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One Minute In the Life of the Internet

One Minute On the Internet

With all this data being created every minute of the day, how is the gospel being heard? What do we need to do to connect with people and share the story of Jesus in a way that gets attention and draws people to Jesus in the right way?

Infographic by DOMO.

A Biblical Ecclesiology for Church Planting

Peter Waldo

Statue of Peter Waldo, leader of the ancient Waldensians, at the Luther Memorial at Worms, Germany.

A casual observer of the modern church planting movement might conclude that we have a generation of leaders who are aggressively launching churches in the same way serial entrepreneurs start new businesses. With the right model, enough talent, and piles of cash, we can build a show sure to attract enough attenders to reach critical mass so that a large church is produced. But underlying any church planting movement blessed by a sovereign Creator must be a theology of the church rooted in an ever-deepening understanding of the Scriptures.

I’m a church planter because God has called me to be so, but it is my ecclesiology (my beliefs about the biblical nature of the church) that frames my vision and values. As time passes, I’m more and more convinced that in addition to a great prospectus, a leadership profile, and a thorough interview process, potential church planting candidates ought to also be able to articulate and defend their viewpoint on the definition and mission of the New Testament church. While studying various methodologies can answer the how? of church planting, it is our ecclesiology that answers the why?.

As of this writing, I’ve preached the first message in a new series of foundational studies for Grace Hills Church called Church On the Move. I’ve already had to face the difficult task of determining what not to teach as I race through the first eight chapters of the book of Acts. The Old Testament prepares the stage for the church. Jesus prepared people to lead it. The epistles flesh out the finer details of the church’s structure. But it is the book of Acts that records the story of the church’s initial expansion in the world.

From the whole of Scripture, but especially the portions of the New Testament that give special attention to the formation of the early church, I’ve come to some solid and somewhat unique conclusions about the church, as Jesus intended us to understand it. I’ve believed these things for quite some time, and while I was preparing our church’s bylaws, planting timeline, and missional strategy, I was filtering my methodology through this list of conclusions. For example…

By the way, have you "liked" Grace Hills Church on Facebook yet?

Jesus Founded the Church

Evangelicalism takes for granted that the church was “born” on the day of Pentecost, but I think that position sells short the church planting work of Jesus, whom the New Testament declares plainly to be the Head of the church. Jesus called the apostles to follow Him and become fishers of men. He commended their baptism and instituted the Lord’s Supper with them. And He declared that He would build His church (Matthew 16:18).

The Church Is a Local, Visible Assembly of God’s Kingdom People

Hyper-dispensationalists will pick on this point, but I embrace a very simple understanding of the phrase “kingdom of God.” God’s kingdom is that realm over which He has given oversight to His Son, and it includes all who submit to Him as their ultimate authority. It includes people from every walk of life and many denominational backgrounds. But it is the church that He has chosen to bring about the kingdom’s expansion during this present age.

The New Testament gives very little, if any, attention to the concept of an “invisible” or “universal” church. Well over 100 times, the New Testament refers to the church in the context of a local, visible assembly of baptized believers. A church can have Pastors and Elders, organize itself for the spreading of the gospel, and gather together regularly for worship, all of which would be impractical, if not impossible, for a universal, invisible church.

All believers, regardless of affiliation or church membership, are fellow members of God’s family and fellow subjects of His Kingdom. But the church that carries out the work of missions is a local body, or the local body as an institution, representing all local bodies collectively.

The Church Has Been Commissioned and Empowered

Some variation of what we call “the great commission” can be found in each of the four gospels and the book of Acts. But it is in Acts that we see the context of its giving and the immediately following event of Pentecost. Jesus made it clear that the apostles were to be His witnesses in every part of the world, but they were also to wait for the promise of the Father – the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Scholars and teachers have debated hotly in the last century the meaning of the baptism of (or with) the Holy Spirit. Some seek a second experience of God’s grace beyond salvation. Others conclude that this baptism of the Holy Spirit occurs at the moment of salvation. My assessment of this issue is that the baptism with the Holy Spirit of which Jesus spoke in the first chapter of Acts was fulfilled days later, when Pentecost came.

I don’t seek a repeat of Pentecost today. Nor do I seek a separate experience of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Instead, I simply want to join the story that began nearly two thousand years ago when God poured out His Spirit on the church once and for all for this present age. Peter quoted Joel, who predicted that in this era, which he referred to as the “last days,” God would pour out His Spirit, and the events that unfold in Acts chapter two detail the fulfillment of his words.

He empowered the church that day, and that empowerment is still available for all who will join God in His redemptive purpose through the church.

