Archive for April, 2011


Click here for a full translation of The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus.

When I was a missionary in Spain one of the overall goals of the Evangelical Church was to be accepted by society. Actually they were desperate to even be noticed. This desire to be an accepted part of society didn’t come from the values of the New Testament; it came from the history of Christendom. In their minds, the Catholic Church was their rival. And, since the Catholic Church was accepted as a part of Spanish society, although for the most part, resented by the public, the Evangelicals wanted that same social acceptance. I don’t think social acceptance should be a big part of our desire or strategy.

Instead we should focus on exactly what Jesus told us to focus on. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt. 6:33). Just like we are not meant to focus on our need for food and clothing, which are real needs; we shouldn’t be focused on our social standing with society; which is actually only a perceived need. Is Jesus good to his word? Can we trust him to give us anything we actually need? I think we can.

The Early Church was at the same time despised by much of society and admired. This was predicted by Jesus who said in Jn 15:18-19 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” Yet, at the same time they were admired for their good works. They were known as moral people who did good for the society. Here is a passage from an early Christian apologetic letter:

…they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.[1]

The first recorded legal recognition the Church was known to receive was as a burial society burying the bodies of the poor who were thrown like garbage at the edge of Roman cities. They were also known for rescuing “exposed” babies; babies left among these same rotting cadavers to die because they were unwanted. This schizophrenic love/hate reaction is what the current house church movement in China is experiencing. They are known by their neighbors as being wonderful people. They have even been studied by the government because it was noted that villages with a high percentage of Christians were better villages. Yet, currently the Chinese government is cracking down on them. I discuss in depth both the Early and Chinese Church’s relationship with society in my upcoming book Viral Jesus (release date 2/2/12).

We should emulate our Early Christian and Chinese brethren. We don’t need to make a splash in the newspapers. We don’t need any formal recognition at all. It may come, and if it does that’s fine; but we shouldn’t seek it. As Paul prayed for the Colossians: We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,  so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light (Col. 1:9-12).

What then should we aim for? We should aim to be the kindest, most helpful people on the block. We should aim to be the people that everyone goes to when they need help. We should quietly do as much good as we possibly can, without trying to make a name for ourselves. And, we should use the opportunities that come from doing good to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (I Pet 3:15). We should also disciple every new Christian to do the same. In doing so, we will be bring honor to Jesus’ name and get lots of opportunities to share our faith in gracious, non threatening ways. We will be seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. It’s not just a religious command, it’s a strategic road map.

  • Where do you think the desire for social acceptance and recognition comes from?
  • How do you explain the schizophrenic love/hate reaction of society to Christians behaving as Jesus told us to behave?
  • What kind of reputation does the Church have in society today? Is this being hated for righteousness sake? Do we have a reputation for doing gracious, gentle acts of kindness?
  • Have you ever thought of seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness as a strategic roadmap?

[1] The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus [article on-line]; available http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0101.htm. Internet accessed 14 July, 2008.

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A good elder watches over the sheep.

In my last post, What is an Elder Really? I discussed how the meaning of the word “elder” has changed over time to mean something which was not intended in the New Testament. I concluded with this paragraph: An elder, then, is a more mature Christian. And such a mature Christian would use their maturity to serve others, coming from a position of humility and weakness, not from any position of apparent strength, title, power or positional authority. To do otherwise would be to set aside Jesus strict instructions about how “greater” (i.e. more mature) people were to behave. In my next post I’ll talk about how such people actually behaved and the important role they play in organic church.

How New Testament elders behaved

A New Testament elder was a more mature Christian. As such, they had much to give those who were less mature. Their goal was to lead newer, less mature Christians to maturity, which, in reality, meant lead them deeper into a relationship with Jesus. In doing so, they watched over the younger Christians. This is where we get the word “overseer” episkopos, which is also translated “bishop”. Sadly, even in translating it into the word “overseer” we get the idea in English of being over someone else positionally or having power over them. That’s not the idea. They watch over new Christians the way a shepherd watches over sheep. Here’s how James put it:

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock (I Pet. 5:1-3).

A good elder led not by power, but by example. You don’t need power, position or control to lead by example. You just need to be a good example. Furthermore, elders watched over the less mature Christians like a loving shepherd watched over sheep; looking out for trouble, finding any way they could to protect them. Again, no power is needed to serve in this way. What was needed was a servant’s heart and influence. Influence needs no power. It is a gift given to those who have it, by those who are being influenced. You have influence when people give it to you. No amount of power, position or title can give you influence. These things can only give you coercive power. To use coercive power is to “lord over,” what Jesus told us never to do in Luke 22: 24-27.

