Archive for the ‘discipleship’ Category

Wise words from Michael Horton:

Death puts life in perspective. It reminds of the things that matter most. In the prime of our life, we want to change the world. Too often, we lose big dreams and the zest for life precisely because we’ve figured out that we can’t change it. But freed up from impossible dreams and demands, we can finally love and serve our neighbors—not as abstract objects for our life project or instruments of our self-identity-creation, but as God’s gifts.

Godly wisdom is to be found in realizing that faithfulness is not ultimately about how well we’re doing, but how well our neighbor is doing—and what we can do to help. It’s not about changing the world—or even loving the world—but about changing the way we relate to actual people today and loving specific neighbors with whom we live, work, and whose paths we cross each day. More deeply—radically, even—it’s about accepting God’s condemnation and justification in Christ and being renewed each day by his Word. As we’re shaped by his gospel and guided by his law, we discover that godly wisdom is not finally about the sprint but about finishing the race. Death has a practical way of putting all of this in perspective.

This review was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.

Aliens and strangers. While these words may conjure images of space battles and horror movies, the apostle Peter uses such terms to describe a marginalized community of Christians living in the Roman Empire during the first century (1 Pet. 2:11). Struggling under the weight of social ostracism, family rejection, and widespread hostility on account of their faith, Peter’s first readers understood what it meant to be on the fringes of society.

In Everyday Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis argue that American Christianity is headed in that same direction. From our inflexible standards of morality to our exclusive claims regarding salvation, evangelical Christians are increasingly viewed as intolerant and irrelevant. Drawing on the paradigm-shattering research of sociologist Peter Berger, the authors note that modernity has resulted in a pervasive pluralism fundamentally intolerant of any and all intolerance (the irony is palpable). The consequence of this steady shift in worldview is increasing marginalization of the church in the West.

Everyday Church follows up on the authors’ earlier book, Total Church (Crossway, 2008), in which Chester and Timmis, founders of The Crowded House church planting network in the U.K., seek to reshape “church” around two key principles: gospel and community. In many ways, Everyday Church elaborates on one of the most memorable lines from Total Church: “Most gospel ministry involves ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality” (63).

From pastoral care to evangelism, Everyday Church continually emphasizes the fundamental importance of ordinary life, resisting the all-too-common mindset (sometimes verbalized, but most often just noticeable in practice) that considers Monday through Saturday unimportant compared to the “real stuff” that happens on Sunday. Rather, Timmis and Chester argue, we must “shift our focus from putting on attractional events to creating attractional communities” (10). The authors are careful to ground their arguments and suggestions in Scripture, primarily through missional reflections on 1 Peter.

Post-Christian Context

Armed with a robust assortment of facts and figures, Chester and Timmis open the book by examining the church’s place in our post-Christian, Western context. As in Europe, the church in America is increasingly reviled in the realm of public discourse, no longer accorded the widespread respect and admiration enjoyed by previous generations. This shift, the authors argue, must be considered when thinking about the church’s community and mission.

In the next four chapters, Chester and Timmis discuss the day-to-day reality of their renewed vision of church, exploring the nature of “everyday” community, pastoral care, mission, and evangelism. These chapters, full of biblical wisdom and practical suggestions, continually challenged my thinking and stirred my imagination. For instance, Chester and Timmis remind readers that the “Christendom mentality” that tends towards surprise when faced with, among other things, legislation that doesn’t line up with biblical values or unfavorable portrayals of Christians in the media, is quite foreign to the perspective of the New Testament. They write, “We need to discover or recover the sense that if this year we are not imprisoned, then it has been a good year in which by the grace of God we have gotten off lightly” (38).

From suggesting that Christians join pre-existing social groups instead of creating new evangelistic ministries to offering lists of challenging questions for reflection and self-analysis, these practical chapters encouraged me to think carefully about my church as a community of interdependent believers living as ambassadors for Christ each and every day. Yet Chester and Timmis never stop reminding readers that the goal should not simply be “doing” community and mission better. Rather, the move is always from “identity to action,” with biblical ideals realizable only “because of the new reality God has produced in our lives through the gospel Word” (60). This gospel backbone, bolstered by the authors’ obvious dependence on Scripture, keeps Everyday Church from devolving into a list of do’s and don’t’s designed to make the church more palatable to the outside world.

