¿ Apostolic ?

I recently heard a Christian leader say that “church planters” hold an apostolic role in the church, and that they ought to recognize their call as apostles. Yes, he made a distinction between “the 12” foundational apostles of the church, and explained that an apostle, according to mere definition, is [essentially] one who is sent. A modern day missionary. A “church planter.”

I don’t necessarily have a problem with the title of “apostle” being used for a “church planter.” I think we all recognize the difference between modern day missional pioneers and say, the Apostle John. My concern is that some, who are giving counsel and advice to up and coming planters, are painting a picture of the “church planter” as being some sort of rogue lone ranger, on a mission to which all else refuse to embark.

As I listened to the remainder of the exhortation, seeking to keep an open mind, I found myself thinking, “every true apostle must always begin as a servant.” The reality is that an apostle leads as a servant throughout their ministry. I’m not sure where this splinter cell mindset is coming from, but I don’t think we observe it in the scriptures.

Without a doubt, the church planting, missional, total abandoned, standout apostle of the New Testament is, Paul. Nearly two-thirds of the book of Acts is dedicated to the ministry God wrought through the converted Pharisee. The majority of the New Testament epistles are attributed to the Roman born, Hebrew of Hebrews, and aside from Christ Himself, Paul is perhaps the most well known figure of the first century. But lone ranger, he was not.

Paul’s calling and ordination to the task of an apostle was of God and not of men (Galatians 1:1). Be that as it may, it was not until he was sent out with the blessing of a church that he actually went; and when that day came, he was not alone. The thirteenth chapter of Acts gives a brief summation of the commission. Paul and Barnabas, assembled with the three other leading teachers at Antioch, were ministering to the Lord when He, by His Holy Spirit said, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.” Following the call they fasted, prayed, laid hands on them and sent them away.

Nowhere do we see Paul or Barnabas giving Simon, Lucius and Manaen an earful about the greater work they had lost sight of or were missing, out on the frontier. Paul did not leave as a misunderstood pioneer without a gracious blessing from his sending church. As often as he declares his apostleship in the New Testament, he bears witness to his servanthood. Was Paul the apostle uncomfortable around other pastors, or something of a misfit? I think not. He recognized and wrote that those called to leadership within the church, whether apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or teachers (or pastor-teachers if you read it that way), are all called to the same work; equipping the saints for the further work of the ministry and building up of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12).

A renewed fervor in church planting is praiseworthy. A desire to see people brought into the kingdom and bearing much fruit is right. But an unwillingness to submit to the leaders of a local church and serve an established body, because of a pressing desire to be the pioneering apostle is, I believe, a mark of immaturity.

I have not planted a church, but would go in a second, were God to call me to do so. But as a pastor of a church I am ready and willing to fast with, pray for and lay hands on those that have proven themselves faithful stewards, as servants among the gathering of God’s people. Hasty, impetuous individuals who push their way out into the field to lay claim to a plot of ground upon which to build a pulpit, prove themselves often times to be no more than self-willed children, unwilling to wait in the proving-ground of ministry for the sincere endorsement of those whom God has made overseers for their souls.

Your leaders understand you far more than you realize. Learn to submit, and let them serve with joy and not grief; it will profit you greatly.

Cultural Shift – Part 3; Implications For Western Christianity

[dropcap3]A[/dropcap3]s I’ve studied church history, I think it no stretch to conclude that local churches, over the last 2 millennia, have experienced an average attendance of about 75 adults. Enter, 20th century American Christianity. Or, as I like to call it, Consumeranity.

The average church size in America at present hovers at a little more than 180 adult members, roughly 2.5x larger than historical averages. While nearly 60% of American churches are 100 or less, and around 90% are under 400; more than half of all churchgoers in America attend a church of 400 or more adults.(1) Most congregations are small but most people are apart of large congregations. Such large [Consumeranity] congregations skew the numbers, and [unfortunately] this abnormality is normal for the majority of American Christians.

This anomaly is a relatively recent phenomena (the last 50 years or less), and I believe that the cultural shift taking place in America today will – in the next generation – bring the church back to normal in terms of congregational size and makeup. But what happens when abnormal, which has become normal, reverts back to true normal?

