The Background For This Discussion: We Are Stripping!
I don’t know about you but our local church is in the midst of a great transition. We are an American mainline denominational church that has felt like Neo in the beginning of the first “Matrix” movie…Something wasn’t right.
It has been said that the Church is not a building, but that it is the people. We know the difference and yet some of us throughout the land cannot subconsciously get away from the “building identity”, the programs they offer, and the set times for each of these entertaining events. It is deeply ingrained in us. We spend tons of money AND TIME on our buildings, our signs, flyers, bulletins, the upkeep of the buildings, and all the programs used to justify the existence of that building. We rightfully justify these programs by offering statistics of the number of conversions. Many of you reading this may have come to Christ through such a program. Praise God! Yet, for several reasons, many of us can sense that something still isn’t right about the way we are doing church.
As a result of this, our Leadership has been like “Morpheus” and has been unplugging us from the matrix of programs, structures, and traditions that so many have grown accustomed to doing as a passed-down habit. It all began with a whole new way of thinking that we describe in our website dontcometoourchurch.com This has been going on for two years and we have stripped and stripped till we are simply down to a Sunday Morning Worship Service. Our Pastor is doing this so that we can become so bare that we lose all identity with programs and man-made traditional ways of doing church. We want to lose all sense of being a marketable, organized business structure. We want to feel like a mobile body that is completely dependent upon the Spirit rather than being a structured robot that has a fixed program for every problem. It has been a daring, scary task…particularly for the Pastor. It has been “modern day church growth method” suicide. His immediate goal? To strip bare and ask God how He wants to re-build His Body. Stripping down to the bare essentials causes you to ask simple questions with an urgent and alarmingly fresh perspective.
The Stirring Questions
This past Sunday we asked these questions: What is Church? What is the purpose of Church? Is the purpose to fulfill the Great Commission, or is it to primarily worship the Lord? Do we say one thing, but our focus is actually the other? What should we be doing? What is first and foremost, and how does the other fit with it? Truth is, some believe one way, and some believe the other way. Yet, I believe that we can all come to agreement and balance.
I went home and began to search the Scriptures for my own clarification and here’s what I understand and submit to you.
The Church Is Not About People…
The point about the Church being people is good, but in a stricter sense it doesn’t go far enough. Please allow me to explain. The Church isn’t people. The Bible does not define the Church as being people. The Bible goes further and defines the Church as “believers”, the ekklesia, the “called out”. The Church is exclusively believers. How exclusive is it? You cannot be a part of the Body of Christ, the Church, if you are not a believer. To my knowledge, there is not one place in Scripture where non-believers are addressed or considered to be part of the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ, the Church, is not composed of believers and non-believers. Seekers are very welcome to come to Church meetings, but the Church is not about seekers. Church is for believers because only believers can be part of the true Church. Please do not misunderstand this exclusivity as haughtiness or a “we vs. them”mentality. God is not willing that any should perish, but that ALL would come to repentance! Clearly, we want seekers to get saved and become part of the body of Christ. Hang in here with me, I will address that later. But before we can be really effective in our evangelism, we must first understand that the gathering of the Church is not about seekers. Watch this!
The Gathering Of Believers
Because the Church is made up exclusively of believers, it makes sense that the church meetings in the Book of Acts were primarily designed for edifying believers. Acts 20:7 says, “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together (believers came together) TO BREAK BREAD, Paul preached to them.” What was their primary purpose in gathering together? To evangelize? No. Acts 2:42 says, “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, and in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Let’s be real, this sounds like a meeting that only a believer could truly appreciate. The meeting of the early church focused on Communing with God and one another through eating together, observing the Lord’s Supper, admonishing one another through the singing of psalms, through the offering of prayers, exercising spiritual gifts to edify, and through teaching doctrine. These were not primarily evangelistic meetings. This was the church of believers gathering together. An unbeliever cannot truly participate in the gathering of the Church. Why? A non-believer cannot take communion because he is not part of the body of Christ. A non-believer can’t stand up and testify of God’s grace, because he doesn’t genuinely know God or grace. A non-believer cannot worship God in singing because his heart does not belong to the Lord. A non-believer cannot give an offering as an act of worship because He is spiritually dead. A seeker cannot offer prayers of intercession in the sanctuary because he doesn’t even know the Father. An unbeliever cannot truly apply the preaching of Jesus sermons about instructions to believers on how to demonstrate their love for God and their love for others because the love of God is not in him. An unbeliever cannot receive the prayers of blessing for God’s children from the elders because he is still a child of the devil and full of unbelief. These church meetings were honestly geared for believers. The things of the Spirit are foreign to unbelievers. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them.” If you really want to de-program from the American system, then dig even further into this model with its highly spiritual emphasis. But be aware that this wasn’t a meeting that would make an unbeliever comfortable. The primary emphasis in these meetings was for believers to commune with God and to edify one another. Scripture points out that unbelievers definitely came to these meetings and it was a highly spiritual activity with all the spiritual gifts in operation. When the Church met in this environment, it was energized by the presence of the Spirit to go out and do the work of the Spirit. People did get saved in these meetings because Jesus was being preached, but the emphasis of these church meetings is demonstrated by practices that were primarily designed to minister to the believing church. We are designated as His disciples primarily by our demonstration of love for our fellow believers. When the church”gathered”, it was for the purpose of loving God, and loving each other. When it comes to reaching the lost, Church gatherings are not the Way! Telling them about Jesus is the Way! Don’t invite them to Church, tell them about Jesus! Church is not the Way, Jesus is the Way! People don’t come to the Father through inviting them to Church. Church wasn’t meant for unbelievers. But we have watered down Church to try and make it more seeker-friendly for unbelievers because we have been afraid to tell them about Jesus. Nonbelievers are sick of hearing about church. Tell them about Jesus.
