What is Church?

What is church? Part four

by Mark Brickell

In nearly every kind of church someone preaches. Sometimes long, sometimes short, sometimes engagingly, sometimes boringly, sometimes systematically through the Bible (expositionally) sometimes thematically, sometimes by way of proof-texting and other times, sadly, with little reference to the Scriptures at all. 

Some see it as useful for warming us up for ministry time, others for imparting the vision, values, culture and strategy of their particular church. A few see it as the boring bit between worship and ministry. 

We may therefore, be surprised to find that in Protestant theology ever since Luther and Calvin the preaching of the word has always been the one constant mark of the church.

In this short piece I want to answer the question, “Why is preaching the scriptures so important?” I also wish to show you why the reformers had such a high view of it and why we should too.

The main reason for its importance is that scripture is a proxy for the authority of God; that God himself in someway is exercising his authority and power through it among us

The main reason for its importance is that scripture is a proxy for the authority of God; that God himself in someway is exercising his authority and power through it among us. It is more than just inspired advice, warm counsel, interesting stories or moral lessons. It is the word of the King of Kings and contains the creative power of the King’s words. When the King spoke it was done, “Let there be light and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). All the authority and power of the king is inherent in his word. 

It says of itself: “By the word of Yahweh were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth . . . Is not my word like a fire, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces . . . All flesh is grass, it withers and fades but the Word of our God will stand forever . . . Like the rain and the snow coming down and watering the earth … so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to me empty, but it will succeed in the task to which I shall send it” (Psalm 33:6, Jeremiah 23:29, Isaiah 40:8, 50:10-11).

In other words, the Word of the Lord is like a great lake of power and wisdom which the speakers and writers of scripture could tap into so God could flow through them to fill and grow his people or like a great sledge hammer that can break down hard hearts and resistance. 

We are also told that the Word of God is “living and active like a sharp two-edged sword that can separate the bone from the marrow” (Hebrews 4:12). It is able to separate our mixed motives, to expose and remove sin that clings so strongly to us that we can be unaware of it. It is not just inspired but is alive with the power and presence of God.

In these scriptures and others we find the elusive but powerful idea of “God’s Word” not as just a synonym for written scripture but as a strange personal presence, creating, judging, healing, recreating. In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul describes scripture as “God-breathed”, a phrase that implies more than just inspired – perhaps God-infused is an appropriate translation. 

No clear distinction is made in Scripture between what God says and what he does. When looked at this way, we can see why CH Spurgeon said you can no more defend the scriptures than you can a lion. Let it defend itself. 

The gospel itself is also seen as the word of God. “The gospel is the power of God to salvation to everyone that believes” (Romans 1:8). 

This story (Gospel) contains God’s power to overcome resistance and transform the most broken lives.

The gospel referred to here is not the four spiritual laws or the Romans Road to salvation, helpful though they are. It is the whole story, the biblical mega-story of creation, fall, slavery, exodus, Israel, the Kingdom of God and Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s rescue mission (There are many ways of telling this story but I trust you get my point.) This story (Gospel) contains God’s power to overcome resistance and transform the most broken lives. 

Additionally, the power of God contained within the mega-story – the gospel – is a good reason for doing more expositional preaching. The scriptures were meant to be taught as a meta-narrative not as a random grab bag of tenuously-related pieces – an approach which can lead to getting so absorbed in the details that we miss the big picture.

We do not have the apostles and prophets among us to speak the words of God into our situations, but we do have the record of what God spoke to his people in the past to situations much like ours. God uses that record to call us to himself and renew us again, just as he did through Ezra reading the word to the assembled returnees from Babylon. As we look at the Old Testament we see Israel called and formed into the people of God through his word. The word spoken through Moses, the Psalmists, the Prophets, the Wisdom writers and the writers of the narratives formed Israel’s life, worship and behaviour. 