One last thing should be said about this verse. Elders or overseers are to shepherd the flock. The word shepherd is the same word we also translate pastor. Here it is being used as a verb, denoting the action a good elder takes. This verse has been used to suggest that an elder, a bishop and a pastor are all the same thing. That’s not actually true. A pastor is a person with the spiritual gift of pastor, mentioned exactly once in the New Testament (Eph. 4:11-13). A person with the pastoral spiritual gift is gifted to take care of the emotional and relational needs of those in the flock. This behavior is also easily explained using the metaphor of a shepherd. Elders watch over the flock through maturity and influence; those with the pastoral spiritual gift care for the flock through the use of their spiritual gift. The word pastor is never used in the New Testament as a noun, or as a verb,  to describe someone with positional power, as it is commonly used today.

How New Testament elders reproduced organically

To lead a person deeper into a relationship with Jesus, the main function of an elder, is to disciple them. This is the basic function of discipleship. But it is discipleship though life, by example, not the mere downloading of information, which has become so common today. It is better described as training. It is the way a kind, wise master carpenter would teach an apprentice. No amount of book learning will teach someone how to build a house. For that you have to handle wood, hammers, nails and saws until you are good at it.

In the same way, elders discipled less mature Christians to become closer to Jesus. They taught them the skills necessary to actually follow Jesus himself in a new covenant relationship. When they showed the deep lifestyle maturity described in I Tim 3:1-7, which is the natural outflow of being in an abiding relationship with Jesus, they were mature enough to be considered elders themselves. Note that this is measured by life skill/godly behavior, in other words, spiritual maturity. Oh, and one other thing, the ability to teach or train others to mature spiritually the same way. When elders teach immature Christians to become elders, they have reproduced themselves organically, because they have reproduced according to their own kind.

  • Most of us don’t think about pastors, elders and bishops this way even though that is what is being described in the New Testament; why?
  • Nowadays it is much more common to use the word “elder” as a member of a congregational churches board of directors. Can you see this described anywhere in the New Testament?
  • Does it make sense to you how in organic church no titles, positions or human power is necessary?
  • In the New Testament the descriptive words for Christians were an issue of maturity “elder,” function “overseer,” or spiritual gift “pastor,” “apostle,” “prophet,” etc. None carried the idea of power or position. Could you be comfortable in such a spiritual ambiance?
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The word translated "elder" simply meant an older person.

The role of elders is crucial in organic church. However, the idea of what the word “elder” means has been so distorted by history that we need to clear up some misconceptions before we can even talk about what elders do and how they play an essential role in the Church. So this will be a brief, two part series. In this post, I’ll talk about how the word “elder” was used in the Early Church. In the next post, I’ll discuss the important role elders played and how they reproduced themselves organically.

The New Testament word for elder is one of those words whose meaning has been severely distorted by history. In the nearly 2,000 intervening years, we have significantly wandered away from the meaning of “elder” as it was used in the New Testament. I discussed this issue of changing meaning in a recent post When Words Get Ruined. Here is a “definition” from Bible Study Tools.com, of the Greek word presbuteros which we translate as the word “elder.”

Definition

1.       elder, of age,

a.       the elder of two people

b.      advanced in life, an elder, a senior

1.       forefathers

2.       a term of rank or office

a.       among the Jews

i.       members of the great council or Sanhedrin (because in early times the rulers of the people, judges, etc., were selected from elderly men)

ii.       of those who in separate cities managed public affairs and administered justice

b.      among the Christians, those who presided over the assemblies (or churches) The NT uses the term bishop, elders, and presbyters interchangeably

c.       the twenty four members of the heavenly Sanhedrin or court seated on thrones around the throne of God

This definition is a mixture of correct definition and history with some dangerous historical anachronisms added in. Of particular interest is definition 2b: “A term of rank or office,” and “Among the Christians, those who “presided over” the assemblies (or churches) The NT uses the term bishop, elders, and presbyters interchangeably.”

It is true that the word episkopos, or bishop (an overseer, one who watches over) is used interchangeably with presbuteros, an elder. However, the idea that such people “preside over” the assemblies, is not quite on the mark. What is happening here is that we have transposed our current non-biblical church structure and culture onto the text. We are interpreting the New Testament through what we currently do, instead of basing what we do completely on the New Testament in its historical context. This is a dangerous hermeneutical practice.

Let’s look at the actually meaning of the word presbuteros. It means literally, someone who is older or more mature. That’s the way it was used in the New Testament. But, it was used metaphorically. It doesn’t necessarily mean whoever is advanced in years, but someone advanced in spiritual maturity. It is simply someone who is spiritually mature. This idea that it was a “rank or office” and that such a person would “preside over” another Christian would completely mystify the original readers of the New Testament. It probably would have offended the very early believers.

