Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Arenas of Christian Life

In the process of establishing the community of the “underground” German Confessing Church seminary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of both the nature and the spirit required to enjoy the divine reality of fellowship. As for the spirit, there was a call for humility: He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial … God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious…[1]

Given the nature of western Christian expression, those words sound prophetic. Each year new models of Church life are added to a growing list: house church, missional church, emergent church, mosaic community, satellite church, mega church, meta church … With each addition to the list, there is a subtle subtext: this is the way Christians were intended to meet … this way, and no other.

In balance to that, Bonhoeffer wrote: Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness, and His promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily.[2]

From that call for a spirit of humility, Bonhoeffer was then able to define the direction, order and balance expected of community. The directions embraced a fairly wide bandwidth: Let him who cannot be alone beware of community …  Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.[3]

The “zen-like” nature of those warnings only serve as a challenge for a Christian to provide equal attention and care to all of what I would call “the Arenas of Christian life” or, better yet, the circles that define Christian interaction and fellowship.

During my term as the Pastor of the Bethany Baptist Church in Richmond, British Columbia, our congregation underwent a significant period of transition and growth which included a building program, a move, and in Biblical terms, a season where the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.[4] Among all of the challenges posed by that season, the most significant was the transition from being the “big-little church” to becoming the “little-big” church. Such a transition demands careful attention. [5]

In order to guide the church through the transition, I found it necessary to paint graphic pictures to help orient the congregation to the “new feelings” required by our growing dynamics. In order to do this, I needed to describe the context in which Christians are intended to gather together. I termed this concept “The Arenas of Christian life” or the “Circles of Fellowship” depicting it as five circles, each with a name:

Celebration: the largest conceivable group of people … a mass of humanity gathered together for a single purpose. Here, the title of “arena” fits well to describe a faceless mass of people gathered together in a stadium. It’s a familiar biblical image. The Bible speaks of us, in this life, being “surrounded by a cloud of witnesses”[6] and in the reality of heaven being numbered with “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands”[7] all gathered with one purpose: “to worship the Lamb .. the one who sits on the throne.” In our Church context, this circle of Celebration was to describe the expectations we were to bring to our worship, and view the worship as training for our ultimate heavenly occupation. Because of the nature of Celebration, it was not necessary for everyone to know everyone else by name because only one Name really mattered.

Congregation: a “church-within-the-church”, a “manageable” group of people .. typically more than 15 in number and, in some cases as many as 50. I used this to describe a group of people who gathered together primarily for the purpose of service. Whether it was a choir or a mission’s group or a Sunday school class, the group gathered around a specific task or mission. While they could expect to develop a sense of personal relationship and belonging, the defining purpose of such a group was to accomplish a particular task. If there was to be a Biblical illustration of this, the 72 disciples appointed by Jesus to go out “two by two to every town and place where he was to go”[8] could serve as such a group united by a missional purpose.[9]

Community: the small-group, local home fellowship, a familiar group of people .. typically more than 8 but less than 15 who would meet with regularity. While the conventional image of such a group was that it gathered for Bible Study, the interaction was intended for more personal support and care. Names matter in such a group, and spiritual growth the object of attention. The community of the 12 disciples with Jesus could serve as a picture of such a small group.

Cell: the intentional fellowship with those who are “closer than a brother,” [10] an accountability group, typically no more than 2 or 3 people with whom a bond of trust allows a depth of interaction, confession, and care. The exclusive boundary of such a situation allows for more intimate conversation.  The interaction of Jesus with the three: Peter, James and John[11] could serve as an example.

Communion: the direct relationship that a believer cultivates and enjoys with God in private devotion, and spiritual discipline. Typically. that’s done alone! This circle touches the core of a believer’s heart and serves as the primary resource for life to be lived in all the rest of the circles.

None of the circles exist in exclusive isolation. The picture that we used showed a sense of interaction and flow between each and all. The idea was that to have a healthy fellowship, each member of a church would earnestly, and equally, cultivate and value participation and relationships at each level.

Graph:

Group Type Quick Definition Example Advantages: Needs Met
Celebration Large, encompassing mass gathering,

One purpose – to worship

Typically: innumerable

the Myriads, the heavenly host, worshipping God.