When I read the Book of Acts, I asked myself how many times did I see stories of people being saved at a communion-prayer-breaking bread meeting??? People got saved when Peter preached out on the street at Pentecost…and it came after believers had first learned to pray in one accord and then got filled with the Holy Ghost. There were no unsaved folks in the Upper Room. That was a heavily spiritual church meeting. When they were praying in the Upper Room, they weren’t trying to be seeker-friendly and inviting the lost to come pray at their meeting. But when the Church came together as it should, the Holy Spirit came and powerful Evangelism followed. People believed when the lame man was healed OUTSIDE the temple. The Phillipian jailer got saved at the jail. The Ethiopian eunuch got saved by his chariot. Paul got saved on a desert road. Isn’t it interesting that every STORY of a personal conversion experience that was recorded in the book of Acts occurred as result of evangelism OUTSIDE apart from true Church meetings. You never read a STORY of them getting saved during the usual Breaking bread, Communion focused, prayer intensive, studying the Apostle’s doctrine common Church meeting. But that was the engine that drove such powerful evangelism. It’s interesting to note what the Holy Spirit recorded and emphasized in the Book of Acts and what He didn’t. The direction of His evangelistic commands have always emphasized to proceed OUTWARD.
The Danger Of Placing The Mission Above The Purpose
The Church and Christ are often compared to a marriage. We are the Bride of Christ. If the Church is analogous to Marriage, then let’s apply these questions. What is the purpose of marriage? The purpose of marriage is to commune with your wife and to know her and love her intimately. One of the results of that is having children. Some marriages have more children than others. Some marriages don’t have any children. Do we judge one marriage better than the other by the number of children they produce??? (Do we judge Jeremiah as having an unsuccessful ministry because no one listened and repented? He didn’t have one convert.) Having Children and raising children is the fruit of a marriage. Bearing and raising children is the mission of a marriage. BUT, bearing and raising children is not the primary focus of a marriage. Couples who primarily focus on their children will often divorce or have severe marital problems after the kids leave the nest. A marriage that focuses primarily on having and raising children is a dysfunctional marriage. On the other hand, marriages that are primarily focused on the man and woman nurturing their love for one another ends up being the richest and most stable marriages which in turn provides the best environment for the children.
If your primary purpose in Church is to evangelize above all else, then you will end up neglecting and halting the depth of communion which energizes the very evangelism you desire. When you put the mission of the Church ahead of the purpose of the Church, You end up attempting to put the work of the Holy Spirit ahead of the presence of the Holy Spirit. But He doesn’t operate that way (Acts 4). Without the presence of the Spirit, the work will be shallow. Then you will prohibit the church from having meetings that look like the Book of Acts with ever-revealing Communion, powerful chain-releasing, angel sending prayers, worship that goes beyond emotion into a place where you are changed, and even greater teaching of the doctrine of the church. You end up short-circuiting the presence of God.