As a result of this shift, some will feel real pain. Many (especially the “movers and shakers” of mega-church evangelicalism) will fight against it. We tend to oppose change, as change is painful. But change is an essential part of life. Alistair Begg once said, “Where there’s life, there’s change. You want no change, live in a cemetery. [There’s no change there], accept for decay.” Therefore, if the church is to experience vitality and life, it will be faced with regular change, or it will decay.

What then does normal Christianity look like in the context of 21st century America? I think it looks like church has for 2,000 years. The gatherings of believers are smaller in size, community oriented, or people-group centered fellowships. For lack of a better word, they are tribal. This being the case, I’m not necessarily sure that multi-cultural, multi-ethnic churches are the norm. That’s not to say that there are not beautiful things that take place in such settings, they’re just not the norm.

Frontline missions has sought for generations to establish self-replicating, indigenous church planting movements. But in our own backyard we constantly seek for an American (or western) multiculturalism within the local body. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not advocating segregation, only setting forth for consideration the idea that congregations have an established cultural identity from which they worship and express Christian love and character in a way that is relevant to the cultural makeup of the gathered believers.

What then does it practically look like? In all honesty it is quite hard to say, as I have no rhyme or reason for my belief, other than a hunch. I do however think that over the next 30 years the larger congregations in America will fracture along tribal fault-lines as the charismatic executive leaders move on. The churches will become multifarious. They would therefore do well to be proactive in their planning now, if they are to have influence then. I suggest that the best thing the larger traditional church can do is not to scrap it all in favor of a “home church movement” (as one home church movement leader once exhorted me to do) or fight against the shift to prop up the establishment, but to embrace the reality of a smaller community church model by taking what I believe is an Antioch approach.

The Church of Antioch was the first thriving “uttermost parts” church mentioned in the book of Acts. It was the first Gentile church, and the first at which the followers of Christ were referred to as “Christians.” Little is said in the book of Acts about the makeup of the Antioch church, but my gut tells me that it was a fairly large fellowship with multiple meeting places throughout the region.  They were one church, composed of many congregations, superintend by a plurality of overseers (I have purposefully chosen not to use “plurality of elders,” as it means something more than what I’m saying here). The core leadership of Antioch consisted of five apostolic, teaching leaders; Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, Saul (Paul). Antioch thrived for several centuries and was known as a charitable, missional and evangelical church.

As large western churches navigate the current cultural shift, and more and more church planters step forth to birth new works; I propose (as possible first steps) that they/we maintain established church structures to raise up a multiplicity of lay pastors to oversee small community fellowships throughout a city, county or region. Furthermore, churches ought to establish an apostolic core of leadership dedicated to discipleship, for equipping an ever increasing population of overseeing pastors and missionaries.

Ideally, for our fellowship (Calvary Escondido), I’d love to see us get to a point where we have 30+ lay pastors, overseeing small gatherings (under 75) in homes, community centers and other well-suited venues throughout our city and the surrounding region. I would expect we would maintain the structure we currently have for regular corporate worship gatherings as well as a central meeting place for equipping and training. Such a body incorporates the strengths of smaller fellowships (self-care of benevolence, discipline, counsel and other pastoral care needs) as well as the accountability and enabling resources of a larger congregation.

I am quite sure that I’ve overlooked several blind-spots in my consideration of where ecclesiology is headed in 21st century western culture, but as I’m certain it is experiencing a course correction, I want to be at least hypothesizing what that may look like. At the end of the day, I know one thing for sure… God builds his church, I tend to be just “along for the ride.”

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(1) National Congregations Study – 2006-07

Virtues & Victories of Christian Love – Part 3

Pastor Miles DeBenedictis

1 Corinthians 13:7-8a
“Virtues & Victories of Christian Love – Part 3”

 

 

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Cultural Shift – Part 2

[dropcap3]M[/dropcap3]inistering in a theistic environment is relatively easy. Relatively easy in the sense that the you, and the person to whom you are ministering, are playing from the same deck. When you ask, “Can I pray for you?” there’s likely a common understanding about prayer. When you speak about God you can assume that your hearer has a similar concept of God. Religious people with a similar [theistic] worldview are generally more receptive to the gospel, thus “large-scale” evangelism can be effective.