Sunday Morning worship

Corporate worship, augmenting and elevating a shared voice of praise
Congregation A church-within-the-church:

Primary purpose – to serve

Mission oriented

Typically: 15 and up

the 72 Disciples

Sunday School class,

Worship team, choir, Board of Deacons, Mission team

Corporate service: augmenting and strengthening the impact of service
Community A localized group of care

Primary purpose – to support and care – and to know each other by name

Typically: 8-15

the 12 Apostles

Home Growth Groups, House Bible studies

A sense of belonging, ability to serve one another with individual impact
Cell A private circle of accountability, the special few who have earned the right to care in confidence

Typically: 1,2 or 3

John, the beloved Apostle; Peter

Marriage, close friendship,

A sense of knowing, an environment of honesty and accountability
Communion A personal encounter with God, the one-on-one relationship of devotion and spiritual life, typified by a meaningful quiet time, devotional life Jesus [Matthew 14:23]

Personal devotional time

Cultivating an authentic relationship with God

 

As the conditions in the church changed, it was important to focus on how each of the five arenas would be found in the Church experience.  Even more, how each of the five would be expressed and valued. This was especially important during a time of turbulence when the nature of “doing church” began to change, and we entered unfamiliar territory.

Keeping these five circles in focus helped address two particularly troublesome temptations:

Limiting the “Church” to one exclusive definition: As models of ministry compete, I’ve noticed a tendency by some to promote their  experience of fellowship at the expense of others. The assumptions vary: a small church is better than a large church, a home fellowship is more authentic than a church that meets in a building, a mega church is more exciting than a small church. It is possible to violate the spirit of community with the sort of spiritual hubris described by Bonhoeffer:  God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the visionary proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself  .. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure ..  he becomes an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.[12]

Misplacing expectations from one circle to another: While each circle provides an environment for multiple experiences, each has an primary purpose that defines appropriate behavior and expectation. It proved to be quite helpful for people to see the picture of the arenas and circles in order to recalibrate their expressions and expectations. A few examples: Occasionally I would encounter a person who would leave a worship service, disappointed that God hadn’t really spoken to Him. Pressing the issue further, I would discover that they had expected the worship service to provide their personal devotional needs. Occasionally they would “meet God” in a worship service, but it was more an act of serendipity than intention. Cultivating a personal devotional life allowed them to find the sort of spiritual balance that renewed their experience of worship.

Another example: It’s easy to imagine what happens when a person walks into a classroom of a 50-person Sunday school and announces that their marriage has just ended. It happens often, in various ways. At best, a few people may sympathize and pray with the person. But the class goes on, and the person is left to wonder if anyone really cares. Again, the best expressions deserve an appropriate arena, which only enhances the need for “community of care” rather than a “congregation of service.”

Learning these lessons helped our church navigate through the turbulence of change. It helped provide a  plan for us to go beyond building a Church building – to create meaningful Arenas. And it helped people get down to the real business of fellowship and consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.[13]


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Harper and Row, 1954  page 27

[2] Life Together, page 28.

[3] Life Together, page 77

[4] Acts 4:47 [a wonderful phrase that could easily outline the Book of Acts: Acts 2:41, 4:4, 5:14; 6:7; 11:24, cf. 14:1, 16:5, 17:4, 18:8

[5] There is a whole discipline of study given to growth and transition issues. Notable studies include: Gary MacIntosh [One Size Doesn’t Fit All, Taking Your Church to the Next Level], Alice Mann [The In-Between Church, Raising the Roof]

[6] Hebrews 12:1

[7] Revelation 5:11

[8] Luke 10:1

[9] I had to observe some caution in applying Biblical illustrations to the model, realizing that I was drawing principles from descriptions which is based on much softer ground than specific precepts given by command. The one command that did define the effort was that we “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.” [Hebrews 10:25]

[10] Proverbs 18:24

[11] Matthew 17:1

[12] Life Together, p. 27-28

[13] Hebrews 10:25

Theologies of Leadership – are they new forms of clericalism?

During the Reformation the assumed, privileged position of clergy came under serious challenge. More radical elements claimed to have eliminated the need for any specific clergy group within their formulation of church. In the early part of the 20th century we heard renewed calls for a “theology of the laity,” which continues to have significant impact in Protestant and Catholic circles. Slogans such as “every member a minister” became rallying cries that promoted further reformation so that “lay-people” in the church might enjoy their full position as part of Christ’s body. Within Evangelical circles a sense of congratulation emerged in the progress made to empower the laity.

