I would highly recommend this book: “The Gathering” by Ray Barnett
For those of you who might not pick up the book, the following are some notes to give you the highlights.
They had elders yet all were treated equally.
They shared meals together but not a special religious right (modern communion), but a foretaste of the day when Jesus himself would be with them.
Everyone was expected to be a part of the meeting in accordance with their gifts and talents. They also had the freedom to ask questions about what was being said during the meeting.
No restrictions were put on them by church hierarchy and order was maintained like an extended family.
There were still outside teachers who would travel from city to city or local assembly to local assembly.
They had freedom in Christ and freedom from religious laws, for example freedom from Sabbaths and other religious days.
They worked for the common good despite their differences in social classes and if there were any matters that needed clarification they could call on outside Apostles and teachers. Within a few decades they had spread from Jerusalem to Spain in the West, on through Central Asia in the East, down south to India. And they did it all without buying a single building, without any technology, without any foreign mission board and without any packaged programs for church growth.
Truly, it could only have been a work of God.
From the Introduction
In a Bible study meeting, my wife and I had asked each person in turn what they would identify as the most fruitful time of spiritual growth in their lives. Where were they; what were they doing; who might have been involved? I will never forget the answer given by one young woman. She had come from an emotionally disturbed background, but was now a maturing believer of some years. She had found love and acceptance in Christ, and was rising above her past.
A “rough diamond”, her answer was remarkable. “The time of major growth for me was when I said, ‘Bugger the church.’ I moved to a beach with my husband and it was just me and God without a church in between.”
While not everybody’s choice of vocabulary, her words certainly touched a nerve in the room! “Without a church in between” – that is exactly what has happened! An institution we call “church” has been injected between the people and Christ. The forms of the institutional church in the West have all but obscured the liberating reality of Jesus, not only from those who belong to it, but also from an unbelieving world.
What that young woman needed, and what the world needs, is Christ without the “church”.
“But,” you might say, “Didn’t Christ love the church and give himself up for her?” Yes indeed! But what we have constructed from the word “church” as we have redefined it, reshaped it, embroidered it, encrusted it, programmed it, bureaucratized it and architecturally imprisoned it, has nothing whatsoever in common with what the Scriptures mean when they speak of the church. When God speaks of the “church”, he is not talking about what we have created.
The church described in scripture is a community, a family, a fellowship, the like of which this broken world desperately longs to experience. It is God’s place of liberty, nurture and wholeness for the broken hearted, the oppressed, and the captives who have been set free by Jesus. It was a pagan Roman who said of the people of Jesus, “See how they love one another.” More often, our pagan world sees an industry called church with multiple brands competing against each other, vying for market share. The shame of that ought to be enough to drive us to rediscover what it means to be God’s gathered people in a broken world.
Relegated to irrelevance by society, and concerned by our own obvious demise, we are constantly bombarded by programs showing us new ways to grow a church; revitalize a church; or keep people in the church. You will note that in the exhilarating days of the new-born church in Jerusalem, the people were bound to it by chords of sacrificial love never seen before, as “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” At the moment of their new birth they belonged, and the other brothers and sisters were selling their possessions in order to care for them. No one made them sit in classes, undergo probationary periods, or declare allegiances to man-made organizations in special services where they were finally declared to belong. No! They belonged to each other because they belonged to Christ, and they loved each other because they were first loved by Christ.
So what went wrong? Historically, we can discover a hundred convoluted pathways down which the people of God have wandered, or perhaps been led by the nose, but in summary it is not very complicated.
At an identifiable, early season in church history, the people of God changed their structures and practices to fit the elitist culture of the day. Abandoning the simplicity of the words and life of Jesus, church leaders were seduced by power and authority and their accompanying wealth. Awed by this emerging pomp and power, the “ordinary” people submitted and accepted an underclass status. The servants became “kings”, the “kingdom of priests” became laity. And once the body was inverted, it institutionalized itself in that position. Privilege, prestige, the right to minister, and the aura of the sacred, rested at the top, while the great underclass called “laity” was made to accept that its role was attending, giving, and honoring in anonymous irrelevance.