From the perspective of Jesus statements about leadership in Luke 22: 24-27 to have a “rank or office” would be akin to having a rank or office like a “king” among the Gentiles. And to “preside over” is just a nicer way of saying “lord over.” Christians aren’t supposed to lord over, preside over, or even lead. They are supposed to serve. And, they do it not from a position “over” but from a position of weakness, that of a child or slave. Just read Jesus’ actual statements. Keep in mind that this rebuke by Jesus was precipitated by the disciples trying to set up a primitive hierarchy where some disciples were greater than others. For more on this see my post Leadership???.

Whatever an elder did, in the Early Church, it was not from an office or rank; that’s Gentile behavior which Jesus warned us away from. In other words, it’s the way the world works; worldly behavior. Further, it was not even done from higher, but non-titular, status where one could “preside over.” Again, that’s what Jesus told us not to do. In fact, anything a more mature person, an elder, was going to do had to come without rank or power, but rather from a position of weakness. In the words of Jesus, But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Lk. 22:26).

An elder, then, is a more mature Christian. And such a mature Christian would use their maturity to serve others, coming from a position of humility and weakness, not from any position of apparent strength, title, power or positional authority. To do otherwise would be to set aside Jesus strict instructions about how “greater” (i.e. more mature) people were to behave. In my next post I’ll talk about how such people actually behaved and the important role they play in organic church.

  • Why do you think we have turned elders into people having positions of power, title and rank?
  • How can someone who is more mature actually help another from a position of powerlessness and weakness? Can someone help another if they don’t have the power to control their behavior?
  • Can you see why reading the New Testament through the lens of our current practice instead of reading our current practice through the lens of the New Testament can be dangerous?
  • Has it ever occurred to you to try to analyze our current church practice through what Jesus said in Luke 22: 24-27? And, can you see why, if we do so, we must be careful to read it through the actual historical lens of the New Testament, not through the lens of our current church culture and practice?
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Saul needed an encounter with the Spirit of Jesus to become Paul.

I recently read Journeys to Significance, Neil Cole’s latest book. You can read my review here. The book was so good that I found myself wanting to write a blog on about every third paragraph. I won’t do that, but there are a few statements or paragraphs I just can’t resist. In reading them I found myself meditating on my own journey and the state of my own relationship with Jesus. I believe that kind of meditation is healthy for all of us. I’m going to include one of these meditations. I suspect many of your will recognize the issue.

Many of us, like Saul, have grown up in a religion that takes God’s word and obeys it without hearing the actual voice that speaks it. God’s word is truth. It is pure. It sanctifies us and enlightens us, but it is possible to simply see it as a bounded list of command to obey rather than as a living and active voice. Saul knew how to read, interpret, and apply the scriptures. This can result in lifeless behavior codification rather than an inner spiritual transformation. What Saul didn’t know was how to hear God’s active voice in them. (Journeys to Significance, p. 37).

I have spent the majority of my Christian life as a Saul. I was trained in one of the best Christian Universities to be a Saul. We studied doctrine, doctrinal paradigms, the Scriptures themselves, hermeneutics, etc. All with the goal of learning what the Bible (or doctrinal paradigms) said and applying them zealously to our lives. I went to genuine, Bible believing churches, where I was trained to be a Saul. I spent the majority of my adult life in Christian ministry with a bunch of kind, sincere Sauls. And, I’ve trained more than a few people how to be focused, zealous Sauls.

I don’t say this with bitterness or anger, it’s just a fact.[1] It is a reality of the kind of Christianity I was brought up in. It is what I saw, what I was trained in, so it became, for me, the way one expressed earnest Christianity. I don’t doubt the zealousness or heartfelt desire to serve the Lord; of the people I grew up, or myself for that matter. I know what was going on in my heart and, with some wiggle room for being a human, most of the desires of my heart were focused on serving the Lord.

But there is a problem, and it is a profound one. Neil Cole has, in his gracious, kind way, put his finger on it. Saul, a zealous, well trained Pharisee, had all the same kinds of training and zeal I had. With that zeal he set out to kill God’s elect. In the words of Jesus himself, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me” (Acts 9:4)? Bible training, doctrinal correctness, zeal, heartfelt effort are all good things. And they are all inadequate for actually serving Jesus. In fact, with the best of intentions, using these good tools, in our flesh, we can end up being at cross purposes with God himself.

If we treat the Bible merely “as a bounded list of commands to obey rather than as a living and active voice” we are going to end up with the life Paul (no longer Saul) warned us about, “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). It is the Spirit that gives life, not the mere written statement of the Bible, no matter how true they are. Jesus himself, said to a bunch of people trained just as Saul was, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).

Buy Journeys to Signicance by clicking here.

