I would like to offer a reminder to help remove a great burden off of the shoulders of church leaders: you do not have the ability to create Church.
Our current system of church is just that: a system. Neither individuals nor organizations have the ability to create Church.
I would like to draw your attention to the Sanhedrin. By first century AD, the Sanhedrin was the court system for Jewish religious matters. The first Sanhedrin is believed to have taken place during the time of Moses. Numbers 11 tells us of how the Israelites were wailing out to Moses for lack of food. Moses cried out to the Father, “What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth?”. The Father responded,
Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you. I will come down and speak with you there and I will take of the Spirit that is on you and put the Spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone.
Now, the initial meeting of the Sanhedrin was initiated and ordained by God. Some time between Moses and Jesus, the Sanhedrin seemed to have lost its original purpose. Rather than existing to serve the people, it became an organization of religious elites who imposed judgment on the people. By early first century AD, the Sanhedrin was composed of two factions: Sadducees and Pharisees. For relevant context, we might draw an abstract relation between these two factions as being quite similar to republicans and democrats, in the sense that they held some very similar beliefs, but were also opposing factions on a number of issues. From what we know of the New Testament, the sadducees and pharisees were the rulers, elders, and teachers of the law. We also know that these factions opposed Jesus as well as the ministry of the apostles.
We know Stephen as the first martyr of the Church. Prior to being stoned, Stephen gave a bold speech to the Sanhedrin. He provided a full account of the children of Israel, starting with Abraham tracing all the way to Moses, then David, Jacob, and Solomon. Stephen’s speech ended with a powerfully convicting statement:
However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says:
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things?”
You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your Fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him — you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.
The overarching picture was that the people of God always fail to realize the presence of the Lord until it is too late. Even the Sanhedrin, who was considered the authority on religious matters, was more than capable of missing out on what God was doing in their lives.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that theses same patterns — which happened in the time of Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus and Stephen — did not still happen today. We still are blind, on occasion, to the moving of the Spirit and still persecute those who act on the prompting of the Spirit. Just as there was a Sanhedrin in every city in Israel, we still have a Sanhedrin of sorts in every region of the world. Our Sanhedrin in the American Church is composed of leaders from the Baptists, Methodists, Assemblies of God, Non-Denominationalist, etc. We agree on the core of American Christianity, but have some opposing debates on a number of ‘open-handed’ issues.
To you leaders then, I say, just as Stephen did to his Sanhedrin:
The Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says:
Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
Says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all things?
God is the only creator in the universe. We simply mirror His reflection here on earth. We live through Him and Him in us. Remember Peter’s account to the rulers and elders of his day:
Jesus is the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.
The rulers and elders of Peter’s time were trying to build. Without knowing it, they were trying to build without a foundation in the Lord. In doing so, they had rejected the Lord. Even more so, after Peter gave his account, these rulers and elders felt an unneeded responsibility to figure out what to do with Peter. They asked, “What are we going to do with these men?”
I find two significant observations about the rulers and elders:
- They were trying to build on their own
- They felt a responsibility to do something about Peter
In the same way, our leaders today feel a heavy responsibility to build churches. We look to the book of Acts and see countless times a variation of the following phrase: “and their numbers grew everyday”. We have taken this phrase, and as leaders, feel a responsibility to grow the churches that we have built. What we fail to realize is first and foremost, every time we see the phrase, “and their numbers grew every day”, the Lord Himself is responsible. The Lord attracted people to Him, changed their lives, instilled them with the Holy Spirit, and emboldened them to preach the word as they went. When I read Acts, I do not see a story of apostles building temples so that the unbelievers would have a place to go and be saved. Quite the contrary, I see a story of a body of believers who:
Had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods; they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time, those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
These passages both refer to the believers. How I would love for the church today to exist in this same genuine love of one another and of community. Though, notice that when we hear about the unbelievers, we find a much different story:
The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.
The unbeliever did not want to go to the temples. In addition, nearly every time we find one of the apostles or disciples ministering in the book of Acts, we find that they are going to the people to minister. The ministering never took place in the temple. In fact, the purpose of meeting in the temple was primarily to worship God and to pray. Beyond that, community took place in their homes. When we look to Jesus, we find the very same thing. This pattern should still hold true today. We gather together in assembly to worship God and to pray. We have a natural desire to be in community with one another because of the Holy Spirit within us.
So I say to you leaders, we do not have to build buildings. We do not have to make activities for people to connect with each other. We do not need to create a system of church that works. We do not need to have staffs of people whose full time job is managing the assembly of the people, where the tithe and offering is going to provide primarily for the building and the staff, just so the assembly can take place. It is not our responsibility to create community, nor to bribe guests with Starbuck’s gift cards to come back a second time.