This did not accord with scripture! So, of necessity, the upper caste dispensers of truth had to redefine the plain, simple words of Jesus and the apostles so that the reshaped practices and structures still gave an appearance of obedience to what God required. Words like “pastor”, “bishop”, “Lord’s Supper” and even the word “church” itself, were so dramatically redefined that they are now all but unrecognizable in their original forms. And, born aloft by those redefinitions, all manner of new practices, branches and variations have been able to come and go, until today it is scarcely possible for most people to even imagine that what they do, what they attend, what they commit themselves to, and the type of leadership to which they submit, are not even remotely connected to what God’s word has always been speaking about. The more the life ebbed from the institutions, the more by-laws, pageantry and programs were necessary to give the appearance of activity and to maintain the mystique of the elite. We have stumbled from monasteries to mega-church, from overpowering austerity to theatrical “worship times”, without ever going back to check to source documents to see what the “founder” has to say about it.
With her words, the young woman mentioned above echoed the experience of many people who find that the denominational religious organization we call church really does get in-between them and their walk with God, contributing frustration and coldness while sapping their time, energy and money on unfruitful things. Being part of a local church should be the most wonderful and helpful experience, like belonging to the best of families and having the closest of life-long friends. But for so many believers the wonder has been lost, buried under the accumulated debris of centuries.
This book has arisen because I have met far too many people who admit to suffocating under the cycles of religious life in their local church. I have met too many people who love Christ but who find “churching” altogether too hard and who now live as orphans, disconnected from fellowship. Some remain in their churches but are torn by frustration, because church doesn’t come anywhere near the reality of their lives or the depths of their communal needs. I come across so many people who admit that their Sunday attendance is largely driven by peer pressure and guilt, and who are utterly wearied by the masks of piety they need to wear to be accepted. I have met pastors and leaders who wonder why it is that for all of the effort they put in, the results are nothing like the radical discipleship spoken of by Jesus.
Of equal concern is that, in my work of teaching pastors and leaders in emerging and persecuted nations, men and women who follow Christ under threat of death, I have seen the long, twisted fingers of Western institutional Christianity trying to get a life-sapping grip upon the fledgling gatherings of the people of Jesus. Not in all places, but in enough places to realize how deeply our misunderstandings of church have permeated even our western mission work. To be like us, believers in emerging nations feel compelled to spend their poverty on buildings so that they can sit in anonymous rows, their only contribution being to add volume to the “worship times” and money to the offerings. They adopt our ways and our programs until they no longer belong to their culture but are illegitimate children of the religious West. In repudiation of anything their culture dictates, their leaders wear coats and ties on Sundays.
This farce may make them look like us, but it most certainly does not make them look like the church described in scripture. Nor will it enable them to withstand the fires of persecution. The will drawn to fight for the right to be like us, rather than the right to be what God has actually asked them to be.
This book is about what it really means to be a local church based on the simple but rarely asked question – “What does God actually say?” It is not a formula for success! It is not ten steps to rapid church growth! It is not even the last word. It is intended to be part of a journey towards rediscovering the simple, effective local gathering of believers that God intended us to be. It is based upon the conviction that as we do God’s work in God’s way, we will see him achieve his desired results. We may even find that a closer examination of what God says will give us insight into why, for all of our efforts, we seem to remain so ineffective and powerless to change our communities, and why we repel the very people Jesus attracted.
The book is also intended to help lay a biblical foundation for some of the new and emerging communities of faith, so that new groups of believers are not just walking away from the suffocations of the past, but are walking towards a truer, more biblical model of local church.
Whether for the sake of those who already know Christ, or the broken world to which we so earnestly long to minister, we need to go back to the Word of God to rediscover what was lost. As we do, we will find that in his Word, God has given us commands, he has given us models and he has given us observable history. In short, he has shown us what is good and pleasing to himself. As we reflect on these things with sincerity, it is my prayer that the Spirit will begin to lead us, his twenty-first century people, back to wisdom concerning what the “new wine-skins” are actually supposed to look like, and grant us the ability to apply that wisdom in culturally appropriate ways….
The very first thing to do is to try to reconstruct a picture of what it might have been like to join our first brothers and sisters in what they called church…
Chapter 1 – The Wine and the Wine Skins
She had grown so much as a person at work because her and her colleagues discussed and solved real-life challenges together at a very high level. But the one oppressive irrelevance to her life was the organized Church where on Sunday sermons she was not allowed to talk interactively and personally about life. So her non-attendance was an act of honesty.