In almost the first strategic restructuring of the Early Church we find the apostles delegating bureaucratic and organisational tasks to deacons so they could focus on prayer and the teaching of the word. We who preach need to try and do the same if we can, so we do not become so absorbed with operational matters that we leave a vacuum where the preaching of the word should sit, a vacuum that may be filled by the solutions that our culture and prevailing ideologies provides. 

The reformers spoke of preaching as God’s audible sacrament, a means of grace – or a way of receiving the power to live the Christian life. In short, preaching is not just for the imparting of information, not just for exhortation or backing up our beliefs but one of the regular places where heaven and earth meet – or, in the words of the ancient Celtic church, “a thin place”, a place where we meet with God, where his presence is, where he walks among us and transforms us. 

The Early Church looked back to Jesus and the tradition they received from him and one of the most notable things is that he was self-identified as a teacher or preacher (Rabbi). It was the title he was most commonly called by. 

As Jesus taught, signs and wonders happened. There was little differentiation between his words and his works. Works happened before, during and after his sermons. We should also expect the same. The New Testament talks about preaching so often that it uses 30 different Greek verbs to describe it.

I hope this brief discourse encourages you to go back to preaching with a renewed passion that comes from understanding the place preaching has in the church and how God is present in it.

What is Church? Part Three

by Vic Francis

“If anyone wants to provide leadership in the church, good!”
— 1 Timothy 3:1, Message

Or, if you will let me for a moment seriously mess with scripture, “If no one wants to provide leadership in the church, bad!”

Recognised, biblical leadership is a hallmark of the church – along with gathering and worship and fellowship, as already discussed in this What is Church? series.

So let’s consider what recognised and biblical leadership might entail.

A church needs recognised leaders – those who take responsibility in some way for the people and who are very much trying to be in tune with where God is leading them. These leaders may be appointed by vote or proclamation or even by accident – but they are essential if a church is to truly find its purpose and destiny.

Once they’re recognised, they need to be free in themselves and freed by their churches to actually lead, and Vineyard New Zealand national director Lloyd Rankin boils this role down to three key areas:

  • Receive and implement vision.
  • Raise up other leaders.
  • Ask the why questions (why we do what we do).

Sound easy? Well, if you’re a leader you will know it’s not! But it’s a good thing to try!

We are, indeed, servants who lead, not leaders who serve. That’s biblical leadership in a nutshell, and it should be a hallmark of the church.

So leaders need to be recognised; and leadership also needs to be biblical. What, then, is a biblical leader? 

Actually, the Bible is surprisingly (and encouragingly) elusive when it comes to defining leadership or describing who or what makes a good leader. 

Even a study of biblical leaders is inconclusive because they vary so much in personality, situation, achievement and strategy. Some were clearly God-ordained and gifted leaders with a title to match – among them Joseph, the Old Testament kings and the apostles and elders in the New Testament. Others never had any recognised title, instead leading by the authority of who they were and God’s evident anointing – Jesus and Paul would be among those. Some were reluctant leaders (Moses, Gideon), some were unlikely leaders (David, Esther), some were doomed leaders (Saul, many of the kings). All were flawed (except Jesus). 

Biblical leadership, then, doesn’t seem to be restricted to any particular type of personality. Ephesians 4:11-12 suggests leaders will come with all types of giftedness – pastors, teachers, evangelists, prophets, apostles. The Bible is cautious on inexperienced leaders, but youth per se doesn’t seem to be an obstacle (Jeremiah 1:7). And while there appear to be some circumstantial biblical restrictions on women in leadership, it’s clear that women as well as men were leaders in the New Testament church (Romans 16).

What we can say with confidence is that leadership is God’s idea – he even bestows a gift of leadership (Romans 12:8). But we can also say with surety that God even more strongly desires his leaders to be men and women of high character. In fact, the two major New Testament passages on leadership (1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9) are far more concerned with the qualities of the leader than with job descriptions or key performance indicators. Vineyard churches worldwide have embraced this by valuing “character over giftedness” when they assess a candidate for a leadership position.

As with all things, however, Jesus is our model for leadership.