In the last twenty-five years the issue of leadership, at least within North American Evangelical churches, has also become dominant. Seminaries seek to develop effective “ministry leaders.” The cry is for “visionary leaders” who can propel congregations to new heights of missional endeavor. Pastors’ shelves or computer memory drives are chock-full of books, papers, and digitized essays, videos, blogs and reports to help them become the leaders they were called to be. In many ways I applaud this focus.

But accompanying this engagement with the essence, competence, and theology of leadership is a serious question – if only some within the church are leaders, what does this say about the rest of us? Is this emphasis upon leadership in ministry and the general belief that only a few are called to exercise such leadership perpetuating clericalism, but under a new guise? Did Jesus intend only a few in his Kingdom to be leaders or was one of his radical changes the opportunity and requirement for every disciple to be both leader and follower, rather than a few being leaders and the rest followers? In my reading about ministry leadership and interactions with denominational, seminary and church leaders, I sense that the prevailing perspective is the first and not the second, i.e. only a few disciples are called to be leaders. It is their vision that dominates, after all they are the visionary leaders!  The incorporation of CEO models of pastoral leadership, particularly in larger churches, as important and useful as this may be, nevertheless also contributes to this perspective.  We all “know” that successful entrepreneurs and business leaders are a select group. This thinking spills over into the way average Christians tend to view the local church organization. Spiritual leaders are few. Only some are called to be spiritual leaders or ministers.

The New Testament offers a different understanding. Pentecost demonstrated that the presence of God’s Spirit among his people enabled each one to evangelize, to proclaim the Good News, and make disciples. Paul’s use of the body metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12 demonstrates that every believer, gifted and empowered by the Spirit, contributes to the well-being of the whole body. Similarly his statement in Ephesians  4:12-16 puts emphasis upon the work of restoring “the holy ones” to do the work of ministry so that “the whole body generates the growth of the whole body” (v.16) as they live connected with Jesus Christ. The concept of mutual submission expressed in Ephesians 5:21 leans in the same direction. And then there is Peter’s concept of the new temple constructed from living stones and each one together forms a priestly community, “a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices well-pleasing to God through Jesus Messiah” (2:5). Further he asserts that God gifts believers to speak and serve to his glory. Other elements could be referenced, but these may suffice to indicate a general perspective.

These same texts, however, indicate that God provisions his people with gifts so that the whole body can be effective in its service. Some of these gifts include people who can be entrusted with responsibilities to care for, teach, and guide the local expression of the faith community. However, as Jesus himself stated, such roles are essentially serving or “slaving” roles (Mark 10:43-45). Kingdom greatness is centred in humility and available to every believer (Matthew 18:1-8). Parenting serves as a primary metaphor for how “leadership” functions in a local church.

One of the significant benefits that the Theology of Work movement can bring to the understanding of the church today is a renewed sense that every member of the body is indeed called in Christ to exercise Kingdom leadership in their place, i.e. to be a Kingdom agent. This may be through the role of parent, spouse, employee, employer, student, etc.  However, we have to recapture the Kingdom perspective that leadership is not about power, but rather is about serving and thereby demonstrating God’s proper kingship in family, vocation, church, and society. Every believer exercises influence in his or her sphere of relationships towards the accomplishment of God’s will on earth. This is Kingdom leadership – something that the Holy Spirit empowers every believer to accomplish. People who fill functional roles of organizational leadership within a congregation do important spiritual work, but they have to remember that their work serves to enable all believers in the body to be the Kingdom leaders God has called them in Christ and empowered them by his Spirit to be.

Calendar for Church Websites

Have you been looking for a good calendar plugin for your WordPress based church website?  I regularly review lists of calendar offerings and am usually disappointed with what I find. Today I reviewed some more plugins and was delighted with one that looked like it would do what a church website would need.  The plugin is CGM Event Calendar by Ryan Farrell.  The beauty of this plugin is that it is designed to use the new WordPress Custom Post Types.

Here are some of its very cool functions:

  • Completely flexible setting of event dates, recurring dates etc.
  • Events can be assigned categories.  This allows events of a certain grouping can be listed together.
  • The calendar of events can be viewed in a monthly, weekly and print format.
  • The calendar is flexible and expands to accommodate more or less events.

You can view a screen shot of a test that I did of the calendar.