The author was at a business conference and saw that without embarrassment or hesitation they challenged secular world views on the value of people, contrasting them with the value Jesus places on the people. But surprisingly he discovered that almost none of them had anything to do with a local denominational Church.
It is rarely possible to find our way to a new destination unless we can accurately describe where we are now. So at some point we need to open our eyes to the true nature of our Western post-reformation ecclesiology.
Forsaking all and following him is not a message that sits well in multi-million dollar worship centres.
The organized church today is irrelevant to where most people are living and only uses the gifts of a select few.
A serious warning from Jesus – “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” (Mark 2:22 NLT)
Most are unable to articulate what is wrong and are also afraid to walk away.
Would you ever, in your wildest imagination, decide that the best way to quickly produce dynamic disciples was to encourage them to give as much money as possible – so as to finance and build an auditorium – and then get as many hundreds of them as possible into the auditorium once a week to sit in silence while they listen to a graduate orator?
Chapter 2 – Doing God’s Work God’s Way
Many people who enter a church building assume they are doing it God’s way and most have never studied the Bible to find out what God says about being a local church.
Many believe that when we enter the building we are entering God’s presence; does that mean that when we leave the building we leave God’s presence?
Foundational to our current system of ‘doing church’ are time honored traditions that are seldom challenged, let alone examined.
Worship and spirituality become linked to a place.
For new believers words like ‘minister’, ‘church’, ‘fellowship’ and ‘Lord Supper’ will take their meaning based upon what they see versus what is in the Bible.
Chapter 3 – God’s desired outcome for us
Meeting together and running meetings are two different concepts. We were never asked to run meetings we were instructed to meet together and to be able to minister to each other.
We were not asked to have a weekly non-participated non-interactive meeting in an auditorium.
Try to imagine allowing the God-given goals to be more important than the prevailing structure; in other words, meeting together in small groups doing the one another things versus the Sunday morning performance.
Were we starting from scratch to create a living organism of interconnected, ministering, growing disciples, would we ever conceive that the hub around which all of this activity should revolve is a huge (often debt – encumbered) auditorium into which people will file for a weekly, non- participative, non- interactive meeting?
The goal of pastors should not be self-perpetuating but to see each and every individual believer come to maturity, able and free to use his or her gifts for the health of the body. The larger the audience the less it is possible to achieve those things.
In Luke 6:46 Jesus said, “Why did you call me Lord, Lord and do not do what I tell you?”
Chapter 4 – Does It Really Matter
Many would say that despite its faults and weaknesses God has blessed the existing Church structure. Yes, God many times has blessed church people in spite of their rebellion but that does not prove that what they are doing is God’s will.
The early church had all things in common and daily broke bread together in their homes; this is not what we see in the institutional church.
They did meet in the temple but that’s where animals were sacrificed and they talked with each other in the courtyard including evangelism.
We are so entrenched into man-made practices that it is unthinkable to say that what we’re doing was not ordained by God. Even the most outlandish umbilical practices can be seen in scripture if we want them to be; the cults to do it all the time.
Chapter 5 – The Miracle of Acts 2
I recall just such a discussion with a pastor friend whose church had decided to focus on home groups.
I asked him, hypothetically, what would happen if those home groups realized that their ministry to each other; their conversations about Christ; their shared lives and the increased opportunity to exercise the gifts God had given them, had become the focus of their Christian growth and experience?
What if, as they recognized and used their gifts for each other and consequently saw gifted teachers emerge among them, they decided that their group was indeed ‘church’ and that the very best time for them to meet was Sunday mornings? What if they decided that this was no longer peripheral, but central to their lived experience as Christians?
What if this home group became for them an accurate reflection of what the Bible teaches about meeting together, because it built them up in ways that being part of a passive audience on Sunday never could?
What if they lovingly thanked the main church for its help in pointing them in that direction, but announced that they would no longer be coming to the main auditorium on Sunday mornings? What would be the result?
After some thought, the sobering (and reflectively honest) conclusion my friend reached was that the home groups would be compelled to attend Sunday mornings or be closed down. Why? Because there were pastoral salaries to be paid, a bank loan to be covered and buildings to be utilized.