The key here is the new covenant that Paul mentioned in 2 Cor. 3:6. Laws, rules, concepts, scriptural principles are no longer merely a written code (as they were in the old covenant of the Law). They are engraved on our hearts. As ministers of the new covenant, we Christians not only have the written code; we have the Spirit living in us, who speaks these things to our hearts and minds. He not only tells us the truth, but shows us how to live out that truth in our specific situations. We don’t apply a list of commands, we obey “a living and active voice… God’s active voice in them.” That active voice will never violate the spirit of his living word. But we no longer are slaves to a written code. Paul (no longer Saul) said in Rom. 7:6: But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

Here is my encouragement to you. Strive to imitate Paul, in following the Spirit of Jesus that lives in you, to live the life of Christ. The Spirit will tell you how to live out good doctrinal principles. In doing so, you will avoid being a Saul who allowed good doctrine and the truth of the Scriptures (as good as they were) to kill his soul. Then the truth can set you free because it will be infused with the power, presence and guidance of the Spirit of Truth.

  • Do you believe that it is possible to be sincerely trying to follow the truth of the Scriptures and end up a Saul rather than a Paul?
  • Have you ever thought of asking God where you are in the transformation process of moving from being a Saul to a Paul?
  • Do you understand the difference of living in the old covenant of the Law (Saul) and the new covenant of the Spirit (Paul)?
  • Do you believe it is possible for the Spirit to tell two Christians to apply the principles of the Scriptures two different ways?

[1] I do think a little sorrow is justified, but I am forgiven by a gracious God who knows my heart and understands the circumstances in which I was spiritually formed.

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Sometimes definitions get so ruined we can't communicate.

One of my frustrations as an organic church practitioner is that, as I dialog with more traditional Christians, I find that we use the same words, but often mean very different things by them. This makes true and thoughtful communication very difficult. Let me give you a few examples: elder, pastor, apostle, leadership, church, evangelist and teacher. I could give a few more, but this will suffice for now.

There is a cause for this. More traditional Christians have learned to use words, not by their original biblical meaning, but by what they have come to mean in the current cultural context of the church as we know it. Organic Christians find it helpful to go back to the original meaning of the words we find in the text. We do this because once one goes back to the design of the church, as we find it in the New Testament, these words and their original meanings become very helpful, descriptive and strategic. But if I use the word “pastor” meaning a person with a spiritual gift and God given design of caring for the needs of others; the traditional Christian hears “a person with the top hierarchical title and position in a congregational church.” They are two completely different things.

So what do we do about this? I can use a word, and have to explain it; or I can avoid the word and come up with something else. I’m going to give an example of how I’ve personally chosen to use both strategies with different words. For me, the issue is ease of clear communication. I realize others will have different opinions and reasons for how they use each of these words. I’m just giving an example of what I do.

Apostle

The word apostle is from the Greek apostolos. Here’s how StudyLight.org defines the word:

1. delegate, messenger, one sent forth with orders

  1. specifically applied to the twelve apostles of Christ
  2. in a broader sense applied to other eminent Christian teachers
    1. of Barnabas
    2. of Timothy and Silvanus

An original reader of the Greek text in the year 68 A.D. would have completely understood that first line. From the word “specifically” onward, he or she would have been completely mystified as to what the writer of the definition is talking about. An apostle is a sent one. The twelve were changed from being mere disciples to apostles in Matt 10:1-2 when Jesus sent them on a mission. Barnabas, Timothy and Silvanus (as well as Andronicus and Junia [a woman]) are just more biblical examples of sent ones, apostles.

Apostles are people sent by God on a mission to extend his Kingdom. They existed in the 1st Century and they exist today. The Latinized version of this same word is missionary.[1] Someone convinced that only the original twelve were apostles, would probably whole heartedly agree that God still sends missionaries to extend the Kingdom; not realizing they are being completely inconsistent. What we have from “specifically” onward, in the above definition, is the traditionalization of the definition of the word. It is unbiblical tradition rearing its ugly head. That doesn’t come from Greek or the Bible, it strictly comes from the definer’s tradition. And, that’s the problem, in my opinion.

I still use this word because I can just say I am using the word by its original definition, “sent one,” someone sent by God to extend his Kingdom. The hearer may not agree that I can or should use this word in this way, but they can easily understand what I’m talking about. At least we’re communicating. For more on this read What Is an Apostle?.

Leadership

I can use the word “leadership” in a sentence, talking about Christians, without cringing. O.K. maybe I can’t; but I’d like to be able to. There is a reason for my personal cringe factor. The second we use this highly charged word, we all tend to go to the worldly meaning of leadership. It means someone in a hierarchical position who has positional power, control and authority over others. And, we use the word authority as a synonym for “power.”