True New Testament Churches Have Existed Since Jesus

Even in the darkest ages of what the world has called Christianity, in secret meeting houses and underground movements, there have always been churches that have held true to a New Testament ecclesiology. The Protestant Reformation was vital to church history, but not as the re-birth of a lost church. The Reformation merely accelerated and made public the beliefs and practices of Christians who had been reflecting a biblical theology under secrecy and persecution.

When I was a student at Western Kentucky University, I completed a research paper on the Waldensians, an underground group tucked away in the Swiss Alps for five centuries, unbeknownst to most of Christendom, but all the while honoring the pre-Reformation principles of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone. They promoted social justice centuries before it became cool to do so. And they are one of many similar groups that have carried the torch through the corridor of the church age.

The Church Will Last Until Jesus Comes

Don’t misunderstand. Your church and my church are never guaranteed perpetual survival. In fact, I would venture to say that countless millions of dollars in kingdom assets are currently tied up in dilapidated and unused structures belonging to congregations that should have given themselves a proper burial decades ago when they stopped caring about the lost and broken. No particular church is guaranteed eternal survival, as is evidenced in the churches mentioned by John in the Revelation, which for all intents and purposes have ceased to exist long ago.

But the church, as God’s ordained institution for kingdom expansion, will continue its life and ministry until He returns. After all, Jesus Himself declared that the very gates of hell should not prevail against it.

The Church Must Be Both Faithful and Fruitful

It is not biblical doctrine alone that serves as the criteria for true New Testament churchhood. It is also our practice. Charlton Heston was well known for saying of his old rifle, “you can pry this from my cold dead hands.” Plenty of churches can say the same about their doctrinal teachings. There is no life, no love, and no vitality in them, but they continue to shout the truth. But Jesus’ intention was that the church would be faithful to truth, and fruitful in its mission.

So the church, while holding dearly to biblical truth, must also be spiritually healthy and missionally vital to the surrounding culture. And a church that is all of these things will show itself mature when it has reproduced another local body of believers. Multiplication is not merely a growth strategy or modern buzz word. It is the biblical goal of the church Jesus founded.

You may not agree with all that I have written, but do take my challenge seriously. Before you plant or lead a congregation, define your own ecclesiology well, and let it drive you toward the fulfillment of God’s purposes. It is our theology that determines our motives and our methodology that determines our outcomes. Don’t embrace one to the neglect of the other.

Don’t read any of this as dry theological banter. Instead hear my heart: Jesus started, commissioned, and empowered the living organism of the local, New Testament Church as the sole custodian of His Kingdom work in this world, and we are guaranteed by a sovereign God to be successful!

What ecclesiological truths fuel your passion for this crazy thing called “church?”

[Update: Since writing this post, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Rick Warren’s talk at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in January of 2012 on the influence of Anabaptists on purpose driven ecclesiology is available in full in video. It’s good stuff!]

I Am a Foreigner

Happy Kids from the Dominican Republic

Some smiling, happy kids in Santiago, Dominican Republic, who spent the day with us, learning about Jesus and hugging us randomly.

I don’t like that word. I don’t like to hear people called “foreigners” on American soil. And frankly, I just don’t care that much about the politics of immigration. I’m a Christian, a stranger and a foreigner in this culture. My citizenship is in another kingdom, so I’m odd and strange because of my beliefs and values.

Right now, I’m a foreigner in a more real sense. I’m writing this in my hotel room in the Dominican Republic. I’m on a mission trip, visiting Pastor Aridio Garcia and his church, Iglesia Bautista Nueve Espenaza. My task tonight was to take a Haitian translator (he’s tri-lingual) door-to-door and invite people to a Bible study, which I would later lead at a local family’s home.

At one door, the man of the house was a little upset that my Haitian friend had brought these “Americano’s” by and another group of guys around the corner felt the same. I’m not entirely sure about the source of their feelings, but Antoine tried to explain that the locals don’t always like to have “Americano’s” come down to tell Dominicans how to live. I get that.

It wasn’t personally upsetting to me to experience that rejection. I understand. But it did help me, if only a little, to identify with what it is like to be the foreigner, the intruder into the culture of another people. While most of the people here are extremely friendly and receptive, that welcoming attitude isn’t universal.

America’s ethnic landscape is changing rapidly, and it has many people afraid that we will lose our identity, our security, or our “way of life.” Such is the history of the human race. Wars have been fought over less. And it is out of this fear that we often become unwelcoming. We tend to look at those with a different shade of skin color or a different accent or language and mutter things like:

  • If they’re going to come here, they should at least learn the language.
  • Have you seen the way those people live? That’s just not how we do things here.
  • You just can’t trust those people.