Jesus, as already mentioned, led from personal and spiritual authority rather than any title or formal role. And while that in no way negates a title as a legitimate means of reflecting calling or responsibility, it is a timely reminder that we need to lead by influence, anointing, vision and character more than from our position as a pastor, leader or minister. In fact, there are few things more pathetic than a leader who has to pull rank to get his or her followers to respond.

Jesus’ leadership style was vastly different to many business-inspired models of church leadership we see today. Indeed, “servant” is the word most commonly used to describe Jesus the leader, while the New Testament word for “minister”, diakonos, also means “servant, one who waits on tables”. So while a “minister” or “pastor” would today most often be identified as a clergyman or preacher, the origins of the word show that person should essentially be a servant leader to be faithful to the essence of the role.

We are, indeed, servants who lead, not leaders who serve. That’s biblical leadership in a nutshell, and it should be a hallmark of the church.

What is Church? Part Two

by Dan Sheed

Every year on the 25th of April, New Zealand stops to commemorate ANZAC Day. This day always involves some deep reality-checks for me. I find the stories of sacrifice by our soldiers calls me from my normal, self-absorbed day-to-day life to view a different story. ANZAC Day invites me to see a different narrative in the history of our world, to remember it and then live differently tomorrow as a result.

This is all a bit like Israel’s moment of stopping at Mt Sinai in Exodus 19 and 20. After miraculously being taken out of Egypt, where they were slaves to the power and glory of the Egyptian empire, God stops them at Sinai to command them how they are to interact with Him and each other. This is a reprogramming of sorts, a moment of God telling them how they are really meant to be as His image-bearers. The first of these re-humanising commandments is that the Israelites are to "worship no other gods but me”. 

This commandment can make God seem a little egocentric to some people, but if we look deeper we can see there is actually something very beautiful in all this. God is saying the man-made gods and idols like they saw in Egypt are not worth their time, energy or money because they will ultimately only let them down. God is the only one able to meet their needs – as He already had by miraculously taking them out of Egypt. God knows the Israelites are going to put their worth into something, and He wants them to know He is the only God worth it.

We live in an Egypt culture of power, glory and gods. We spend our days, weeks, months and years worshipping various man-made gods. But a church takes this power of worship and changes its direction. We, too, can have our Mt Sinai moment. As we gather to worship and fellowship we can notice a God who is miraculously working in our lives. Like at an ANZAC Day service, we can notice another narrative going on around us and our worship can change from being directed to the gods our culture says will satisfy our needs, and instead we give our time, energy and resource to the one who has already done so. 

There is an old truth that “We become what we worship” – and it is still a truth. What we give worth to is ultimately what we become more like, and seeing the call of a church gathering is to become more like Jesus, as Vineyard churches we value spending time giving Jesus our worth by singing together.

There is an old truth that "We become what we worship” – and it is still a truth. What we give worth to is ultimately what we become more like, and seeing the call of a church gathering is to become more like Jesus, as Vineyard churches we value spending time giving Jesus our worth by singing together. We believe that with our worship we can bless God directly and give Him joy, so we use the words and prayers of those songs to intimately express to Him how we are thankful for all He has done, is doing and will do. 

When we do this together we, as Paul says in Colossians 3:16, “let this new message of Christ dwell richly among you”. And in the midst of singing and praying, but also in talking around cups of coffee and catching up, of listening to each other and encouraging one another, or of coming to the communion table or enjoying a meal together, we experience this new story of the Kingdom of God and grow in the hope that it is making things new in this world. Church is coming together to do any of the things that would give you that kind of perspective, and to then live that into the world.

What is Church? Part One

by Lloyd Rankin

"The church” is a very easy and soft target for any criticism of Christians, and any group of Christians. Yet the church is the visible sign of Jesus’ presence on earth today. Together we are the church, and any criticism of one is a criticism of all. Any success of one is the success of all. We are the church and we stand or fall together. The church is not an “it” it is an “us.”