While the auditorium type of meeting is not wrong, neither is it something God has asked us to do.
If we are seeing people come to Christ, and large groups of people are collecting together in church buildings to sit under the teaching of God’s word, does it really matter whether we are structured the way God has told us to be structured? The simple answer is that if God has said, shown or commanded something, then we should take it as important.
Chapter 6 – How Scripture Speaks to Us
Remember this: what we read in the New Testament is not just accidental. God established it through the apostles and God recorded it for us.
We need to take care wth any view that is dismissive of New Testament patterns simply because they don’t comply with our church practices or denominational laws.
Chapter 7 – What it Means to be the Church
At the beginning of this next section of chapters he says perhaps you already know the words and concepts. That is not the point. The point is what are you doing about them?
When Jesus said, “I will build my church”, he was not talking about establishing a new organization called the church. He was not speaking about an institution at all! He was saying that he would be gathering people to himself from all nations of the earth.
And yet in almost every setting in which we use this word we use it to speak of an organization.
Let the word ‘church’ itself (ecclesia) set you free. You are not gathered into an earthly institution, with its rules and religious cycles, it’s hierarchies and programs. You are in something far greater than that. You are one of his people, gathered from the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of God.
Chapter 8 – The People Belonging to Jesus
The word ecclesia in the New Testament is almost exclusively used for local city, town or village assemblies.
Acts 15 is not a precedent for centralized control. However, it may well be a model for brotherly consultation and advice in a spirit of interdependence.
If no denominational headquarters or members meetings ever existed there would still be an ecclesia of Jesus.
It is not so much our vocabulary as our obedience to the concept for which we will be held accountable..
Chapter 9 – A Kingdom of Priests
Our evangelistic task is defined in kingdom terms. “This Gospel of the kingdom must be preached to the whole world then the end will come. ” Matthew 24:14
The bulk of our giving goes to support the infrastructure necessary for the weekly meetings of the church, rather than to the needs of the poor.
It is a serious mistake to think that our buildings, with their billboards out in the front with catchy phrases, are a sufficient light to the community.
If our identity is centered on a building or a weekly meeting, rather than our enactment of the values, character and priorities of our King, then we have a distorted faith.
At the end of the sermon, during the question time, a question was asked about the consequences of not giving. The immediate answer from the pulpit was that if we don’t give, churches would have to close. Perhaps that means that the salary of the preacher would no longer be paid and the bank debt would go unmet. When it came down to it, the poor did not get a mention!
The words of Jesus have largely been expunged of kingdom ideas and replaced with church ideas. The money, time and energy have gone into supporting the gospel of (the ‘church’ the word church as we use it not as God uses it).
Buildings are, at best, a tool. However, if more of our money, effort and visibility are centered on a large gathering of people in an auditorium than on works of justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed, we have distorted our priorities.
Jesus said that if we are not faithful with money, we will not be entrusted with true riches. Perhaps that is why we in the West, rich in every physical resource, have so little of the true riches that we seem to see in the persecuted and oppressed believers in what we call the Third World. Perhaps it is not the effect of persecution that makes the difference, but the numbing effect of our wealth.
Neither now nor ever again will there be a physical temple in which the glory of God dwells. The reality has come. The reality is Jesus. We will not go back to the shadows!
How we meet, why we meet, where we meet and how we relate to each other (and the world) must all be driven by the sure knowledge that we – believers one and all – our God’s priests and God’s temple.
Chapter 10 – The Concept of Family
To allow church tradition, the physical building in which we meet, the laws of some external denominational body of or ‘Caesar’ to dictate what we do, rather than the Word of God, is ultimately rebellion.
Chapter 11 – The Concept of the ‘Body’
By observation, I see most new pastors come in and create programs for people to sign up for rather than finding out what people are already doing, what gifts they have, or what they would do, moved by the spirit. If only the pastors and the programs got out of the way.
Chapter 12 – How Should We Meet
The seminary is not to be in control of our meetings, the holy Spirit is. Order does not mean silence! Order does not mean unprepared people sitting silently waiting for someone else to do the leading and feeding. It is utterly impossible to construe such a format or demeanor from the Word of God. We cannot escape the responsibility for anticipated, prepared, mutual ministry, conducted in an orderly way.
