John, it was a great pleasure and encouragement to fellowship with you on the telephone yesterday. It became apparent to me that we have a kindred spirit regarding both our frustrations with the present condition of the church in the West and our desire to see Christ truly expressed and glorified among those who profess His name.
After our phone call, I tried to track down a copy of the book you mentioned: "The Shaping of Things to Come." It looks like I will have to order it on-line as none of the local bookstores have it. However, my wife did find a downloadable copy of the first chapter, which I was able to read. I’m looking forward to completing the book. Here are a few first impressions and general thoughts.
In reading the first chapter of the book, I was encouraged, yet also realized that we may have some ground yet to cover. On page 12, the authors state three main attributes of the missional church: Incarnational, Messianic, and Apostolic. I very much like that vision, especially “incarnational” although I’d like to expand the sense beyond what they indicate in their description. To me, the incarnation is one of the most important aspects of the Christian life. We must come to the place where Christ is everything to us and we can say with Paul, “it’s no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me.” If Christ can truly live out of us, the rest will pretty much take care of itself. I have long believed that our wholeness, and lack of true brokenness, is what keeps the treasure within us from shining out to others. If we could break open, the Jesus living within us could emerge.
One of the first things I noticed in reading the first chapter was a fairly significant religious vocabulary and a somewhat intellectual approach to the subject. For example, the three terms I just mentioned: “Incarnational,” “messianic,” and “apostolic.” Of course incarnation is not a Biblical term but certainly points to important spiritual truth. Messianic and apostolic are variations of Biblical words, but they are used in a way that the average layman will not readily understand. My concern is twofold: Firstly, the average Christian reading this won’t get as much out of it as he or she might because of the religious terms and the general high-end vocabulary. You and I understand what they are saying but they need to reach a much wider audience than the likes of you and me. Secondly, I believe this reveals the need to move from what appears to be a more intellectual and academic bent to one that is simple and childlike in trust and dependence upon the Lord. As Paul says, God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. If God has chosen us, we will need to be foolish. God needs men who are simple (but not simple minded), teachable, and lowly. Sometimes we get carried away with our jargon and desire to appear intellectually respectable before men. It is human nature for those who are seminary trained and who have a long history of reading and composing similarly structured material to look for the acceptance and respect of both their peers and their professors. So the tendency is to write in a more scholarly manner. On one hand that is fine. But that approach will always result in a limited impact and it can unintentionally come between the Lord and us. I’m all for taking a very simple and basic approach. If this is indeed something of the Lord, someone will need to repackage it if it is to speak to a broader audience.
I do wonder a little about the term “missional.” The reason I bring that up is that I have observed a large misconception regarding the church’s sense of mission. In general, the modern church has tended to see the addressing of man’s need as its mission, when in fact our underlying mission must always be focused on God’s need and desire. Man’s need is important but secondary. Now since God desires all men to be saved, one of the missions of the church is to take the gospel to the lost. But we reach out to the lost not because they need saving (which they do) but because God desires to save them. The distinction is not merely semantics. For in this way, God remains the focus of what we do, rather than man. I believe that humanism (in which man is the focus and purpose of everything) has infiltrated the church to a greater extent than we know. As that happened, it wasn’t long before the church saw the purpose of creation as being man and the purpose of redemption being man and some have even come to the place that the purpose of God Himself is to cater to all our needs and bring us personal fulfillment and meaning. But the purpose of creation, and redemption, and everything else is God’s underlying purposes and plans. Yes, God calls us to love the brethren and the lost—but it is ultimately not for their sake but for God’s. He loves the world so He asks us to love it on His behalf. The difference is subtle, but very important. The primary thing must always be God—what does He what to do through me, and not what can I do for Him (again, a subtle but important difference). Even Jesus, although he responded to everyone who came to Him for help, did not try to alleviate all of the human suffering around Him. He just lived before the Father and did whatever the Father instructed Him to do. For instance, at the pool of Bethesda there may have been hundreds of men and women who were sick and in need of help. Yet, Jesus healed only one man. His focus was entirely on the will and desire of the Father at any given moment. He didn’t do things simply out of moral principle but exclusively did what was the Father’s will at that hour. My prayer is that whatever we do, we would live the same way.
I have felt for a long time that our past training and experience can be both a blessing and a curse. If there is to be a genuine sea change within the church, we must be willing to let go of everything, and let the Spirit take us into strange, unfamiliar territory, where the rules often seem different and the environment less than comfortable to our rational mind. This is exactly what the first followers of Jesus had to do. It is a place where faith and simple obedience become a way of life. It is also a world where we will be misunderstood, persecuted, and falsely accused—and that by fellow believers. Satan will not lie down and let us proceed unhindered. It will be a battle that will last a long time. And if that isn’t our experience, than we have probably missed the mark somehow. “Those who would be godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” It will not be a journey for the faint hearted.