The Scattering Of Believers For the Sake Of The Lost
Where does true evangelistic boldness and courage come from? It comes first from communing with God first and foremost. Listen to Acts 4:13 “When they saw the COURAGE of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had BEEN WITH JESUS.” We have the Holy Spirit within us. Yet, strangely enough, we need a fresh touch of the Spirit. That is what the Church asked for before they continued witnessing. This is an amazing passage of scripture. Look at this: Acts 4: 29-31 “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” They didn’t just go out and start preaching again. They first asked for boldness, they asked for the power to heal along with the charisma gifts, and they DIDN’T ask for protection. Then they were filled with the Holy Ghost AGAIN. Why is this passage so amazing to me? Read carefully and you will observe that these were the some of the same people who had already been filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Unless my glasses are crooked, it looks to me like they got re-filled again. Why are they asking to be filled again? Isn’t once enough? (Although we are sealed with the Holy Ghost, Thessalonians shows we are able to both quench and hinder (lessen) the Spirit’s flow through rebellion and unforgiveness. I wonder if they had to forgive their oppressors? If you’ve been operating under “less”, then you need re-filling. The Spirit is measurable, Jesus had the “Spirit beyond measure”. Do ya think we need more of the Spirit? Or do you already have all of your flesh out of the way? There is always room for more!) When was the last time I was in a meeting with other believers begging to be filled again with the Holy Spirit for the purpose of boldness to witness with the Spirit’s power? I’m talking about belly-aching prayer that moves the heart of God. (The church in Acts 4 was finely tuned and was easily re-filled. The Church in America is so out of whack that we need an overhaul before we can receive as much). The last time that happened, I personally led a group of men into the saving grace of a God who’s presence changed their lives, and I discipled them for three years. But when I don’t stay filled with the Spirit, and quench it, I become prone to walking in the old ways. The Church needs to have meeting after meeting where the Spirit is so thick that we are on our faces crying out to God, but it will only happen as we shred our old ways and more completely follow after the Biblical pattern of true church-edifying, God-communing services instead of these seeker-friendly, self-centered, name it-claim it messages that we hear throughout the land. The more we experience God’s fresh presence the better we will be able to tell others about Him. I don’t have the ability to save anyone. I didn’t die for anyone’s sins. I can’t save anyone. Only the Holy Spirit/Jesus can save someone. I can witness. What am I witnessing about? I am witnessing about the love of God that I have experienced through Jesus Christ according to John 3:16. The more I experience His love each week through focused communion, adoring worship, chain-breaking prayer, doctrine, and the fellowship of the saints, the better I can tell others about His love. I can describe my Mother’s delicious, mouth-watering apple pie a whole lot better after just eating it than I can if I haven’t tasted it in 20 years. We need a touch of God’s holy presence if we want to have true holy boldness to tell the lost to “taste and see that the Lord is good”. If we will humbly and reverently seek His face in deeper worship, communion, and prayers, He will come and visit us afresh. I want to do like the Church in Acts. People are going to Hell and we need to witness now, but not as the primary purpose of the Church. We need to ask and be filled, and commune with Him first, and be re-filled with the boldness that comes from being in His presence before we open our mouths in our own strength.
The Church’s One Eternal Purpose
Consider this: The Church will never end. The Church is eternal. The Church has only one eternal purpose. What practices of the Church will one day cease, and what practices of the church will continue for all eternity? The practice of evangelism, the practice of caring for widows, the practice of baptizing and discipling, the practice of pulpit preaching will all cease. They are temporary. The practice of communing worship towards God will never cease. That practice is both now and eternal. That which is eternal precedes the temporary. The eternal things are what gives the temporal things purpose and power. Likewise the temporal serves to enhance the eternal because the eternal is the main thing, the main purpose, the main goal. The eternal never changes. The eternal purposes of God never change. What is the the one eternal purpose of the Church both now and foerevermore? To worship and glorify Him. That is the only eternal purpose of the Church. That is the main purpose of the church above all else…To worship Him. We were created…to worship Him. That is the foremost purpose of Church.
I shared all the above with my Pastor and he agreed with me 100%. I know what can happen. I knew what it is like to go to a church gathering like what was described above where the Spirit is unhindered. I knew what it is like when a man prays in unknown tongues at a restaurant in East New Orleans while a foreigner across the table falls to his knees in repentance because he understood every word in his native language. That man is Richard Neilson. I knew what it was like to go to Lake Pontchartrain with Brother Lynn Ricks, pray in tongues over my suicidal and blind landlord, lay our hands on him, and then watch him read the Bible with his own eyes for the first time in many years. He went to Lynn’s home group meeting after that. Many of you reading this remember when that petite demon-possessed woman kicked out the windows, tore the car door off, and writhed and vomited until we called out with intense Jesus name prayer for her deliverance. She was set free, got married, and raised children in our church. God used all of us in miraculous evangelistic ways. There were no one-man shows. But I have only seen glimpses of that power since those days. Was it because in New Orleans that there was so much darkness that grace abounded more? Or is it because I fell in love with the power and got distracted from my first love. More than anything, that church knew how to worship and pray with an understanding unlike anything I’ve ever seen before or since. All I know is that God can, God did, and I pray that God will again. May I be filled again with His compassionate love for the lost instead of my Spirit-hindering vanity. He may never perform another miracle through my hands ever again, but may He use me to help others to win the lost through His love above all.
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