In the final two chapters, Chester and Timmis explore the nature of Christian hope and share details related to how they shepherd their church. These chapters are the book’s strongest, addressing practical issues such as money, church leadership, and prayer. The authors also address two common accusations often levied against them, namely that they oppose “big church” and “monologue preaching” (156). Chester and Timmis reject such charges, noting that what concerns them is simply a “privileged status” that often distracts Christians from living as family and proclaiming the Word in the everyday. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether or not they agree. Additionally, some readers may be uncomfortable with the fact that the authors apparently don’t confine baptism and communion to the church’s corporate gathering on Sunday (155).

My biggest critique of Everyday Church is that the authors’ claims and arguments occasionally lack nuance. At times Chester and Timmis make statements that seem ambiguous and simplistic, from their use of undefined terms such as “church” (17) and “institution” (20) to overly negative portrayals of various church programs (50). By the end of the book, however, it’s clear that Chester and Timmis are reacting against an overemphasis and overreliance on “attractional” meetings and events, rather than against the meetings and events per se. Christians coming from “traditional” church backgrounds would do well to read Everyday Church with this in mind, remaining open to the possibility that, at the very least, re-evaluation of pre-existing church structures and priorities may be in order.

Context of Community and Mission

In the final analysis, Everyday Church is an insightful addition to a growing corpus of literature focused on helping Christians become more intentional about living gospel-centered lives with fellow Christians and among the lost. Although not as groundbreaking as Total Church, Chester and Timmis’s latest contribution is more practical and, in that regard, perhaps more helpful for those seeking to practically apply the principles the authors so passionately proclaim. Their vision—simultaneously robust yet simple, convicting yet compelling, sober yet optimistic—demands reflection and deserves a response.

At the heart of our vision is not a new way of doing events but the creation of Word-centered gospel communities in which people share life with one another and with unbelievers, seeking to bless their neighborhoods, “gospeling” one another, and sharing the good news with unbelievers. The context for this gospel-centered community and mission is not events but ordinary, everyday life. (50)

By God’s grace, that is a vision that I, for one, hope to cultivate in my own life, family, and church.

Wise words from Jen Wilken:

The Xanax Approach: Feel anxious? Philippians 4:6 says be anxious for nothing. Feel ugly? Psalm 139 says you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Feel tired? Matthew 11:28says Jesus will give rest to the weary. The Xanax Approach treats the Bible as if it exists to make us feel better. Whether aided by a devotional book or just the topical index in our Bibles, we pronounce our time in the Word successful if we can say, “Wow. That was touching.” The Problem: The Xanax Approach makes the Bible a book about us. …

The Pinball Approach: Lacking a preference or any guidance about what to read, you read whatever Scripture you happen to turn to. Releasing the plunger of your good intentions, you send the pinball of ignorance hurtling toward whatever passage it may hit, ricocheting around to various passages “as the Spirit leads.” The Problem: The Bible was not written to be read this way. The Pinball Approach gives no thought to cultural, historical or textual context, authorship, or original intent of the passage in question. …

The Magic 8 Ball Approach: You remember the Magic 8 Ball—it answered your most difficult questions as a child. But you’re an adult now and wondering if you should marry Bob, get a new job, or change your hair color. You give your Bible a vigorous shake and open it to a random page. Placing your finger blindly on a verse, you then read it to see if “signs point to yes.” The Problem: The Bible is not magical, and it does not serve our whim. The Magic 8 Ball Approach misconstrues the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the Word, demanding that the Bible tell us what to do rather than who to be. …

The Personal Shopper Approach: You want to know about being a godly woman or how to deal with self-esteem issues, but you don’t know where to find verses about that, so you let [insert famous Bible teacher here] do the legwork for you. The Problem: The Personal Shopper Approach doesn’t help you build “ownership” of Scripture. Much like the Pinball Approach, you ricochet from passage to passage, gaining fragmentary knowledge of many books of the Bible but mastery of none. …

The Jack Sprat Approach: This is where we engage in “picky eating” with the Word of God. We read the New Testament, but other than Psalms and Proverbs we avoid the Old Testament, or we read books with characters, plots, or topics we can easily identify with. The Problem: All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. All of it. Women, it’s time to move beyond Esther, Ruth, and Proverbs 31 to the rest of the meal. …

To these elitist developments [within Evangelicalism], we might add the emergence of the ‘flying teacher’ as an aspirational goal, given the departure from local pastorates by some to enhance ministry opportunities. Such a lifestyle has much to make it attractive: positively, it does allow wider access to the insights of a talented individual; negatively, it offers the individual limited accountability, not much need to prepare new sermons each week and none of the aggravation which comes from facing the same people year in, year out, sermon after sermon. Thus, it surely lacks the kind of context which would make such leaders truly helpful as role models. It is one thing to preach the same amazing sermon a dozen times a year, each time to a different crowd; but it gives you no insight whatsoever into the struggles of the pastor who has to prepare sixty plus sermons in the space of twelve months and keep his congregation engaged, fed and watered thereby. The loosening of role model from actual local church commitment is becoming quite dramatic and yet an almost unquestioned part of the culture.

