From Embers to a Flame 3

Chapter 5: Revitalization Strategy 3: Gospel-Driven and Christ-Centered Ministry

The First of the First Things. Harry Reeder’s pattern for revitalization is: remember, repent, and recover the first things. And the first thing to be recovered is the gospel itself. The Church at Ephesus is an example of a congregation that needed to practice this recovery. Jesus says to them: “…You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first….” (from Revelation 2:4-5).

Back to the Basics. What the church needs, Reeder argues, is not some complex or totally new strategy, but to get back to what the church is about, the basics of making disciples.

Putting “First Things” First. The first thing that we need to recover is the gospel of grace itself. When Reeder became pastor of a dying church that was close to being shut down, he preached on the importance of personal faith. He found that many of the remaining members needed to make a public commitment to Christ, and he tells the story of two members, a deacon and an organist, who actually made a commitment to Christ, even though they were already integral members of the church.

A Closer Look at the First of the First Things. The basic gospel message must be at the center of any church renewal process. I like Reeder’s emphasis on the fact that we need to be evangelized throughout our lives. Reeder says “we can go deeper into the gospel, but we can never go beyond it.” Believing and unbelieving sinners need to hear the same gospel.

Understanding the Gospel of Grace. Reeder explains: “The gospel is sin-conquering, sin-canceling, and life-transforming.” The gospel includes these elements:

  • Salvation from the Persuasion of Sin–Effectual Calling. This refers to when you not only understand the Christian message about Jesus in your mind, but you are convicted that it applies to you personally: that Jesus died for you, that you need forgiveness, etc.
  • Salvation from the Power of Sin–Regeneration. This is when God gives us rebirth, or birth from above (John 3:3). Christianity is not a crutch to get through life, Reeder says, it is an entire life support system!
  • Salvation from the Penalty of Sin–Justification. God declares us not guilty of our sins, even though we are in fact sinners and commit sins. But because Jesus Christ has stood in our place, and because we are united with him, God credits his perfect obedience to us.
  • Salvation from the Position of Sin–Adoption. Sin separates us from God, but the good news is that God, through faith in Jesus Christ and the work of his Holy Spirit, brings us into his family, making us the children of God rather than the children of wrath, and he adopts us as his own, making us heirs of his coming Kingdom.
  • Salvation from the Practice of Sin–Sanctification. Sanctification means: the process of being made holy. In one sense we are saved when we believe; but we are also being saved throughout our lives, by the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Jesus accepts you as you are, but he loves you too much to leave you that way. This is the process of following Jesus Christ in your daily life, putting off our old self, and putting on the new self (Ephesians 4:22-24).
  • Salvation from  the Presence of Sin–Glorification. In one sense, our salvation is still future, because we struggle with sin and brokenness in this life. In the New Heaven and New Earth, there will be no more trace of sin to mar God’s good creation and his creatures.

Applying the Gospel of Grace in your Church. Reeder notes that focusing on the gospel of grace does not mean that we can only talk about “milk,” and never proceed to the “solid food” of the gospel (see Hebrews 5:12-14). And he emphasizes that “we must avoid at all costs the kind of preaching and teaching that is mere moralism.” That is, we cannot preach as if the gospel is nothing more than a list of rules and restrictions, as if it is all about one’s behavior. That is the error of the Pharisees.

Avoid Errors that Distort the Gospel. Some of the misunderstandings that warp the true meaning of the gospel are two opposite errors: one Reeder calls “passivism,” the attitude that we just have to sit back and let God work in us, without making any effort. The other is “activism” or “moralism,” namely, the idea that says that my sanctification and spiritual growth is all up to me and my efforts, and minimizes the power of the Holy Spirit. Or another set of errors: a view of the Christian life that is legalistic and all about rules, or one that says there are no rules, and ignores obedience and holiness. Reeder observes that Scripture calls us “not to work for our salvation but to work out our salvation,” because it is God who is at work within us (Philippians 2:12-13).

Focus on Jesus Christ. “A gospel-driven church is a Christ-centered church because he is the embodiment of the good news.” In the process of church renewal, we must remind ourselves and each other that it is not my church or our church; it is not the denomination’s church; it is Christ’s church. It is Christ who builds the church and he promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18).

Chapter 6: Revitalization Strategy 4: Personal Gospel Formation

The Discipline of Grace. The gospel of Luke tells us that the young boy Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).

  1. Wisdom–Intellectual Discipline
  2. Stature–Physical Discipline
  3. Favor with God–Spiritual Discipline
  4. Favor with Man–Social/Relational Discipline

Here again, Reeder emphasizes the importance of getting the gospel right:

“The Christian life is not lived in order to be saved; it is lived because we are saved. The Christian life is not the foundation of our salvation, but it is a necessary evidence of salvation. James does not say that you are saved by your works; he claims that saving faith works” (84-85).