As we discussed on the phone, church history is filled with movements and groups that have attempted to return to the primitive church. To be sure, some have been more successful than others but for the most part the attempts have resulted in less than the desired outcome—and this by more gifted and intelligent people than you and I. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try—but for all who do, our ultimate desire should be to go as far back to the beginning as is possible. Most of these endeavors have been led by men who carefully studied the Bible, observed common themes, noted specific practices and behaviors, and then came up with an implementation plan. There may have been some blessing, but for the most part not what we saw at the church’s beginning. I think that in large part the failure has come either because outward form was adopted instead of inward reality or because the efforts were simply based upon means and methods—a human plan that may have been well thought through but lacked the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. My personal realization has been that we can desire to return to an Acts church life but will find the going difficult because we tend to fall back upon our educational, intellectual, and doctrinal biases. It is extremely hard not to do that—even when you know you are doing it. We may add seasons of prayer to the endeavor, but all too often we come up with a plan that we believe is truly scriptural and spiritual and then take it to God and ask Him to bless it—the old cart before the horse scenario. God is not into such plans. We will need to earnestly pray, ask God to flush out all our self-confidence, our selfish ambition, and our doctrinal prejudices. For instance, most evangelical believers have an aversion toward anything that smacks of Pentecostalism—not because they really hope the miraculous is over but due to a reaction toward the abuses of Pentecostalism. But that is a theology of reaction, not truth. There will never be a full blessing on such theology. If we want to go back to the beginning, we will need to let the Lord do whatever He wants to do. I for one don’t want to dictate what is and is not acceptable to the Lord. I don’t see any particular system of Protestant theology as the standard—nearly all of them have some truth. If what we are pursuing is of the Lord, we need Him to lead the way and we shouldn’t dictate what that endeavor should and should not include.
We talked about why Christians in Third World countries seem to have an easier time of it than we do in the West. To our discussion, I thought I’d add that I believe the Tree of Knowledge approach we’ve taken to the Christian life has been more of a problem than we know. Until we are able to find our way back to the Tree of Life—with less trust in scholarship and intellectualism and more of a life of faith, trust, and obedience—we will only make limited progress. I believe that less educational based cultures have an easier time of simply believing what God says and taking His words at face value. After all, Paul tells us that God intentionally chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. We are in trouble when we continue to trust in human wisdom, even if it is religious or spiritual in nature.
I once read this quote from Leonard Ravenhill: “One of these days some simple soul will pick up the Book of God, read it, and believe it. Then the rest of us will be embarrassed. We have adopted the convenient theory that the Bible is a Book to be explained, whereas first and foremost it is a Book to be believed (and after that to be obeyed).” (Why Revival Tarries, p.69). I read that years ago and immediately realized he was right. In the church, we spend so much time studying the Bible, explaining what we think the Scriptures mean, and explaining away what we don’t understand—versus just believing what it says and doing it. Remember Jesus’ parable about the wise man who builds on rock and the foolish man who builds on sand? The outcome was that wind and rain came upon both of them but the wise man’s foundation held while the foolish man’s foundation failed. What constituted the foundations of the two men? If you read the parable closely, I think you’ll see that the only difference between the two men was that the foolish man heard God’s word but did nothing with it while the wise man heard the word and acted upon it. Thus, our foundation becomes rock if we act on His words, but mere sand if we don’t. Generally, we’ve interpreted the wise man as a believer and the foolish man as an unbeliever. But I think the parable is much broader than that. We need to have a simple faith in God’s word and then begin to live as if it is really true. How much I desire just that—for myself and all the Lord's people.
So many times I have cried out to the Lord and asked Him to save me from my bent towards intellectualism and my failure to launch out in faith. Often when I consider my upbringing and the skepticism that was put into me through our education system, I have reminded the Lord that it I didn’t choose to be born in America and to be affected by its atmosphere of unbelief, but it was His sovereignty that put me here. Now by His grace, would He please allow me to escape from my shackles of doubt, suspicion, rationalism, and unbelief. “I believe, help my unbelief!” After all, He is the savior and I, for one, need to be saved.
My great fear is that we will experience an incremental level of improvement and will become content with it—and by so doing miss what God really wants us to have. I think what He wants to give us is Acts. I don’t know if you ever noticed this, but consider again Acts 2 where Peter says, “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel, saying…” Peter then quotes Joel 2:28-32 and by so doing shows us that Joel was foretelling Pentecost. But if you read the prophecy carefully, much of what it says didn’t actually happen at Pentecost. In fact, hardly any of it took place at Pentecost. In actuality, it appears to be speaking of the Lord's second coming. Thus, it must be a prophecy having a dual fulfillment (common in Old Testament prophecy), with the primary fulfillment yet to come. But does that not imply that if the borrowed application was Pentecost, the actual application will be an even greater manifestation? And if those 120 in the upper room had to wait in prayer for ten days before the Holy Spirit came, we should expect nothing less for ourselves. If we want to do anything of true significance, it will require sacrifice and a realization that we have no idea what is really coming—only that we want to be part of it.
Actually, I do have a great deal of hope in spite of my awareness of how easily we will make this into a program or some new movement. It will take a great deal of effort not to make it our idea or to keep it from becoming the fruit of our wisdom. Instead, if it can spring from prayer, humility, and brokenness, the Lord will have a much better chance of doing things His way. Jesus did give the great commission. But He also told the disciples to wait until the Holy Spirit came upon them to clothe them with power. Paul told the Corinthians that he had not come to them with words of human wisdom but demonstration of the Spirit and power. In whatever we feel that God has commissioned us to do, we had better wait for His power or else all we will have is human wisdom and good intentions.
Well, once again, I’ve gotten carried away. These are some thoughts to which I truly welcome your comments. This is not about any one man’s ideas—and that certainly includes me. May Jesus truly come among us. John thanks for calling me. I’m looking forward to seeing what the Lord may do.