Chapter 13 – Mutual Ministry
Hebrews 10:24-25 talks about not giving up meeting together but the reason why is so that we can encourage one another. We cannot truly encourage one another with the shallow meet and greet during the typical service in the auditorium.
Can it work?
There is a group actively changing the lives of some of the most broken people in our society. They are rebuilding shattered lives through conversational teaching, mentoring, true fellowship, candour and mutuality.
They have no buildings. In their charter they specifically state that they will never own property. They solicit no funds from anyone, and if they have a bank account of more than a few dollars they give it away.
In their meetings they each take turns to share their ongoing struggles and difficulties, as well as their triumphs. If a member falls back seriously they are accepted, affirmed, and mentored back onto the pathway. They were no “masks” of pretended piety nor do they use euphemisms to diagnose the reality of their needs. Indeed, the one requirement for belonging is a deep appreciation of actual personal need and the impossibility of overcoming that need without complete dependence upon God.
In their meetings they reaffirm the basic truths by reading from the Book, they discuss the application of those truths to each other’s lives, and they encourage each other — even clap for each other — over the successes they achieve. Their meetings are so helpful and encouraging that many people attend 4, 5 even 7 times a week.
They have no professional writers, and no paid staff running the meetings. No academic standards are ever required. Nothing depends on oratory, everything depends on reality.
Millions upon millions of men and women around the world are growing from for perhaps the greatest of human bondage and brokenness to lifelong wholeness; from isolation and despair into true bonded fellowship.
And so, without budgets or buildings, without “clergymen”, or any professional leadership, without massive infrastructure, without hype and hyperbole, without PA systems and PowerPoint, they have changed the world as much as any organization in history ever has. And importantly, they have done it by meeting and working as Jesus and the apostles said the church should work.
I would suggest that if you want to see what a church meeting might look like, you attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, for that is who I am talking about. Get ahold of the “12 steps” and see if those are the types of things we should always have been working through as the people of Jesus, but to which our forms of meeting never hold us accountable.
God was clever enough to know how human beings work, and what is needed to nurture them along the pathway to wholeness. AA has been clever enough to know it too, and has adopted God’s principles of mutual ministry, encouragement and nurture. God’s principles work, it is just that we as the people of God are too encrusted with unbiblical structures and methods to see it.
How many alcoholics would be nurtured to wholeness AA required graduate, robes leaders to stand out in front, intoning homilies while the people sat in muted silence? How many would have broken free of their bondage if in the meetings they were never allowed, or required to, talk of their own lives in graphic terms? How many would come, ashamed and broken, to the meetings if they were asked to stand and sing and then have a money bag shoved in front of them?
My wife and I have been to AA meetings several times as observers and we were made welcome. We heard more talk of spiritual realities, more confession of need, more encouragement, more mutual affirmation, and raw honesty than in a thousand Sunday services. Participants gave each other advice on how to meet the incredible temptations they face. They mentioned each other. We were deeply moved by changed lives and faces radiant with incremental success or daily milestones reached. Are the people all becoming believers? That is not my subject. My subject as that AA is working as God said the church should work, and it is achieving results.
It is how we began, back in the first century, as desperately needy people meeting together to mutually encourage and build each other up. Along the way we got distracted. We became an audience. Even worse, we became laity.
A friend of mine, a believer, and an exceptionally gifted young man, succumbed to the pressures of life by becoming an alcoholic. A broken family, a broken life, he eventually joined AA. He attended 7 meetings a week and loved every one of them. He wrote to me and said that AA was to him everything that church always should have been but never was. I accepted the rebuke.
Chapter 14 – Why Do We Meet
Jesus said we now worship not on this mountain or that mountain but in spirit and in truth.
Unless we have something called a ‘service’ on Sunday morning we might offend God. I think the word that best covers it is ‘superstition’.
Chapter 15 – Teachers within the Meeting
Teaching does not mean always being heard. Let God set you free and in turn, set others free by giving them back to privilege of ministering to each other..
Many preachers time might be more effectively spent rather than spending 30 hours a week preparing for one message, sitting in a room with a number of believers and interacting with them.
We have created a sacred right requiring that we must find someone to stand behind the wooden box each week.