This understanding of what leadership is all about is baked into our bones. When we use the word, we have an extremely difficult time getting to what Jesus was actually saying in Luke 22: 24-27. Jesus isn’t saying, “Be a new type of leader, one who expresses his or her leadership (positional power and authority) by serving for the good of others.” That’s being a benefactor; something Jesus tells us not to do in Luke 22:25. This is a concept commonly called “servant leadership.” Isn’t it amazing that we end up doing exactly what Jesus told us not to do…all in the name of Jesus. Servant leadership is an oxymoron. Jesus is actually saying don’t lead. That’s the way the Gentile power elite act. Do something different instead; serve others from a position of weakness; like a child or servant. For more on this read Leadership???

I no longer use the word leadership. I just tell the people I’m discipling, don’t lead, love and serve others. We’re all the same in God’s eyes. Once I use the word leadership with them, we’ll spend the rest of the day trying to figure out what’s good leadership and bad leadership. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as good leadership. Jesus told us to serve. I’ll stick with that. Leadership is non-Christian activity. I do this for ease of communication. I know that others won’t agree, and that’s fine, as long as we both know what we’re talking about.

  • Does it make sense to you why I’ve chose one strategy with “apostle” and another strategy with “leadership?”
  • Can you see how easy it is to have historical tradition even become part of our English Bible translations?
  • What could happen, as in the definition above, when we read a poor translation or study help and think we are getting the straight scoop?
  • Do you understand why organic church people, in going back to the original ecclesiological structure of the Church also tend to start using words as they were originally used in the New Testament? In your opinion, is this just rigid fundamentalism or is there a deeper reason?

[1] And, of course, the word missionary has taken on a completely different meaning from the Latin version of apostolos.

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Reproduction is built into God's organic design

One of the distinctive features of organic churches that clearly differentiate them from more traditional (legacy) churches is that organic churches are made to reproduce. This is a matter of design, not a happenstance.

Organic Church

A true organic church[1] is simple. Simple things are easy to reproduce. An organic church does not need trained clergy; in fact everyone can and should contribute. That’s easy to reproduce. Organic church is not intended to be controlled by humans but by Jesus himself (see: Authority: How Jesus Leads a Church). Wherever you go, Jesus is there. All you need are some Christians and Jesus. That’s easy to reproduce.

In reality an organic church is based on God’s organic design of His creation. Reproduction is built into its design. Just like in Gen. 1:12: The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. In God’s organic design, everything reproduces according to its kind. So, churches reproduce new churches, believers reproduce new believers, elders (mature Christians) reproduce more mature Christians by shepherding the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3), apostles reproduce apostles, teachers reproduce teachers, etc. None of this requires special, expensive training, resources or materials, let alone expensive buildings. It requires attentive Christians, the Bible and a creative God; nothing more.

Legacy Churches

Legacy churches, in contrast, are not simple, nor are they easy to reproduce. They require special trained clergy. How expensive is it to train a seminary trained leader? That’s neither rapid nor easy reproduction. Nor does this seminary trained leadership lead to higher quality of believers. In reality, because the clergy do most of the work for a consumeristic “laity” we much more commonly end up with weak, church attendees, rather than vibrant reproducing Christians. In any given legacy church, how many of the “laity” have won others to Christ? How common is it?

Buildings are very expensive to buy and maintain. Nor do they contribute in any significant way to making more vibrant disciples of Jesus. There is not a single thing that can be done in a dedicated church building that makes for a more mature disciple of Jesus that can’t be done in a home, a restaurant or a park. That’s not easy or cheap to reproduce.

In legacy churches things don’t reproduce according to their kind. Leaders don’t normally reproduce new leaders. Instead churches find there major leaders outside of the church by hiring them. Most people aren’t involved in the discipleship process both being developed by more mature Christians and reproducing the life of Jesus in others. It happens, but it is very rare.

How many legacy churches do you know that have reproduced themselves even one time? If they did reproduce themselves, how much did it cost? Did it lead to reproduction of other churches? Does it consistently reproduce high quality disciples of Christ who are themselves highly reproductive?

The answer to these questions, in the vast majority of cases, is that legacy churches, with all their good intentions, don’t reproduce easily; nor do they tend to consistently reproduce actual reproductive disciples of Christ. And this ineffectiveness is very expensive. The problems (lack or reproducibility, lack of quality discipleship, and exorbitant cost) are built into the design.

  • Other than tradition, can you think of a good reason why we are so addicted to the institutionalized structure of our churches?
  • What strategic advantages can you see in legacy churches?
  • Do you think legacy churches consistently produce more mature disciples? If so, how?
  • Do you think any advantage a legacy church might provide is worth the exorbitant cost and lack of reproducibility?

[1] This is as opposed to a smaller version of a legacy church meeting in a house. Wolfgang Simson calls this a church in a house, not a house church. John White calls this same phenomenon “Honey I shrunk the church.”

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Buy Journeys to Significance by clicking here.