You see, we have, with a sincere heart, created systems so that church can happen and so that people come. Our focus should be on neither of these two things. The Church is created by God and is a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is not something that we can make happen. We cannot create a place where this can happen; neither can we attract people to it, even if we could create it. For even if we could, the unbeliever would not naturally be attracted to it. Since it is beyond our ability to create these things, neither can we be responsible. You are not responsible. You do not need to fill a burden to create things, nor systems, nor processes.
Our place and our role as disciples is in the ministry of the church. We must differentiate between ministry and assembly. These are two separate things. Ministry is seeking the lost so that they may be found. Assembly is the gathering of the found to give thanks to our finder, our Father.
We, church leaders, have realized it is extremely important to be intentional about the way we do ministry. I would agree that intentionality is oh so important. However, I would also say that we have been intentional in the wrong places. We have been intentional in the creation of church rather than in the ministry of the Church. Within each of our denominations is a conglomeration of relatively independent organizations that have a vision to do ministry. I support these organizations, but I find a lack of authentic Church from these organizations. Each church (each organization) seeks to grow itself so that it can be healthy and supporting of itself so that it can continue to create more ways to grow. Hardly any of these organizations work together, share the money that they receive to ensure that the needy are not in need, nor seek to establish a relationship with one another. The extent to relationships from one church to another is that leaders connect at conferences to share what they are doing that is working so that other leaders can try it and see if it works for them too.
Yet, we are not capable of creating systems, nor processes, nor buildings, nor ideas nor philosophies nor cultures that propitiate the type of growth that we seek. The growth that we seek is intangible. It does not exist; because, to grow an organization is not growing Church. While the organization may have 100% intrinsic intentions, and the vision may be good, the organization is corrupt in that it is created by men. So, when we seek to grow the Church, and want to see that growth in our Church, we will never find it. If we do, it will only last for a passing moment.
Churches are good. God moves in churches. Though, God does not move in churches because they are good. Churches are good because God moves in them.
To substantiate that our way of doing church is right because God is moving (and because they are growing) is childish of us. We do see God move in churches. I am thankful for it. However, God moves in them because of grace and mercy, not because they are inherently righteous. This does not give us exempt status from examining our lives and the way that we live as the Church. This gives us all the more reason to examine ourselves, because God is with us and we know that His grace and mercy will be more than sufficient for when we fall.
So, what if we stopped being intentional about our church. What if we stopped trying to create church? What if we stopped building and stopped coming up with systems and processes that have a high percentage chance of attracting and retaining the unbeliever? What if we stopped trying to get people to tithe through conviction and stopped trying to get every body to be a member of our organization? What if our identity was not in our organization?
What would we do?
I believe that we would become more intentional about what really matters: authentic relationship. I also believe this would draw us closer to our Father. The rest is just footwork.
With authentic relationship comes genuine love. Love changes everything. Churches today lack relationship, and so, they lack love.
I find that there are two ideas that inspire me daily to be a better son and a better brother in Christ.
- Live intentionality
- Anticipate eternity
Live out of intentionality
Every choice we make is a choice we won’t get back. So, I find extreme discomfort in the idea of living a life that is just going through the motions. Living intentionality is living authenticity.
It’s a daily task for me to refine my spirit and mind so that I can be an encouragement to those whom I interact with on a daily basis. This certainly does not come naturally. My carnal nature wants to focus on doing things that are good for me. In addition to fighting the daily battle of carnality, I am faced with this idea of intentionality, which really means authenticity. It means that every decision is pointedly made for the pure reason of loving others the way Christ has loved me. Not only does this not come naturally: with great effort, it still comes rarely.
Love is not a casual thing. Quite honestly, I’m not sure that most people ever understand love throughout their entire lives. Most people understand romance, but not love. Truthfully, I do not believe that anyone could possibly understand love without truly knowing God. I know that mothers and fathers probably have an inkling of understanding, but without knowing God, I think the understanding is still far off. The example of love that God sets is unmatched. He loves not because He has to, nor because He receives anything in return, nor because someone tells Him to, nor because He feels compelled to.
He simply loves and that is it.
Some people may never even acknowledge God’s existence, yet He still loves.
Even more so, He takes action upon His love. Yes, He laid down His own life for our atonement, but even still, He is involved in our lives daily. He intercedes for us, provides, protects, and comforts. He provides wisdom and guidance, and much needed grace. We will never know the limits of our heavenly Father’s love.
And yet, the Scripture tells us to love as we have been loved by Christ (John 13:33-34). Perhaps this comes naturally for some of you, but I am a fallen creature. This is not anything resembling natural for me: to love as the Father loves. So then, being so unnatural, I must be intentional about it. Every thought I must captivate, action I must pause, and word I must ponder. For if I am to love as greatly and selflessly as the author of love, how I must realign my spirit throughout the day. I have to make intentional decisions to love others.