The church is Jesus’ idea, and He builds and nurtures and grows His church. “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28 TNIV)

A few years ago God reminded me to not get my “orders” mixed up. It was one of those dark moments when life gets a bit much, and people can seem to be the problem. (Perhaps I am alone in having these moments??) I was wanting Jesus to look after loving people so I could get busy building His church. He firmly and lovingly and gracefully reminded me that I had it the wrong way around. “You love the people, and I will build the church!” He won’t do our work, and we can’t do His work. Jesus said ““And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18 TNIV)

As Vineyard churches in Aotearoa New Zealand we are focussed on the mission of helping lost people find their way to Jesus, and we do this through the planting of churches around our country. Churches are redemptive missional communities of faith hope and love. We are stretching and encouraging each other in this mission by working towards having 40 Vineyard churches in NZ by 2020.

We want all sorts of churches: small churches, house-churches, middle sized and large churches, mega-churches and multi-campus churches.

When we read the word “church” in the Bible it is normally an english translation of the Greek word ekklesia, which simply means a gathering of people for a shared purpose, or “called out ones.” In the scriptures it was used to describe something as big as the people of Israel, and it was used to describe something as small as a town council meeting. What Jesus and the apostles did was to invest the word with special meaning for followers of Jesus

The church (ecclesia - called out ones) exists at several levels

  • Two or three gathered in Jesus name (Matt 18:20)
  • Church in your house (Rom 16, Acts 2)
  • Congregation (neighbourhood church - e.g. house with internal walls removed) - larger than a house church, smaller than a city church
  • Church in a city - e.g. Church at Ephesus
  • Regional or national church - e.g. Church in Galatia
  • Worldwide church - every believer.

In this series we are looking at six attributes of a church. As we plant and develop churches this is what we are working with. Martin Luther wrote about the distinguishing marks of what makes something a church, as distinct from simply a being a group of people with similar ideas or purposes. We can summarise them in to these six attributes

  1. A gathered group of believers
  2. Worship and fellowship
  3. The preaching of the Word of God
  4. Practice of the ordinances
  5. Proper discipline - moral oversight
  6. Church government / rulership - Biblical leadership

So I am briefly working on the first - that church is a gathered group of believers. Many of us will know people who have been hurt, disillusioned or just frustrated with church, and have made the decision to disconnect from church. There can be valid reasons, which can easily be understood. When you gather with a group of fallible human beings feelings can be hurt, mistakes can be made, things can go wrong. Yet the very nature of our relationship with God calls us into family, and family groupings. Someone who has removed themselves from a gathering of Christians may still have a faith, but it is not a biblical faith. Biblical faith calls us into relationship, into deliberately connecting with others.

Church, at it’s most fundamental understanding, is a community of people who have chosen to arrange their lives together around 3 commitments:

  1. A commitment to the Person of Christ - Christ
  2. A commitment to the People of Christ - Church
  3. A commitment to the Passion of Christ - Cause

While there is no promise that gathering together to deliberately do life together will be easy (it isn’t!!) it is actually the only way forward. Through our gathering together on a regular basis (at least weekly) we accomplish more than we can ever hope to accomplish alone, and we grow in maturity, because God designed us to be social creatures who flourish when brought together, and the act of being together enhances and enlarges our individual lives.

The church exists in the act of being gathered together with Christ in the centre. We become the church when we come together. Never forget the incredible power and miracle that occurs every time we gather together as church. We have the incredible privilege of working together to make our gatherings as wonderful and life giving as we possibly can.

“On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” (Acts 14:27 TNIV) The church exists in the act of being gathered. We become the church when we come together. Never forget the incredible power and miracle that occurs every time we gather together as church. We have the incredible privilege of working together to make our gatherings as wonderful and life giving as we possibly can. 

So can I encourage everyone of us that loves and follows Jesus to regularly, deliberately and wholeheartedly gather with our church community, and grow and serve together. Come to the gatherings with the expectation of using your gifts talents and abilities, and in so doing you will receive as you give. Welcome to the adventure of being the church.

A wonderful book to read further on this topic is “Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.