Evangelism in America for several generations had been anything but cross-cultural. For many, “cross-cultural evangelism” has been the equivalent of “foreign missions.” That is simply no longer the case, and contextualization of the gospel is now commonplace for evangelism in our own backyard. There are however some problems. “Contextualization” seems foreign to most ministers over 40. The mainline church is still [largely] relying on evangelistic tactics that are oriented toward a theistic worldview, and expecting receptiveness to the gospel like what you’d hope for among theistics (if I can make up a word).

At the close of 2008 I began teaching through the book of Acts at Calvary Escondido. Six months later, as we came to chapters 10 & 11, I was struck by how the move of the gospel from Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, to the “uttermost parts” – or the Hellenistic Roman world – mirrored the shift of culture the church is now facing in 21st century America. In many ways we’ve reverted to a 1st century mindset and culture in the west. How’s that for progress? This is incredibly foreign for the western church, as it has not experienced such an environment for centuries. This epic shift has given rise to the term “Post-Christian,” which strikes great fear into the hearts of masses of evangelicals.

The first week of April, 2009, Newsweek’s cover featured the headline “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” John Meacham’s provocative article “The End of Christian America” got more than a little rise out of many in the Christian community. A year prior, in February, 2008, The Pew Forum released it’s nearly 150 page “Religious Landscape Survey.” Pew’s survey of more than 35,000 Americans explored this religious and cultural shift; it was, in many ways, the catalyst for Meacham’s article and Newsweek’s cover.

Post-Christian. This is the cultural landscape of 21st century America; and Western Europe for that matter (Europe is actually far further down the path). Christianity and the “Christian worldview” are no longer the default in America. Some staunchly hold that America is a Christian nation and consider it their call to defend [politically] “Christian America.” Every time I am confronted by this mindset, I am reminded of Jesus’ words to Pilate, “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight… My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36, emphasis mine) Perhaps we’d do well to actually read those bumper-stickers that are so trendy among evangelicals today.

Why does this reality seem to frighten us so much? Have we totally forgotten that the world in which Peter, John, Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Titus and many others ministered was wholly non-Christian by the very fact that it was pre-Christian? Do we honestly [and arrogantly] believe that America is the last hope for the Christian faith? Look at the statistics, Christianity is not slowing it’s pace of growth in the least. Sure, it may be growing fastest in places other than America and Western Europe, but the Christian faith is not in decline, even in the west.

What then is in decline? To answer that we’d have to ask, “What exactly is “Christian America?”” I believe that “Christian America” has actually meant “Christian Consumerism,” or if I can make up another word, “Consumeranity.” If that is dead or dying, may it be that the DNR is signed and notarized.

Certainly the long way about it, but what exactly is the point for 21st century evangelism in America? Clearly it’s going to look different than it has, but it’s going to be more like it was, as in the days of Paul.

Large scale “crusade evangelism” may still have a place [for a time]. However, most who attend crusades are already theistically minded. They are, for lack of a better analogy, the low hanging fruit. Paul did seek such individuals in his evangelism. Always when he entered a new city he searched for the synagogue; he first desired audience with the Jews and gentile god-fearers. Ultimately he would endeavor to reach the unreached; the paganistic, polytheistic, pluralistic Roman mind.

Evangelism with Romans involved contextualization and more explanation; and uptake, or receptiveness to the gospel was on a much smaller scale. Roman’s were skeptical and suspicious. At Athens in Acts 17 there were a few who were open, but most mocked and dismissed Paul’s defense. This is what I believe awaits the evangelist of our day; skepticism, suspicion, mocking and dismissiveness. Add to this, they, the modern day lost, are not going to come to us; we must meet them in the marketplace, outside the structure of the church.

These may be changes from the norm of Christianity in America, but the reality is that what we’ve experienced in America has not been normal to Christianity. American Christianity for the last hundred years (or more) has made abnormal, normal. So much so that we’ve lost sight of the fact that every Christian is called to be an evangelist on mission. We have exalted a few key leaders as evangelists and cast on their shoulder the burden of the task. The harvest is white and the few laborers are bound to grow weary unless we reengage the body as a whole.

Culture Shift – Part 1

“Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation — at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.”