Loving is like learning to walk. I love watching little kids walk for the first time. Every single step they take requires great concentration and effort. It is a clunky process — they fumble around. They even look to their parents at times for guidance or approval before taking the next step. It is the same for us to love as Christ did. For to love as Christ is to say that we genuinely care about other people; not because we are instructed to by the Bible, but because we genuinely do for no other reason than that we love. So with every step I take, there must be intentionality and guidance from my Father in heaven.
This is part of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, that our hearts and minds are renewed and that we are instilled with the love which was given us, so that we may pour it out to both the believer and the unbeliever. It is this type of love which attracts people to Christ, because Christ is the epitome of love.
While it is crucial that we love individuals, it is even more crucial that our lives mirror the love of the Father. So, not only should my relationships be spilling over with love, the heart of why I live and what I do should be fully encompassed in love. The more we love, the more our spirits are aligned with our Father, the more we see things in the light of Kingdom, the more we love. In other words, the more we love, the easier it becomes to love. I hope by the end of my years that I have some understanding of love, and that I have been generous with the love that I have received.
In the same way that I try to be intentional with people, I also try to be intentional with the relationship with my heavenly Father.
While I know not much about marriage, I know that it takes effort to keep a marriage healthy and alive. Even though a husband and a wife might see each other daily, they have to take intentional steps throughout the day to keep the love.
So, imagining how difficult it is for a husband and wife to keep the love, how much harder is it to really love our heavenly Father, whom we never see? There are times when it is extremely easy for me to love the Father, but these are more lucid moments of spiritual awareness than they are daily reality.
What is really fascinating to me is that I will spend eternity with the Father. That makes life on earth seem like a brief moment. As Solomen might say, our life is a wisp of fog, a vapor in the wind.
So if I am to spend eternity with the Lord, I want to know Him before I get there. I seek Him daily. I try to find new ways to find Him and acknowledge Him. Every time I can think of it, I’ll give thanks to the Father, even if it is just a small notion in the back of my mind. Whatever it may be, the bottom line is that I want to know Him and realize that I have to be intentional about it. Eternity is coming. I want to know my creator before I get there if I have the chance.
From Scripture, we see patterns of humanity that cause us to be blind to the Spirit. We see over and over throughout history, that even though men may have had good intentions, they were blinded by sin and ended up rejecting the Lord. I believe that these patterns still exist today. I see that our leadership in American Christianity can be paralleled to the Sanhedrin. While the Sanhedrin was established and anointed by God, it quickly evolved and soon rejected the Lord. This gives us all the more reason to examine our lives today, to be sure that we do not fall to the same sin.
Knowing this, and knowing that the Lord is the one who creates, we know that we cannot create church. We know that we are called to ministry, but there is a difference between ministry and assembly. Our current system of church is a blend of ministry and assembly, most of which takes place in a 90 minute service on Sunday morning. This is not Church, this is an iteration of Church, devised by men.
We should not forsake the assembly, but should meet together. The foundation of assembly is two-fold: give thanks and praise to God, engage in community. The latter is achieved by authentic relationship, whose substance is in love. This doesn’t take place in a building, but in our hearts and in the way that we care for one another.
We should pursue ministry, but this does not happen in a building that we build. This happens with our believing in Jesus as the Messiah and by acting upon the call of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Ministry takes place where the lost are. We can’t reel them into the assembly to minister. Nor can we gather as the assembly where we are ministering. Ministry and assembly are two separate things that occur independent of each other.
Our church leaders are not responsible for creating Church nor for creating events nor any type of thing that creates community. Community happens through relationship: relationship exists because of love.
Churches, albeit graced by God, are not the end-all source for the existence of the Church. The Church itself exists outside of the existence of churches. Churches help our culture engage in the Church.
We need to stop trying to do church and simply need to be the Church.
Our identities often get tied up in churches, which are simply organizations whose vision is to facilitate ministry and assembly. Because our identities are caught up in churches, we may find it difficult to understand how to be the Church instead of how to do church. That is okay. The Lord has baskets and baskets of grace and mercy for us.
Church leaders, you do not have to carry the burden of The Church. The Lord has given us the Holy Spirit so that it may be distributed amongst all of us, to each on our giftings. If you feel the need to make church happen, cry out to the Lord as Moses did, and he will supplement you.
I pray that we would understand how to be the Church. I also pray that leaders would not be burdened with the weight of how to do church, but would be led by the Spirit in how to be Church. I pray that we would be readily able to distinguish from what has been established by the Lord and what has been created by men. I pray that we would be full of love and not of judgment nor hate. I pray that as a body of believers, we would be united in purpose, of one heart, one mind, and one Spirit. I pray that we would see the world in the lens of Kingdom, and be bold enough to reach out to minister where God might lead us. I pray all these things with the full-assurance of the faith, knowing that Jesus Christ, the son of the living God, intercedes on our behalf to the Father, and that the Father seeks to pour blessing and favor upon us, as any good Father would give to His children.