Most graduating seminary classes would produce very few gifted public speakers but most would probably be able to explain the Bible to a small group in an understandable way.
Even if someone has great wisdom and knowledge and cannot or is not allowed to preach they will not be heard by the assembled group.
Chapter 16 – The Lord’s Supper
If an unbeliever looked through the window at our normal, conservative evangelical Lord’s Supper, what impression would they have? Would words we sometimes use like ‘meal’ and ‘feast’ or even ‘supper’ make any sense to them? Which would appear to be the focus: the people or the elements?
As our imagined unbeliever gazed in on us, would the word fellowship come to mind as they note that none of us talk to each other or even look each other in the eye? Would they look through the window and observe a miracle of oneness? Or would they see a hundred people in tense, disconnected, private contemplation? Would they observe the joy of a tightly knit family, or would they observe a religious ceremony?
Chapter 17 – A Foretaste of Things to Come
What the Lord’s supper might look like…
The specific enactment of the ritual is different from church to church, but think of the contrast.
A group of believers is meeting in someone’s home. There are all sorts of social classes, immigrants, business owners and unemployed. They bring food as they are able. The rich have provided food in abundance – wonderful food. The poor or those on unemployment have brought a little something – or nothing maybe. For them, this might be the best meal of the week. They are all present and they gather around the table.
The host, or perhaps an elder, reminds them that the only reason they are together, despite all of their diverse backgrounds, and are in fellowship, is because of the broken body of Jesus. He breaks a loaf and they share it. Then they continue to eat together, talking of the Christian life, the Lord, the things that are happening in their everyday experience. Some questions are raised, points clarified. Teaching happens – throughout the conversation and ministry of the body to the body.
The meal comes to a close, the evening reaches its natural conclusion and the host takes a cup of wine or juice. He reminds them that one day, perhaps before next week, they will be at another table, a greater ‘table’ with their older brother Jesus at the head. That day’s coming is a certainty, because an unbreakable covenant has been made and sealed in Jesus’ own blood. They drink together in hope and then make their way out into the evening to their private homes satisfied, yet longing.
And I almost hear Jesus saying, ‘How I long to eat this meal with you…’
Down the road, another group is meeting in an auditorium. The people are sitting in rows, facing the front. They have talked of a feast and then passed around a few grams of bread in a couple milliliters of wine. They have spoken of fellowship, but none has spoken to the other. Only one person has said anything.
An organ has played softly so as to enhance the atmosphere of silence, personal, religious enactment. They have offered their private prayers to God. People have tiptoed to the front. Not a word has passed between them. The poor have not had a decent meal.
And I almost hear the apostle Paul’s words behind the wafting strains of the organ: ‘Brethren, it is not the Lord’s supper you’re eating.’
Chapter 18 – Where Would We Meet
We are not commanded to meet in homes, however, the scriptures record for us no other regular meeting place for the ecclesia than the homes of believers.
Compare the two models: 3000 people in one auditorium every week versus 100 groups of 30 people in homes. The auditorium model requires a massive financial expenditure. The home model would require no expenditure on buildings or staff. At the ministry level, the home model is obviously much better at creating true fellowship, targeting individual needs and genuine bonding of brothers and sisters.
In terms of evangelism Jesus indicated they should find a house, stay there, proclaim the gospel a while, then move on to the next town.
The bigger we become, the greater the disconnection between people. In a loving extended family, would you expect the children, cousins or husband and wife to have to write their needs on cards?
Who keeps the small churches on track? One can only assume that those who ask the question believe that no major denomination with large churches and head office bureaucracy has ever gone off track! Auditorium church is maintained by administration, democracy and business principles. Home church is more likely to be maintained on living relationships.
How can little churches do big things? Actually they can do far more because they don’t have all their money tied up in buildings and staff. Also, in the New Testament when there was a famine in Judea, the churches and other regions combined their resources to help. There were connections. They were not connected institutionally, but by a common life. Autonomy is not isolationism.
Chapter 19 – When Should We Meet
Jesus is our Sabbath rest. We are not required to go back under the bondage of having to meet on the same day of the week, i.e. Sunday; and besides if we were going to meet on the Biblical Sabbath day, it would be Saturday. Let’s not be found before God saying, “I kept the day, but lost the people.”