Reeder talks about these four areas of discipline, but he provides barely four lines on the first, intellectual discipline. This is an unfortunate choice, especially in our Christian Reformed tradition, in which loving God with all our mind is very important (even though sometimes we have tended to make it excessively important). He spends more time on physical discipline, though the Bible speaks more about training in doctrine than training in the gym (though Paul often uses athletic imagery precisely to speak of spiritual discipline).

Reeder gets into more detail on spiritual discipline(s). He divides them into two categories:

  1. Disciplines of Denial and Abstention. He puts these disciplines in the context of putting off the old self, the sinful nature, and putting on the new self. He identifies six virtues or disciplines here:
  • Simplicity in Life. Live an uncluttered life. Very hard for hoarders.
  • Frugality in Life. “Frugality in life is living within our means while giving beyond our means.”
  • Silence in Life. Here Reeder points out that the Christian life is not only intentional but also contemplative.
  • Sacrifice in Life. Reeder could say more here.
  • Chastity in Life. And here. Especially as the church becomes more responsive to single persons and deals with radically changing views of sexuality.
  • Fasting in Life. Here Reeder argues that fasting is never about repentance but always about helping us focus. Personally, I doubt it. Fasting is very often associated with repentance in the Bible (for example, when the Ninevites hear Jonah’s call to repentance, 3:5). But despite the fact that fasting makes me think only about food, I suppose that helping one’s focus could also be a use of fasting (e.g. Jesus fasted in the desert and had no need for repentance; on the other hand, he represents Israel and so may also be embodying the True Israel who needs to repent, as he becomes sin in a sense (Romans 8:3f.) Fasting, more likely, enables us to feel in our body a hunger for God that may find a parallel in the soul.

2. Disciplines of Devotion and Development. Here Reeder lists the following:

  • The study of God’s Word.
  • Intercessory and Contemplative Prayer.
  • Meditation and Memorization.
  • Reflection.
  • Confession.
  • Consecration. (Dedicating ourselves to God’s mission).

Here I would have liked Reeder to offer some reflection on Christian virtue. In addition, he seems at times to paint these disciplines in a very individualistic and private shades. But true Christian discipline and growth almost always happens in community, in fellowship (koinonia / κοινωνία) with other believers. I would like to see more emphasis on this communal element of spiritual discipline, particularly in our self-absorbed North American context.

Disciplined Christians are Found in Discipling Churches. Reeder points to the early church (Acts 2:42) to illustrate that a vital, growing church is one that practices spiritual disciplines.

Finally, Reeder emphasizes The Necessity of Church Discipline, that is, formal church discipline. To be a disciplined and discipling church, “you will have to teach and practice church discipline.” He rightly points out that this is some of the most difficult work of the ministry, and yet it is clearly commanded by the Lord Jesus himself (Matt. 18:15-17) and the Apostle Paul (I Cor. 5:12-13).

For part four click here.

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Christ in Camo

Outreach is difficult for established churches and established Christians. Why? Because church is our comfort zone. And evangelism and outreach tend to terrify a lot of us. Yet the church exists for one reason and one reason alone: to reach out with the love of Jesus Christ and to make disciples for him, as he appointed us to do in the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20. We don’t exist to insulate ourselves from the non-churched world, to shelter our children from sin, or to surround ourselves with the comfort of like-minded people. So, even if the plan for getting an outreach director hasn’t materialized, we can’t use that as an excuse not to experiment with ways to reach out to our neighbors with the message of the gospel.

However, there may be ways to reach out that are not so terrifying. Maybe even some that are exhilarating and fun, activities that we look forward to. If I could dream up my own version, it would involve shooting guns and hunting and fishing. Maybe you could call it Christians in camo. Too bad there isn’t a ministry opportunity there. Or is there?

In my own experience. I have talked to men about spiritual matters in a hunting cabin out in the middle of nowhere—men who might never open up anywhere else. A young man who, under normal circumstances, would never talk to a pastor without being physically restrained, showed up at my house early for catechism, just to show me his brand new hunting rifle. I was duly impressed, not only by the rifle, but by the way the Spirit can work in mysterious ways. Shared interests and experiences are a recipe for relationships. Relationships, in turn, are what the Holy Spirit uses to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.