Neil Cole’s latest book Journeys to Significance: Charting a Leadership Course from the Life of Paul is a unique and intriguing take on leadership development. Most books nowadays view leadership from the “how to” perspective; understand these three things and you’ll be a great leader, or adopt these five principles to being an effective leader. In reality, that is a rather shallow understanding of what leadership really is. Further, from a Christian perspective, it short changes the spiritual dynamic of how God actually works throughout our life to develop a person who becomes more like him and in the process accomplishes his work through us.

In place of this shallow, trendy, technique and concept driven approach to leadership development, Cole takes a completely different path. He uses an interplay of three elements to discuss how God develops an effective leader over a lifetime. The first element is J. Robert Clinton’s understanding of the stages of leadership development. This first element, is more of a skeletal structure; important but not particularly noticeable on the surface. The second element is the life of Paul, as an example of a man who becomes a very mature leader. The third element is Paul’s missionary journeys, each viewed as a new and further progression in Paul’s ministry development.

By using this unique approach, Cole gives us a view of leadership development that is much deeper and reflective than the typical fare of today’s trendy, shallow take on leadership. He allows us to get a much better grasp of God’s unseen, loving hand as he develops us as unique individuals. He allows us to grapple with the interplay of this unseen divine hand, life’s circumstances and our interaction with both of them. God’s work in our lives, to develop us as unique, valuable, beloved and godly individuals, is not a simple, standardized process. Yet, if we cooperate with God in this process, we can become a beautiful illustration of God’s artisanship; at once an example to the world of his craftsmanship, while useful for his service and the good of others.

The apostle Paul is someone who cooperated with God to become a unique work of God’s craftsmanship. But, Cole does not portray Paul as a faultless, perfect demigod. Cole notes, “I believe that many, wanting to almost worship the apostle, have actually stripped him of one of his most admirable qualities—his openness to learning. The Scriptural text does not deify Paul, as we tend to do, but actually shows us all of his growth.”[1]

Paul’s lifetime journey, then, becomes a backdrop to explore the work of God crafting of a life. And, with the same gracious yet frank honesty of the Bible, Cole gives us a warts and all exploration. Paul becomes a man in process of maturation; maturation with a divine hand guiding it.

Cole pauses at the end of each stage of Paul’s life to draw real life, practical lessons. In doing this, he allows us to reflect on our own lives. By doing so, we can see God’s hand in our own life, realize that our bumps and bruises are not happenstance, track where we are in a life long journey towards significance, and get a glimpse of what may lie ahead.

Don’t expect Cole to portray a simple, easy journey. He is realistic and honest. The deep lessons that God wants to build into our life and character often come through pain and trial, not usually through victory and glory. … three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked…God’s workmanship in our lives is worthwhile, but it is not easy or painless. Yet, this honesty is paradoxically optimistic. God doesn’t pointlessly and cruelly beat us up. He doesn’t allow trial, defeat, heartache, betrayal and frustration heartlessly. Even these intensely painful episodes in our life are acts of divine love. They may be painful, but they are necessary if we are to truly mature.

Would I recommend this book? The answer is an unequivocal, yes. There may be tens of thousands of books on leadership, there may be hundreds, even thousands of Christian books on leadership, but few are this real, honest, deep and practical. None use this unique perspective. Further, as an interesting but valuable added benefit, Cole gives us a running and fascinating commentary on Paul’s life in Acts. You’ll probably never read Acts the same way again. This, in and of itself, makes the book worth buying; and it’s just an added bonus.

Below are some questions that this book may help you answer.

  • Where are you in God’s crafting of your life? Do you have a way to gauge that?
  • Do you have any idea what might lie ahead if you continue to cooperate with God in his development of your life and character? Are you cooperating?
  • Have you hit a plateau in your development? What can you do about that? How can you get going again?
  • Considering where you are in your life’s journey of development towards significance, what should you be doing to cooperate with God? Could the difficulties you are facing now actually be a gift from God, moving you towards greater character development and effectiveness? How can you tell? What should you do about that?

[1] Journeys to Significance, pp.88-89.

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The other day I had an interchange with Richard M. who was asking questions about my post Starting on the Wrong Foot. You can read the interchange by clicking the link and going to the last two comments at the bottom of the page. In Starting on the Wrong Foot I has posited the idea that if we start an organic church with a core of Christians, we are much less likely to become outward focused, viral, or fulfill the Great Commission, than if we plant a church among the new Christians we have won to Christ (or even those who have not yet come to Christ). This, of course, is a shocking idea; one that many find offensive. Nevertheless, I will hold to my position. It has been borne out over and over again in my church planting experience.

The question becomes, why do I hold to this shocking position? Why does my experience bear out this unexpected reality, that it is harder to become missional with experienced Christians than brand new Christians (or even those who are in the process of becoming Christian)? I think the answer lies in what I called the CIAM Syndrome, in my response to Richard. What is the CIAM Syndrome? It is the Church Is About Me Syndrome. It is something we tend to bring with us from church as we know it like Bedbugs in Our Suitcase.