Carl Trueman, “An Important and Positive Lesson from the Liberals (which you might not hear elsewhere)

Christianity Today recently posted an excellent article regarding the importance of encouraging the integration of youth and adults within the church’s corporate life.  The article quotes Scott Brown, director of the National Center for Family Integrated Churches, who writes in his new book, A Weed in the Church, that modern youth ministry constitutes a “50-year-old failed experiment” (not sure I’d go that far).

The article also cites Sticky Faith, a new book by Kara Powell and Chap Clark (Fuller Theological Seminary), which notes a six year study demonstrating a strong correlation between intergenerational worship/discipleship and mature faith among students in high school and college.  This correlation has been confirmed in my own experience living and working with college students: the vast majority of those who had a mature faith were intimately discipled by an older Christian(s) throughout their teen years.

The American church’s near-exclusive focus on developing youth-only ministries, complete with cool (masquerading as relevant) conferences that hand out cool t-shirts emblazoned with cool words like “ignite”, “fusion”, and “edge”, is not a lasting solution to the serious decline of Christian commitment among young people in America.

In their book Total Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis ask a good question:

Providing fun activities for young people may do some social good.  Many parents like it because they fear the alternative.  They would rather have their children in a church than wandering the streets.  But does it mature young people through the gospel, and does it build Christ’s church?  Where it is successful, most of the fruit is borne from activity around the fringes – the relationships that develop and the ad hoc conversations that ensue.  Is there an alternative? (183)

They go on to write:

It is often assumed that peer groups are key to youth ministry. … But our experience suggests that more significant than peer relationships are relationships with Christians who are older than the teenagers but not as old as their parents – adults who may not be “youth workers” but who are committed to young people just as they are committed to other people in the church and who model gospel living and make young people feel part of the Christian community.

This takes church seriously.  Integrating young people into the vibrant and diverse life of the gospel community is a key objective. (185-186)

What is needed today is what the Bible has always taught regarding true discipleship: one-on-one, personal attention from more mature Christians (cf. 2 Tim. 2:1-2; Tit. 2:3-6).  As Jonathan Parnell writes in an article entitled, “A Concise Theology of Role Models,”

A role model like Paul is not an optional Add-on to our Firefox browser. Following men and women like Paul is not like a scarf that accessorizes our Christian outfit. This is life or death. This is servant or enemy. Having a role model like Paul is indispensable to following Jesus. As Paul imitates Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1), so do we by following Paul’s example and keeping our eyes on those who walk like him.

But to truly follow Paul’s example, we need more than simply one trained “professional” role model (aka, the youth pastor).  The church is a community of believers in which the growth and maturation of all is the responsibility of all.

Robert Coleman’s words, from his ever-important book entitled The Master Plan of Evangelism (which is a bit of a misnomer, as today the book’s focus would be termed “discipleship”), regarding people in general are perhaps even more applicable to America’s youth today:

The world is desperately seeking someone to follow.  That they will follow someone is certain, but will that person be one who knows the way of Christ, or will he or she be one like themselves leading them only on into greater darkness?  This is the decisive question of our plan of life.  The relevance of all that we do waits on its verdict, and in turn, the destiny of the multitudes hangs in the balance. (121)

Monergism Books has a helpful guide for Christians who would like to develop their skills in thoughtfully reading and engaging with important Christian texts.  You can also download the guide as a PDF (for printing).

Desiring God offers a similar list, as does 9 Marks and The Resurgence.

Check out this very helpful discussion regarding the tendency of churches (especially large churches) to call Christians to a “ministry” that really just boils down to helping staff programs within the church and for the church, thus stripping them of the time, energy, and training needed to be ministers of the Gospel within their specific spheres of influence (job, family, neighborhood, etc.).

Horton raises an interesting (and I think, important) point about how the special, prescribed offices of the Scriptures (elders and deacons) are actually being eroded in our desire to emphasize the “priesthood of all believers.”  That is to say, in encouraging people to be “ministers of the Gospel,” we largely present this service as ministry in the context of the gathered church, rather than in the world and among the lost (at least, I think that’s what he’s saying).

I also appreciate Chandler when he says that this is why his church strives to keep things as simple and streamlined as possible, maintaining their focus on equipping their saints for the work of ministry in the world.  Another reason why the concept of the “missional community” is so appealing…

HT: The Gospel Coalition