We have plenty of stereotypes and prejudices, all based ultimately in fear displaying itself as anger.

But I’m a Christian. I’m a pilgrim, a foreigner, a stranger in a land that is ultimately not my home, just as Abraham borrowed a cave for the burial of his wife in a land he himself would never call home. And as a Christian, my attitude toward guests and immigrants from places beyond our borders is different. For example, I believe that:

  • We are all one human family, descended from a sinful Adam.
  • I deserve hell for my sin as much as anyone else on the planet.
  • The cross leveled the playing field for everyone.
  • Jesus died for a church that would be very diverse.
  • As an ambassador for Christ, I am to welcome everyone with a smile and with grace.
  • I am glad that God is bringing the mission field to us.
  • I have something to learn from people of other cultures.
  • I have nothing to fear. I’m eternally secure because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
  • When a neighbor comes needing bread, I’m commanded to share what I have.
  • English won’t be the primary language of heaven.

So if you can’t embrace people coming to America with loving, open arms, don’t bother complaining about it to me. I’m thrilled when I look at the people walking into my church every week and I see multiple colors and hear different accents. It’s beautiful, and it’s the way heaven will be. If you can’t enjoy it here, you aren’t preparing yourself well to enjoy it when we get home to heaven with the whole, mutli-colored, beautiful family of God.

For now, I’ll take my spot among the foreigners. I’m pretty sure that’s where Jesus likes to hang out.

Before You Plant a Church, Clarify Your Calling

Artwork via Wikipedia Commons.

The work of planting a new church will probably kill you.

On my first day in Greek Grammar class in Bible college, Dr. Jesse Thomas walked in and stood at the podium to offer a brief welcome, “Welcome to boot camp.” Serious students survived, some even thrived, but some fell by the wayside because of their unwillingness to do the hard work of memorization that studying an ancient language requires.

I’ve often thought back to that day as a church planter. Planting a church is hard. In fact, it will destroy your family, your ministry, and strip you of your vitality and enthusiasm, IF you can’t lean on your sense of calling from God.

In other words, if your heart is false, if your motives are selfish, or if your calling to the ministry of planting the gospel is uncertain, then your soul will suffer in the thick of the battle. When tough times come, when money runs short, when criticism abounds, when the launch team leaves you, when your spouse is feeling burned out, and when the emotion of the big launch subsides, you’re a sitting duck for the enemy.

Before you plant a church, clarify your calling. Angie and I have been about the work of planting Grace Hills Church for close to a year now (I can hardly believe it’s been that long), and we’ve already made plenty of mistakes along the way. We’ve done some things too early. We’ve done other things too late. We’ve missed some opportunities and struggle to prioritize correctly sometimes. But at the end of the day, there isn’t a single doubt in my mind that we are doing exactly what God wants us to do, in His world, for His kingdom, at this present moment in history. So we press on.

When I first moved back to northwest Arkansas to begin the work of church planting, there was a question I was faced with quite regularly, “why another church?” It’s a good, honest question. It isn’t always asked with the best motives, but the result of facing it is the introspection necessary for the deepening of our own confidence. In fact, it is in the face of such tough questions that our calling really comes to be tested.

If you’re considering planting a church, ask yourself  the tough questions before others have the chance. Clarify your calling.

Why Am I Doing This?

Some may assume you’re interested in church planting because it’s easier to start from scratch with your own ideas than to fight the brick wall of established tradition. Others will quietly murmur about how much of a trend or fad “this church planting thing” is. A few may even go so far as to question your character, assuming you’re planting for your ego’s sake. How dare they?!

I would urge you to think of it another way – how dare you begin gathering people into close relationships with each other and asking them to invest their very lives for something eternal only to abandon them mid-stream because you ultimately found your own motives to be the wrong ones and never dealt with the tough questions? Why do you want to plant a church?

What Will This Cost Me?

When my daughter was born, life changed dramatically. Before we had kids, I set my own schedule, slept as much at night as I wanted to, and never had to wipe any unidentifiable substances off of any kids’ faces or… you get the picture. Having a child changed all of that. But she is soooo worth it!

Before planting Grace Hills, I was serving on staff at one of America’s largest churches. I was a specialist with a well-defined job description. I worked alongside a staff of hundreds, had encouragement, help, and break times by the water cooler, so to speak. It had its own challenges, but was for all intents and purposes, a dream spot for me. Moving to northwest Arkansas cost me that. I now watch from a distance as Saddleback’s staff continues to thrive and have all kinds of fun without me. Meanwhile my wife and I are generalists, multi-taskers who beg God to raise up more volunteers and send more financial support. And, while that’s tough to some degree, it’s soooo worth it!