Candidate Barack Obama, June 2007

The conservative [especially] evangelical community was stirred into a frenzy by the above quote. Political opponents from coast to coast sought to use it as a rallying point for their base. While four years later I find few statements that I can heartily agree with from our now president Barack Obama, this is definitely one of them.

Cultural shifts are difficult. They are not always sudden and jarring like a magnitude 8.0 earthquake. They tend rather to change landscapes like the slow crushing move of a glacier. The cold hard reality is that culture is never static, which poses a significant problem, as we [humans] don’t much like change.

The Christian, more than any other, must be flexible and ready to adapt to the realities of cultural evolution. We are to be men and women, on mission; a mission which involves a commission to “go.” So, like culture, we are also not static. Our default however, is to tend toward inflexibility. This means that the life for the Christian will [almost] always involve some level of discomfort. As strangers and pilgrims in this world we will never truly find home, in this life. It is this truth that Jesus identified when he said to a potential seeker,  “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt. 8:20)

Acts chapter 11 highlights for us a major cultural shift for the early church, one which I’m convinced mirrors what the 21st century evangelical church is now facing in the US and western Europe.

Briefly, Acts 11 brings the church face to face with the fulfillment of one of Jesus’ prophetic promises. Jesus prophesied saying, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

For roughly the first 10 years of the church’s existence, it found its base among Jews and Samaritans, primarily. Those who filled her ranks came from a theistic worldview; they were religious. Gospel uptake among those of a theistic persuasion was pretty good. At the birth of the church during Pentecost we witness something akin to the crusade evangelism of the 20th century as 3,000 were converted. Shortly after that there came another 5,000 (depending on how you read it). But a decade in, at Acts chapter 10, we witness the gospel’s advance into a paganistic, pluralistic, polytheistic, somewhat secularistic environment. Acts 11 reveals the apostolic reaction to what we could call “culture shock.”

Culture shock is what happens when you wake-up one day to find the culture around you has changed, and you have not. The evangelical church in America is experiencing a culture shock similar to that of the church in Acts 11. President Obama’s quote exposes the cultural shift, which the church is beginning to wake-up to. How we (the church) react to this shift will shape much of our evangelistic efforts in 21st century America.

Interdependent

It is a great blessing and privilege to live in a nation such as the United States of America. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to many nations around the world in my life thus far, and I’m always blessed to return home. I know that people from other lands would say the same thing if they were returning to their nation of origin, but I believe there is something special about the USA.

Liberty is no doubt at the heart of what makes the America great. A trust in God has, I believe, been of great importance too. Dennis Prager adds a third value – E pluribus unum, “Out of Many, One” – which he shows can each be found on our coinage.  He calls these three values “The American Trinity” and sites them as the foundation of American exceptionalism.  Independence Day is certainly one of our favorite holidays as a people.  It looks back to the great “Declaration of Independence” ratified 235 years ago today, and celebrates our national independence.  National independence is essential for any nation to thrive; we could also call it national sovereignty.

Independence day often causes me to ponder another reality that has nothing to do with the USA.

As a sinner places their trust firmly in God, He grants to them liberty from sin and death.  While doing so He also gathers the many who come to Him for salvation, into one body, His church.  What this means for the Christian is that he (or she) cannot truly be individually independent.  We (Christians) are wholly dependent upon God, and at the same time interdependent upon one another within the body of Christ.

The more time I spend in fellowship with God, the more I find that my cultural values as an American often conflict with the values of the Kingdom of God.  The individual independence which is so highly exalted in 21st century America is actually counterculture to Christianity.  No Christian survives long on their own.  God has created us, in Christ, with this interdependence.  Self-reliance is therefore, not really possible for us; and quite honestly, this is hard for me, because of pride.

And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.

Hebrews 10:24-25 KJV

Desire, Door & Do..

For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.

Philippians 2:13 NLT

I had the opportunity this morning to share with about 20 of our summer interns from the youth group at CCEsco.  It’s always a great blessing to share with young disciples that are experiencing their first real exposure to God’s call upon their lives.  I know, for me, that the three summers I spent as a youth intern at my church were incredibly formative.  With that as a backdrop I’m excited to see how God transforms the minds, hearts and directions of these teens.