I’m not the first to notice this syndrome. Here is a funny video about the CIAM Syndrome.

We have tacitly learned that I need my perceived needs met. Once they are met, I am content. We have also tacitly learned not to even ask the question, what does Jesus want to do?

The reality is that Jesus wants to do a lot. He wants to do a lot in us, and in the process, he wants to do a lot through us. This is a holistic process. It is not first he works in us, then he works through us. But, the more he works in us, the more he can work through us. He must lead that process; not us. He knows what he needs to do in us, to make us more fit to bear fruit through us. That is the whole point of his parable of the vine and the branches.

However, as long as we are focused on our perceived needs, we will short circuit the process. We have to trust him. We have to have absolute confidence that he knows what to do in us, and how to work through us. If we have that confidence, we can enter into a lifelong process that leads to radical transformation and abundant fruit. It will be painful at times. Can we trust him in the pain? Can we trust him that he loves us too much to do something that isn’t for our own good? Can we trust him that even when we can’t sense his presence, he hasn’t abandoned us? Can we trust him that when our ministry plans don’t work out, he has a lesson or two for us or just needs to work on transformation more, before he chooses to bear more fruit through us? Can we really trust him?

We need to learn that church isn’t all about me. It is all about Jesus. We need to learn that we, nor anybody else, leads an organic church meeting; Jesus does (see: Authority: How Jesus Leads a Church).  We need to learn that Jesus is the Lord of the harvest, and we are not. That being the case, we need to learn to follow him into the harvest, instead of coming up with all sorts of clever plans. In order to do that, we need to learn to listen and obey. We need to learn that Jesus has our back. We don’t have to worry because he will take care of us IF we trust him. For thoughtful commentary on that read Keith Guiles most recent post For Richer or Poorer? My experience tells me that it is easier to teach this kind of vibrant, spiritual and Jesus dependent lifestyle to new Christians than it is to most “already Christians.”

Yes, I know that my stance on this can seem hurtful. I know that some will find it insulting or even incomprehensible. I’m not trying to hurt or insult anyone. But I know what my experience bears outs. Does it mean that I’ve given up on those who are already experienced Christians? Of course not, that would mean I need to give up on myself. I’m in the midst of getting these bedbugs out of my own suitcase. And, like I told Richard M., if we are starting with experienced Christians who are already willing to be missional, already willing to set aside every encumbrance to run the race that needs to be won; we can start with a group of experienced Christians. Just don’t call it a church and don’t call them a team. It just carries too much baggage.

  • Do you find this stance of mine hurtful, insulting or incomprehensible?
  • Are you currently involved in planting churches and winning the lost?
  • Is your church multiplying itself? Is it even trying? Has it even asked the question of itself?
  • By being honest with yourself in answering the above questions, do you have the courage to ask Jesus what he wants to do about it?
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Doctrine is good, but it can't give life

Felicity Dale has recently written an excellent series of brief blogs focused on being freed from guilt based religion. You can read her blogs here: How to set yourself free from guilt-based religion, Taking the leap to freedom from guilt-based religion , and Breaking free from guilt-based religion.

She has put her finger on one of the most glaring weaknesses of current Western Christianity. As painful as it is to recognize, we often devolve into a rigid religion, rather than a living interaction with a living God. The result is spiritual dryness, rigidity, duty, guilt and worse yet, wrangling over whose doctrine is right and whose is wrong.

Where does this rigid religion come from? It comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what our relationship with God is based on. If we don’t understand how our relationship with God works, how can we interact correctly with Him in that relationship? Our biggest problem is we think of Christianity as a set of information. With this mindset, we try hard to make sure our information set is correct. Once we have the correct information set, we figure we are good Christians. This is total, complete and utter nonsense! Worse, it is dangerous to our spiritual well being. It enslaves us rather than setting us free to be a unique individual, with a unique relationship with God.  This is a God who wants nothing more than for us to enjoy our life and be free to just be ourselves. And at the same time, being empowered by His power and made holy by His activity in our lives.

The wrong focus can lead to wrong behavior

The key, then, to overcoming this crippling kind of false Christianity, is to understand that our faith isn’t a set code of information that we have to get just right. Christianity isn’t a written code of laws. It isn’t a written code of doctrines, which, frankly, we just use to replace the concept of laws. A code of doctrines ends up being the same thing and having the same result. The letter kills. When we treat our faith as a written code of doctrines we end up destroying our spiritual lives. It doesn’t matter if the doctrine is absolutely correct. The problem isn’t with the doctrine, it is the way we are looking to the doctrine instead of the Spirit to give us life. We end up doing exactly what Jesus criticized the Pharisees for, You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (Jn. 5:39,40).