Can I Keep My Life In Rhythm?

If you plant a church, your marriage will be tested. That’s a guarantee. If you want to know how church planting is going, just ask the planter’s spouse. I recently interviewed Shawn Lovejoy about his new book, The Measure of Our Success. Shawn testifies that a year into planting Mountain Lake Church, he asked his wife, Tricia, how she thought it was going. Her response cut deeply but initiated a powerful healing in their marriage. Shawn spent so much time, energy, and passion on church planting that his marriage was suffering. His rhythm had been lost.

God has worked powerfully in Shawn and Tricia’s life since then and God is using their story to teach others in ministry the value of keeping our priorities right, but their story highlights how easy it is to do some great things to the neglect of the best things. And what could be greater than planting a church? If your answer is “nothing,” don’t take another step.

Clarify your calling. This is good advice no matter what you do, but especially if you’re going to venture out as a spiritual entrepreneur into the world of planting a new church. I’m praying daily for God to call more leaders into this field, but wisdom demands that we search our hearts, seek God’s face, and move forward only if we can do so with absolute, steadfast confidence that God is both behind us and before us!

If God has called you to ministry, church planting or otherwise, I would love to hear your story in the comments below!

Getting Explicit About the Gospel

The Explicit Gospel by Matt ChandlerRick Warren said, “If you read only one book this year, make it this one. It’s that important.” The gospel is a message that never loses its relevancy and always needs retelling. I found Matt Chandler’s The Explicit Gospel to be an awesome retelling of it.

Chandler’s explanation of the gospel is ultra-clear, and while I detect that hint of his Reformed leanings (to which he alludes a time or two), his book avoids extremes, stays between the theological rails, and at least once even seems to rebuke calvinists for making the TULIP the central issue of the gospel. (To be fair, he rebukes anyone  who makes anything other than the biblical gospel central to the gospel.)

The first four chapters of the book could stand alone as a great summary of the most essential truths ever articulated. I love this for several reasons.

First, we need to realize that there is nothing “deeper” than the gospel. The gospel – the good news of God’s holiness, wrath, and love in giving Jesus as our substitute and raising Him again so that all who repent and believe in Him will have their sins forgiven – is the essence and entirety of our faith. It is both the introduction, the body, and the conclusion of the Christian faith.

Second, I love Chandler’s example to Pastors. Augustine, Spurgeon, Criswell, Piper, Stott, and so many other voices of influence in the history of Christianity were what we might call pastor-theologians. Many of the greatest had little formal religious education, yet they were willing to study hard and articulate theology from the viewpoint of a practitioner who shepherds people living through real circumstances. I applaud Chandler for writing the book, and I hope to see many other Pastors with the courage to enter the arena of writing theologically.

In the second part of the book, Matt takes the church to task – not in a way that is condemnatory or condescending, but rather as a passionate plea to return to the biblical gospel. He writes…

The moralism that passes for Christian faith today is a devastating hobby id you have no intention of submitting your life fully to God and chasing Him in Christ. (p. 70)

and further…

… Rick Warren was onto something when he opened his best-selling book with “It’s not about you” and subtitled it What On Earth Am I Here For? (p. 106)

His book serves as a stern warning against our wanderings and our extremes. Any deviation of the church from the gospel once delivered to the saints is dangerous no matter how “good” it may seem for other reasons.

Though it occupies just one chapter, I also love Chandler’s treatment of eschatology, which he refers to as “consummation,” keeping it in line with the centrality of the gospel’s power to make all things new. I’ve felt his tension of hoping to avoid the subject of the end times because so many have treated and represented this area of theology so poorly and too dogmatically. But I love how he brings it all back around to the eternal enjoyment of the results of the gospel. Redemption is forever.

My biggest personal takeaway is the need to avoid reducing the Christian faith to mere moralism. It’s a trap that I’ve fallen into in the past in my life and leadership, and I want to be careful stay focused on Jesus instead. Hear Chandler’s excellent explanation…

“The person who understands the gospel understands that, as a new creation, his spiritual nature is in opposition to sin now, and he seeks not just to weaken sin in his life, but to outright destroy it. Out of love for Jesus, he wants sin starved to death, and he will hunt and pursue the death of every sin in his heart until he has achieved success. This is a very different pursuit than simply wanting to be good. It is the result of having transferred one’s affections to Jesus.”

The gospel is not about doing better. It is about Jesus, and the change that happens in us when we fully surrender to Him in repentance and faith. Our doctrine determines our direction, and soaking in the goodness of the gospel will do more to change our direction than a hundred practical tips for better behavior.

Therefore… read The Explicit Gospel.

Get This Book!