I have often thought about how I could intentionally use this interest for ministry and outreach. A number of years ago Rev. Maury DeYoung began a ministry at Kelloggsville CRC which hosted outdoorsy events and even brought in experts in hunting and fishing sports. It attracted many unchurched persons. Rev. DeYoung is now the full-time director of Sportspersons Ministries International, which helps churches to plan outreach events for people who like to wear camo. He will be hosting a training event on the evenings of September 21-22, from 6:30-9:15, at Corinth Reformed Church, with supper provided. I will be attending to explore the possibilities of what we could possibly do here at First Cutlerville, along with people from South Harbor Church and Corinth Reformed. I invite anyone who has a passion for the outdoors and a desire to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ to come along with me, just to explore the possibilities. Contact me for more information.

This will not be everyone’s cup of tea, of course, and it doesn’t have to be. Another pastor, for example, might be a sports aficionado and bond particularly well with the athletes and fans in his or her congregation. Maybe you have a passion for the lost, but you don’t know how to put it into action. Well, what do you love? Do you love scrapbooking? There’s a possible outreach event there. Do you love books? Start a book club, or if you’re not a club-starter, get your more extroverted friend to start one. Do you play on the church softball team? Invite your neighbor to check out the game, and maybe enjoy the fellowship afterward. Hand out candy on Halloween and take a moment to actually meet the people who live four doors down from you (and don’t buy the hype that it’s Satanic or unchristian. It’s an opportunity to meet your neighbors. See this blog post from a few years ago, by a Canadian Christian mom, that has gone viral: http://troublefacemom.com/2012/10/31/on-halloween/ ). But do not do any of these things just to get people into church. Do these things to create relationships with people, because Christ is shared in relationships. But do something. And always be on the lookout for opportunities. Recently I found out that Calvin College encourages students to attend local congregations in the morning. Most of these students are believers, of course, but it’s still a great opportunity to extend hospitality and also enrich our own fellowship with the presence of young believers.

Why must we do these things? Because the Great Commission isn’t optional, or just for a few select Christians. Jesus calls us to be disciples, and to make disciples.

Experimental Ministry

What if we could try something new in ministry without being committed to it long-term, just to see how it works? Well, who says we can’t? At last fall’s Leadership Training Event Amy Schenkel, from Monroe Community Church, spoke on the topic, “Experiment Your Way to Change.” She defined an experiment as “short-term, intentional plans that help a congregation live into a new behavior.” It’s a way of risking something new, but with very little risk. If it works, it might or might not become a permanent ministry. If it doesn’t work, no big deal. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Thinking of a new practice as a temporary experiment can relieve anxiety and help churches to implement change with less stress and worry.

For example, Hillside Church here in Cutlerville tried an experiment called “The Cars of our Life.” People from the congregation took pictures (with permission) of interesting cars in their neighborhood. This led to conversations with unchurched members in their community. Monroe Community Church had a scavenger hunt in their downtown area, which was well received by the downtown community.

Amy explained what goes into making a good ministry experiment:

  1. A good ministry experiment addresses an issue or problem that we don’t really know how to solve. For example: What do we do about declining attendance in our PM services?
  2. A good ministry experiment takes place over a short period of time. There is more willingness to try new things if there is not a long-term, locked-in commitment.
  3. A good ministry experiment is simple and requires few resources.
  4. A good ministry experiment recognizes that there is some risk involved, but it is not a great amount of risk because it is short-term and does not require many resources.
  5. A good ministry experiment is creative. We have creative people in our congregation with good ideas; don’t be afraid to share them. They are appreciated, even if we don’t end up implementing them.
  6. A good ministry experiment can be measured and evaluated. We can reflect on it and see how well it worked, or didn’t work, or how it could be tweaked.

There are a number of areas where I could see us trying this out at First Cutlerville. These are just some brainstorming ideas; there are plenty of creative people in our congregation, and I’m sure you can come up with more ideas as well.

  1. We could have small groups that focus on a very particular study or activity, which only meet for a limited time.
  2. We could apply this to our worship planning. Persons could volunteer to help plan worship services for a season (for example, Lent through Easter).
  3. Our deacons could suggest a short-term service project or opportunity in which church members can participate.
  4. We could apply this to our ongoing reflections on the evening service. What are some other options we could try on a temporary, experimental basis? Could we try something different for the summer months?
  5. We have our Women of the Cloth, who meet regularly. What about other activity-centered groups, or even single events, that create fellowship and could also be missional if we invite our neighbors. I’m thinking “People of the Shooting Range,” 🙂 but there are many other possibilities.

Think about it, and let your creativity run wild. Let’s experiment our way into the future that God has in store for us, and I trust that the Holy Spirit will bless our experiments, even when they don’t work out. Even when it doesn’t work, it’s not a waste of time. Like a scientist in the laboratory, we can learn just as much from experiments that don’t work as from those that do.

(First Cutlerville CRC Focus, Spring 2015)