USA and around Australia, many leaders are voicing their concern that people are leaving their church at an incredible rate.
I would like to close by saying that this kind of conversation is far greater than can be penned down in an email or blog. I would also like to point out that I am not advocating the removal of Sunday meetings, prayer meetings, home groups, buildings, courses or conferences, eldership, deacons or leaders. What I am doing is asking questions of myself and others in order for us to explore beyond what we have known for 25 years, tried and tested as it may be, because we need to reach a different world to the one that was being reached back then (it’s easy to say we have done it this way for a long time and it worked. Well it’s not working anymore and we need to explore, through scripture, the way Jesus wants us to build NOW in this era. People who aren’t changing are closing the doors to their churches, as seen earlier the statistics are frightening.) We don’t want to conform to the worlds way of doing things to reach them. We don’t want to water down the gospel in order to make it more palatable. We want to hold these truths and effectively reach our communities.
I would love to spark some discussions around some of these things.

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