We have something better than a code of correct doctrines; we have the Spirit of Jesus living in us, His temples. He, the Spirit, gives life. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6).

We need to be set free from this dangerous heresy that Christianity is just a set of doctrines to master. Of course I’m no more against correct doctrine that the apostle Paul was against the value of the Law. Just like the Law, correct doctrine can be at once a good thing and something we need to be set free from. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code (Rom. 7:6)

Why do we need to be set free from such good things as the law of God and correct doctrine? We need to be freed from them because we look to them to provide something they were never designed to provide, spiritual life; the life to the full that Jesus offers. Only the Spirit of God living within us, leading us, comforting us, guiding us and refining us, can give us the life we long for, but never quite seem to find. It comes from living in an active, interactive relationship with the Spirit of God.

For that we need to learn to listen and obey. And if we are to listen and obey, we need to discern what is the voice of the Spirit, and what comes from other voices. For more on that read my post Four Voices. Once we are in that interactive relationship, which is based on the new covenant, correct doctrine becomes extremely valuable in the discernment process. The Spirit of God will never lead us to do something that isn’t both biblical and doctrinally sound. So, read your Bible and know sound doctrine, just don’t expect them to give you life. They can’t. But the Spirit can, and he will use the Bible and sound doctrine in wonderful ways, ways that bring life to the full.

  • Why do we look to good things like the law of God and sound doctrine to give us something they can’t give?
  • Is it really possible for something like doctrine to be at once good and something we need to be set free from?
  • Do you believe when I say we need to be set free from sound doctrine that I am against sound doctrine and I see no place for it?
  • I mentioned the importance of learning to discern the voice of the Spirit. Have you ever been trained to do so? How can we live life in the Spirit if we can discern His voice?
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Catch the 10:2b virus

God talks to us in many ways. It is part of our new covenant heritage. In other words, it is part of being a Christian. In fact, Jesus said that his sheep know his voice. Not only do they know it, they listen. While God can talk to us in all sorts of ways, some obvious and some less so; I’d like to talk about one that commonly gets overlooked. Then, I’d like to tell a recent story about how God spoke to me in this way as an example.

If we want to hear God’s voice one of the most important things we need to do is pay attention. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been so distracted at times, that people nearly shouted at me, but because my mind was somewhere else, I couldn’t hear them. It is the same with God. We need to be consciously pay attention, if we are going to hear his voice. Here is one thing we can pay attention to: themes. We need to consciously pay attention, when the same subject seems to come up over and over again. It is God, not so subtly, speaking to us.

Right now I have seven men I am discipling. Six are men I have led to the Lord in the last couple of years. One has not yet come to faith but hangs around with us. You can get a thread of posts which tell some of these men’s stories here. For the last few months I have been praying daily at 10:02 AM the 10:2b prayer, that God would trust my friends out into the harvest. Here is how God responded.

In my post Discipleship as Discernment I mentioned a dream about evangelism that Vitorio had experienced. I mentioned how he discussed this with Toño and me and how this led to a two hour training session on evangelism. This was actually the second of three dreams my friends have had. Toño has also had two dreams that had very clear themes about him sharing his faith. These dreams have ended up causing the group to discuss among themselves the importance of sharing their faith with others and trying to discern who God wants them to share with.

Last Friday night we were discussing this issue in the presence of German, who actually hasn’t come to faith. I’ve been discipling him anyway, helping him take one step closer to Jesus. In the midst of this discussion on evangelism, he openly said he hadn’t come to faith yet, but was hanging around us because we seem to know God. He ended up in an extended dialog with us about what it meant to come to faith in Jesus. The dialog was mostly between him and me although the others joined in. It was a gentle, gracious and friendly back and forth conversation with lots of questions. When I mentioned a Bible passage I’d have Toño look it up and read it. This was exactly the kind of redemptive life and conversation I had been talking to the guys about. Our lives were attracting German. And because of this, we could follow Jesus into a conversation where Jesus and his good news was the focus.

Think about this. I pray the 10:2b prayer for my friends. I ask that Jesus would trust them out into the harvest. In response, Jesus starts giving them multiple dreams about them sharing their faith. I had actually not discussed this issue specifically before, because it had not come up. I just prayed and waited for Jesus to respond. Not only did Jesus give them dreams that lead to training on evangelism, he set up a situation where they could participate with me in sharing their faith with one of their friends. I’d call that a theme. This is what Jesus wants my friends and me to focus on. Our job is to listen and obey.

  • What themes is Jesus bringing up in your life?
  • How do you think you should listen and obey?
  • What other ways does God talk to us?
  • What is the implication of someone who doesn’t hear the Shepherd’s voice?
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