Tuesday, 3 November 2009

What is the Church? - A Gathered Community

What is the church? In trying to answer that question we looked at the church as a regenerated, spirit-filled community. We have seen the importance of clearly appointed leadership to equip and mature the people of God. Now we need to explore one of the most fundamental aspects of being church – the gathering or assembly. The Greek word for church, Ecclesia, can be translated assembly or congregation. The very word implies that something unique and special happens when believers get together.

There are many things we can do when we gather as a church. We can pray, preach, give testimony and heal the sick and more besides. What is fascinating about the NT is the absence of a prescriptive approach to what we must do and how long we should do it for. For instance; we are not told when to meet. The early church was birthed out of Judaism. They met on Saturday. For them, the first day of the week was a Sunday, just as Monday is for us today. In their desire to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus they got up early before work and met – every week. We have held to that tradition ever since. It’s a tradition I value, but scripture does not command it!

Nor do we have a command for how long to preach! The only command Paul left Timothy was to do it, 2Tim 4.1,-2 in season and out of season. We don’t normally expect to gather strawberries in the winter. They are a summer fruit. But Paul tells Timothy to be ready at all times, when he feels like and is prepared and even when he isn’t! I remember learning the craft of preaching from my very gifted and articulate pastor. In commenting on this verse he encouraged me, “Peter, some men work on having a prepared message, you should work on having a prepared heart and life, and then you’ll always have a message – in season and out of season”. Good advice that has really benefitted me.

You see where the emphasis is? Not in how long to preach, but in doing it well, convincing, rebuking, exhorting, with all longsuffering and teaching, 2Tim 4.2. We have a few accounts of Acts of the preaching of Stephen, Peter and Paul. They aren’t long. Luke records once when Paul preached past midnight and then on into the morning, Acts 20.7-12. But remember he was only in Troas for a week, Acts 20.6 and this was his last day with them. It’s one of the reasons why visiting speakers can often get away with speaking longer than the local pastor. People know it’s a one shot deal. But the Bible doesn’t tell us how long to preach for.

We could mention praise, prayer and communion; all practices that are part of our church life, yet we are given the freedom to choose, when, where and how long to do them for. And herein lays an important truth. God trusts us. In scripture He prescribes the ingredients for a healthy diet that promotes spiritual growth, we get to choose what to put in and how much to eat! Like a good chef, leaders have to discern what the church needs in this season. For one of the major roles of a leader is to feed the flock. This is more than teaching. It is the sum total of all that we experience as a church in any given week.

One of the mistakes I have seen is churches that try to have too many ingredients in one meeting. It is all crammed in. Then cell group leaders try to reproduce midweek, what happens on Sunday. It becomes a mini service. This is not good practice and often leads to meetings that are too long and difficult for outsiders to endure or relate to. And before you accuse me, I’m not promoting a seeker sensitive approach. I’m simply saying that we think through what we are trying to achieve.

Take prayer. In my opinion it is one of the most difficult meetings to lead. I have experienced lots of prayer meetings. In many I couldn’t wait till they were over. They usually represented about 10% of the church. This was a mixture of the dedicated few, the whacky and those who could find no other expression of ministry in the church; so they came to prayer meetings! One by one folk would pray. Some were articulate and to the point. Great! Others went on and on till a great sleep fell on the others. At other times there were long periods of silence. It wasn’t waiting on God. It was lack of preparation.

Yet prayer is central to the Christian life and vital for the church. In Acts it was energetic and powerful. So my goal as a leader is to get all praying and wanting to come back for more. I prefer to get people to commit for one hour. Two or three worship songs can help us honour the presence of God. Then, following the example of our African brothers, I like to get people praying all that the same time, even if it is only for a minute. I share a scripture to pray out of. That’s what they did in Acts 4. This is not a time to preach; or if it is, then it should only for a few minutes. It guides the prayer so that petition is rooted in the authority if God’s word.

Breaking into groups of three or four even in the same room gives more opportunity for all to pray and cover more needs. And from here we can build. Build people’s hunger while also building their capacity for more. Now that’s the way I do it. It works for me. In other parts of the world they pray regularly all night. You could argue that they have a more mature expression of prayer because they can sustain it longer, but you can’t argue that my way has any less value. For the Bible doesn’t give value to the length of a prayer (quite the opposite actually), only that it is heartfelt and God centred, Luke 18.9-14; Matt 23.14.

Paul helps us by giving us the most important criteria for evaluating any gathering –does edification (building up) take place. So if we prophecy it must not be self-serving as it was in Corinth. It must be for edification, 1Cor 14.3. So Paul tells them, The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, 1Cor 14.32. Today he’d say something like this; “Get a grip; use some self- control. Don’t go on and on stealing the limelight. If someone gets another revelation sit down, shut up and make room for them. Let others have a turn”, 1Cor 14.30. For the goal of any meeting of the saints is edification, 1Cor 14.26

Paul had to challenge the Corinthians; “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not”. The issue is not, ‘What do I have the freedom to do?’ That is a very self-centred way of living. It is the wrong question. The real question is, ‘What will edify people in this situation?’ That is much more challenging and requires a different motivation, faith working by love.