Chapter 20 – Women in the Meetings
There are many women who have wisdom to share and significant life experiences to share to build up and exhort the body of Christ.
Chapter 21 – Baptism
Normally, we try to find something in scripture to justify what we have done for centuries rather than just starting from scripture, period.
Based on the book of Acts we discover the following:
- Those who were baptized were believers.
- They were baptized as soon as they believed.
- They appeared to have been baptized right where they were.
- They did not wait to gather a group of witnesses.
- Children were baptized when they believed.
- The clear method would have been immersion.
Chapter 22 – Leaders of Churches
The words pastor, elder, bishop and shepherd are all used for the same group of people. Biblically, there is not supposed to be a caste system where you have the non-significant sitting in the pews, then the deacons, then the elders, then the pastors and then the bishops. Elders are also overseers, so local church would be overseen or shepherded by a group of elders (or at least more than one), not necessarily a pastor. The word pastor is only found once in the Bible once whereas elder is found many times.
Chapter 23 – Leaders Titles and Honours
There is thoroughly entrenched within our church life, an unbiblical two-caste system. No one expects much of the lower or laity caste and everyone expects too much of the upper or clergy caste. In Matthew 23 Jesus talked very sternly against having titles. And, pride is very much entrenched in all of us.
Chapter 24 – Qualified Leaders
The emphasis of the qualifications that God places upon the office of leader within a local church is primarily focused on who they are, not what degrees they have. The exam to test if they are qualified is their life, not a test they take it seminary.
Chapter 25 – Elders and Congregations
In the infinite wisdom of God, he has established a structure in which there is accountable leadership, respectful congregations and mutual ministry – under servant leadership, not lordly leadership. In God’s structure nobody is elevated, and nobody is branded as second-class with names like laity’.
Chapter 26 – Leaders Among Churches
Looking at the New testament examples, are we again seeing the ministries of apostles, prophets, pastor, teachers? I think we are. They stayed long enough to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build them up in the knowledge of Christ, and then having appointed local leaders, they moved on.
Imagine what would happen if we appreciated God’s wisdom and modeled ourselves accordingly. The very best of teachers and evangelists and apologists would go to stay in the new struggling churches for a few months or a year to exhort and encourage. Probably they would be supported by other churches, just as Paul was supported by the Philippians. The local people would have ‘Paul or Barnabas’ in their homes, at breakfast, walking along through the fields… They would watch them as they taught right there, in their own local church. What would that do for humble local leaders, and how much progress would be achieved that way?
Chapter 27 – Fitting It All Together
Over the years, I have seen and heard a great deal of material and how to change churches; make them more dynamic; get unbelievers into them; pastor them more effectively and so on. These have not been unhelpful, but all too often they begin with what already exists and seek to change it for the better. They begin with an underlying assumption that what we do now as evangelical churches, our inherited pattern of meetings, structures and patterns of leadership, are derived from God’s word and need only modifications and better programmes. However, because we begin with those assumptions, we are compelled to redefine words and reconstruct practices so that what we see in scripture fits those inherited expectations. This guarantees that we are always renovating a structure that does not sit well on its foundations. What we need to do is check the foundations.
By observation, in the New Testament, we are presented with a picture of small churches, sometimes several in the one city, meeting in homes. They had elders appointed from within the local assembly. The elders were spiritual overseers whose responsibility it was to shepherd the small local assembly in which they served. They were not given special titles. The believers were all to act as brothers and were to be called brothers for that is what they were. They were usually ordinary working men, applying their own trades, having been given that example by Paul. They could do this because unlike the apostles, the elders served in their own city, and had been told by the apostles to stay in the social situation in which they lived when called, whether slaves or free. Professionalism and elitism were not to be tolerated among them.
Each local church was gifted with the spiritual gifts necessary for its life and health. When functioning properly, each member accepted the responsibility to contribute to the meetings of the church. They brought food to share if they were able, but more importantly, each was able and responsible to bring a word from the lord, a song, a psalm or something for the spiritual well-being of the body. Thus, they met interactively, listening to the contribution of a number of speakers and each was responsible to weigh up what was being said. They were able to question the speakers to determine the truth of what was being discussed in the meeting.
in this way, they were to build one another up and encourage one another. But beyond that, God had also gifted some as teachers and prophets. Alongside the process of mutual ministry, there would be times when clear teaching and gifted prophecy were needed.
Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers were continually moving from one place to another to teach, to encourage and to bring greetings, advice and even financial assistance from one place to the other.
The above portrait is not intended to imply that all New Testament churches were idyllic with all things running correctly all the time. However, what we are given, in its ideal, is a picture of simplicity and brilliant functionality, because it was painted by God. He established its forms and structures, and then painted it with color and life
Chapter 28 – Where To From Here
To try to change the current denominational church structures is a Herculean task.
In approaching change, wisdom is needed – wisdom, compassion and graciousness. We might well move against structures but we cannot necessarily assume wrong motives in others.
A final reminder of the words of Jesus – new wine cannot be put into old wineskins. To have the wine sorted out but to have old wineskins encrusted with the dust of medieval Rome or shadows of Judaism; or to have them stitched together from this world’s idea of success, prosperity and group dynamics, will see the wine spill. To have the wineskins all sorted out, and the structures biblical, but not to know Christ and what it means to be indwelt by His Spirit will be totally ineffective.
Notes related but not in the book
THE TWELVE STEPS OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
WHAT THE CHURCH HAS TO LEARN FROM ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
Today the last place where one can be candid about one’s faults is in church. In a bar, yes, in a church, no. I know; I’ve tried both places.” Let that sting you and me just as it should, and make us miserable with our church Pharisaism till we see it is just as definite and just as hideous as anybody’s drunkenness can ever be, and a great deal more really dangerous.
Recently I heard an AA say that he could stay away from his Veteran’s meeting, his Legion, or his Church, and nobody would notice it. But if he stayed away from his AA meeting, his telephone would begin to ring the next day!
Interview questions from Ray Barnett
What is the core issue for you?
It probably boils down to one concept, a concept that for me is as natural as breathing: What does the Bible say? It has always amazed and saddened me that those charged with the responsibility of shepherding God’s people, or training church leaders, will do everything but look at the Bible in relation to the local church.
Every new programme, every denominational modification, is about rearranging what already exists. Even to repackage it into super-churches with fabulous music, lights and showmanship, still maintains the die-hard thinking that we were intended by God to sit as an audience for the professional few – the larger the audience the better.
I am not the first one to ask the question, but as you look around on Sunday morning, or look through your church’s programme, ask yourself the question: Is this what Jesus had in mind? If you have a suspicion that it might not be what he had in mind, where would you go to find answers? The Bible!
What are your major concerns?
First let me answer that in relation to my book. I am fearful of becoming a guru in any way. No one man has all the answers! THE GATHERING is not the final word, but I believe it will contribute to the dialogue by cracking open traditionalism and refocusing on Scripture.
For the church, well, that’s a much bigger issue. The organised church, like a sports club, might just go on reinventing itself and refurbishing its facilities until the sun freezes. But that was never our task, and it dismembers the Gospel. If, in any way, the Gospel is hidden beneath institutionalised structures; if in any way men and women are stifled in their growth because, as laity, they are “low-caste” within the system; if in any way men and women are bound into legalism by thinking that their Christian life and righteousness are centered on the attendance of a Sunday morning lecture and sing song; then we can expect God to sweep us into the dustbin of His history. And our nations will go with us. Because we have not been salt and light for them; we have been a stone edifice on a street corner with a cute little advertising slogan on it, wishfully thinking that it might attract people to come in.
On page 126 you quote a remarkable statement by Martin Luther. Care to comment?
Sure. Luther, way back at the reformation, could see what people are beginning to see again today, and what THE GATHERING is about. That is, we as the church were always intended to be a (small) mutually supportive, mutually ministering family of redeemed people. Not an institution or revision of the temple.
Luther lamented that he could not get anyone interested in the life-changing processes of meeting God’s way. For too many centuries, people had been encrusted with the barnacles of priesthood and temple-like infrastructure. And so, while Luther and others dramatically reformed the doctrines of the church, he did not reform the structures of Christendom.
It is time, now, for a new reformation. One that sets God’s people free to become all that God intended. It is time to demonstrate our redemption as a community of salt and light. It is time to lift the basket off the light, and become the ecclesia – the simple gathering of God’s people.