Philippians 2:13, the primary text we considered today, has been a “goto” passage for me for many of the last 10 years.  Every semester at the bible college I meet students who are confronted with God’s call and challenged by what, or where, they are to go and do next.  My question – which is also my answer – when they seek counsel on the call of God is always the same, “What do you want to do?” For some reason this question is initially bothersome to most.  As I’ve talked with dozens of inquiring students in the last 7 years, I believe I’ve discovered the reason why [partly].

Sadly, we have disconnected our will, desire and enjoyment from God’s call and His glory in our lives.  Pastor John Piper does a great job identifying this unfortunate reality in the first chapter of his book “Desiring God.” Over the last 12 years of vocational ministry I’ve witnessed these things work in perfect concert as God has directed my path.  I have come to see that most often God directs me [first] by desire

Ok, so I anticipate an objection at this point.  Yes, desires can be dangerous.  My assumption is that the person seeking God’s will and direction is [hopefully] filtering their desires through the revealed will of God, in His word.  A fool might say, “I desire to sleep with my girlfriend, ultimately God created me with this desire, He created a way in which I can satisfy this appetite.  He must therefore be “ok” with me indulging.” No, God’s word is clear, the body is not for fornication (I have a teaching on this point if needed).  The word of God is always our standard.  My desires have to be measured by the character of Christ and His word.  Adam Clarke was right when he said, “The godly man never indulges a desire which he cannot form into a prayer to God.”

The Psalms are full of verses that seem perfectly suited for greeting cards and calendars.  Psalm 37:4 has found it’s way on to many of them (can you imagine the royalties King David is receiving in heaven?).

Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.

Psalm 37:4 KJV

As I’ve meditated upon this verse I’ve concluded that there are at least two ways to read it.  The common way to read it is to say, “If you delight yourself in the Lord, then He will give you the things that you desire in your heart.” I certainly think this reading is correct, but I believe it’s equally valid to read it, “If you delight yourself in the Lord then He will place [new] desires into your heart.” Haven’t each of us experienced a shifting, if not a wholesale transforming of our desires as we have set ourselves to delight in God?  God works in us to desire His good pleasure, and when we desire His good pleasure He delights to grant to us what we desire.

In walking with the Lord we are regularly confronted with crossroad decisions.  It is at such intersections that we are challenged with the call and will of God.  “God, what path do you want me to take?” In asking that question many times I have often sensed the Lord responding, “Which path do you want to take?”

Upon graduating from high school I, like so many, was confronted with such a junction.  I was interested in photography and graphic-design, had a natural ability/talent with computers, and a desire to serve God in a church setting, especially with youth.  Three doors stood before me.  I knew that whichever one I proceeded through I’d find a way in the will of God to use it as a ministry.  To be quite honest, I chose the door I liked the most and enrolled at Calvary Chapel Bible College.

A few months into my first semester at college I found myself faced with something of a dilemma.  Bible College was great, the setting was beautiful, but I found that much of what I was learning I’d already received through the school of ministry at my home church.  The problem was amplified by fact that I was hindered from being apart of body-life within a church while at the college.  A new desire began to form in my heart.

Tuesday, November 17, 1998.  That night is indelibly imprinted in my heart and mind.  Pastor Jon Courson shared at lectures from Genesis 22, on the sacrifice of Isaac.  During his message Pastor Jon said, “Perhaps the Lord has called you to leave the Bible College next semester.” Those words gripped my attention as he continued, “If the Lord tells you otherwise 3 days from now, make sure you listen.”

Five days later, following the Sunday services at my home church, myself and a friend from the college (Chuck) were invited to join the church staff as interns in the new year.  As my desire met an open door I immediately chose to return to my home church.  Chuck couldn’t understand how I could make such a quick decision without [apparently] praying about it.

The following day I was presented an alternate door when I was invited to join the internet services staff at the Bible College.  Desire won out, I returned to CCEsco as a pastoral intern in January 1999.  Since that time I have continually seen God work in this manner.  The desire to teach at a foreign Bible College extension campus was met one year later by an open door serving under David Guzik in Siegen, Germany.  The desire (given in 2002) to take over as the senior pastor of Calvary Escondido was met with an open door five years later.

In many ways I have come to expect that God will lead me by a desire, an open door and the resources or ability to do just what it is I desire, and all for His glory and pleasure.  His glory and our joy are not mutually exclusive.