Paul also reminds the church at Corinth that even his authority is for the edifying of the church, not to pull people down, 2Cor 10.8; 13.10. So regardless of what we do as a church in terms of what is allowed, it must edify the saints. In Corinth the opposite was happening. 1Cor 11.17 is telling. “Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse”. Imagine that. People went to church and came out feeling worse rather than better.

The specific issue at Corinth was a group of believers who celebrated communion by getting drunk. Unbelievable! But notice how Paul deals with this. He brings correction. He reminds about what Communion is all about. He then warns them that to continue in such a practice is not to discern the Lord’s body and can lead to discipline. He tells then straight that this is why some in the congregation are weak, sick and even dying, 1Cor 11.23-34. But notice what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t tell them to abandon meeting together. He rather encourages them to get it right.

Many want to abandon the gathering of the church. Matt 18.20 is quoted and then applied to all kinds of situations. Four believers out for a meal in a restaurant is now a church. I’m not convinced. For one thing it’s poor exegesis (looking at the meaning of a text in its context). In Matt 18 Jesus has just been speaking about how to deal with personal offences. It is about church discipline. His authority is present to ratify any decision made by the church members to exclude an unrepentant believer.

This word gather is special to Jesus. He encouraged His disciples to pray for more labourers for the harvest because of the need of the people. He saw them as “weary and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd”, Mat 9.36-38. And so in Matt 23.37 the good Shepherd laments over Jerusalem who will not allow herself to be ‘gathered’. Yes they came together as crowds to hear Him speak, but Jesus is thinking of something more than a crowd when He speaks of being gathered.

Gen 49.10 tells us that ‘to Him shall the gathering of the peoples be’. It is about those who gather for the purpose of being ‘built up’. Paul commends the Ephesian elders to “God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up (edify you) and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified’, Acts 20.32. Many have horror stories of meetings and churches that have done more harm than good. But that is true in every area of life. We don’t stop going to the doctor just because of a Harold Shipman who killed over 218 patients. We don’t stop eating just because we get food poisoning at one restaurant, (though we may think twice about eating there again).

My point is simple. We live and learn and move on. Think of Jesus. Luke 4.16 tells us that He went into the Synagogue on the Sabbath day, ‘as was His custom’. In other words it was His habit of life. He had grown up doing it and He didn’t abandon the practice as an adult. We read story after story of Jesus speaking and healing in the Synagogues, Mark 1.21; 3.1; 6.1-6. Mark 1.35-39 tells us that Jesus went into every Synagogue throughout the region of Galilee. They did not always want to hear what He had to say but that was where the people of God gathered – and Jesus was there too.

Of course Jesus also taught in boats, houses and on hillsides. There were other meetings at other places and other times. But the Synagogue had a long tradition within Judaism and Jesus honoured it, even though it is not prescribed in the scripture. It grew up during the years of captivity when the people of God had no temple and sacrifice to relate to. So they gathered to worship, pray and read the scripture and hear someone try to make sense of it. And even though these Synagogues needed reforming, many Godly people were in them, waiting to hear and respond to the truth.

This was also Paul’s practice. He first went to the synagogues to preach the gospel. It was where most of the first converts for every church he planted were taken from. I often hear or read of people who frame things like meeting together on Sunday as an either/or choice. Either you are for traditional church or you are for house church. Either you have formal meetings or informal meetings. Either you have ordained leaders or lay leaders. Well why can’t we have both? Why must it be one or the other? Who declared that they were our only options? Western Europe has a long tradition of meeting on Sunday’s. Why abandon it? Rather why not use it and shape it to build the church. Maybe some ingredients should be changed. That will require courageous leadership. Let’s learn to do it better. I suspect that the baby and the bath water have been confused by many.

In Heb 10.24-25 we have a wonderful exhortation. “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much more as you see the Day approaching.” The focus here is clear. We are to be cheerleaders who cheer others on as they practice good works from hearts of love till the Day He returns. It happens wherever and whenever we come together. To stop doing so is to forsake a truth that is inherent to us being church, the assembly, called out ones, those gathered in the Name of Jesus.

In the early church they met daily – in the temple courts and from house to house. Not just for friendship, but to apply apostolic teaching, enjoy fellowship, celebrate communion, pray together, share their possessions and praise God, Acts 2.42-47. Sounds good to me. You see you do need to assemble with other believers to be a Christian. God added people to the church because Jesus is its head. It was proof that they were truly born again. They had learned to love what He loves and gave His life for – the church, Eph 5.25.

So if you have needs that a Sunday service isn’t meeting, don’t worry. There are other times and places were your needs can be met. It doesn’t all have to happen on a Sunday! Readjust your expectations so that you can enjoy what does happen there. I pray that as you listen to the many voices challenging the way church is done you will listen with discernment and test it all against the truth of scripture. Change is often good and needed. But so much of what is hailed as change today is nothing more than a re-arrangement of the furniture in a field. The house has been abandoned; great in the summer, but not very practical when winter is on the way. Unlike Jerusalem, allow yourself to be ‘gathered’ with God’s people where you can be protected, fed and built up in your faith.