When is a church not a church? | Mulholland on Revelation #UMC

The book of Revelation is full of practical application for today’s church. One of my favorite things about Bob Mulholland’s commentary on Revelation is the attention he gives to the formative power of the Apocalypse. One good example of this comes in his analysis of the letter to the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2:1-7. Mulholland observes that, according to Acts 19-20, when the gospel first came to Ephesus, believers responded in a way that carried significant impact in the city, economic not least. They believed the gospel and they behaved in a way that brought the implications of the gospel to bear on the city of Ephesus. But by the time Revelation is written, while the Ephesians still believe the right things (Rev 2:2), they have lost their first love (Rev 2:4). They remain orthodox, but they’re no longer evangelistic. So Mulholland says

…we see that orthodoxy and evangelism are the inseparable foci of a healthy church. Both must be kept in dynamic balance. Evangelism without orthodoxy becomes a tolerant pluralism and results in a community formed around diffuse human values and criteria. Orthodoxy without evangelism becomes a cold, harsh legalism and results in a community formed around debilitating “do’s and don’ts.” Sound orthodoxy and fervent evangelism result in a community of faith whose growing wholeness of life is a powerful witness of the cleansing, healing, liberating life in Christ to a soiled, wounded, and imprisoned world (435).

Mulholland seems to be using the language of evangelism to refer broadly to the various ways churches might engage their community in ministry, even though that language typically refers to a clear articulation of the truth of the gospel and a call to faith in Jesus. In any case, his point is made. And some may think he doesn’t go far enough, since there are segments of some denominations that are neither orthodox nor evangelistic.

Commitment to truth is important, but it’s not enough. And that commitment must translate into action. Likewise, engaging the culture must be grounded in truth. If it isn’t, there are consequences. Jesus commanded the church in Ephesus to remember and do the works they did at first (Rev 2:5). If they do not, he will remove their lampstand. That is, their status as a church. What’s the point? A church that doesn’t maintain the balance between orthodoxy and evangelism will not long be a church. And that, of course, raises another question. When is a church no longer a church?

Have you ever been in a church setting that did a good job keeping the balance between evangelism and orthodoxy ? A church that did not? What are the keys to keeping the balance? Why do churches struggle to keep that balance? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts and experience.

Get your copy of Revelation by Robert Mulholland.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

New SermonCast: "Why Church?" #UMC

It’s a question that many regular churchgoers may never ask. Church, for a lot of us, is the default position. It’s just what you do. Why ask why. However, more and more people are finding the Church unnecessary. And a growing number are looking to places other than the Church to find spiritual fulfillment. Recent years have seen the rise of the “spiritual but not religious,” who find great importance in spirituality but don’t see traditional expressions of the Church as good places for spiritual growth. One poll even found that 33% of Americans think of themselves this way. Spirituality matters, but for the spiritual but not religious it’s not to be found in the Church. In this increasingly post-Christian climate, the Church must be always asking the “why” question. Why Church? Why does it matter? What does the Church have to offer a world that cares less and less? This week’s SermonCast on Ephesians 3:7-13 drills down on these questions as we consider the possibility that Church is not an option. Church is the plan. 

Are denominations worth it? (@9MarksOnline)

I’m grateful for the opportunity to take part in a roundtable discussion for the 9 Marks Journal on the question: are denominations worth it? The other participants are pastors from a variety of contexts and denominational backgrounds and include Tim Keller, Carl Trueman, Tom Ascol, Tim Cantrell, and Rick Phillips. You can preview the roundtable discussion here, and the full journal should be available soon.

Most of us answered the question with a generally positive view of denominations, though as you read each response you may get the sense that some find denominations to be more “worth it” than others. Several responses focused on the value of connection to foster cooperation between churches in a single denomination. Ascol suggested that denominations are useful in bringing autonomous local churches in the same denomination together as partners in mission. Cantrell praised the cooperation of the Sola5 association of churches in South Africa for their strategic partnership to plant new churches and engage in mission. Keller and Truman, both Presbyterian, find worth in the role of denominations in keeping local church leaders accountable to the larger connection, and Phillips sees value in denominations as long as they don’t begin to think that their boundaries are the same as the boundaries of Christ’s kingdom.

Taking a somewhat different approach, my own contribution focused on the value of denominations in relationship to each other. I’ve learned a lot from reading and studying those with backgrounds in other denominations. I hope that exposure to the strengths and distinctives of other traditions has and will continue to improve my own understanding and practice of ministry. I also hope that people in other denominations will learn from the strengths and emphases of our Methodist heritage. 

What do you think? Are denominations worth it? Why? Why not? Share your thoughts in a comment below. 

What does Church have to do with Kingdom?

I just started reading a little book called Church Membership: How the World Knows who Represents Jesus by Jonathan Leeman (Crossway 2012). The foreword by Michael Horton has a nice summary of how Christ’s redemptive work relates to the visible church:
“Christ rules us in order to save us and saves us in order to rule us. Unlike the rulers of this age, Jesus doesn’t ask us to shed our blood for his empire; he instead gave his own life for his realm. Then he was raised in glory as the beginning of the new creation, and now he is gathering coheirs into his kingdom who belong to each other because, together, they belong to him. The visible church is where you will find Christ’s kingdom on earth, and to disregard the kingdom is to disregard the King” (15).
If the visible church is the place where the Kingdom of God becomes visible, then covenantal membership in a local church is instrumental for the visibility of the kingdom. A timely word in a day when church membership is often under-emphasized or left unmentioned altogether.


Young Pastors’ Network Reflections: Strategic Planning

I have the privilege this year of being among 44 young United Methodist pastors being mentored by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter as a part of the Young Pastors’ Network 2011. YPN is a “leadership development school” that includes six days together at key events and ongoing interaction through the use of social media. Last week we all met at Ginghamsburg Church for three intensive days of learning and mentoring. It was like drinking from Niagara; I’m continuing now to reflect on and process the things I learned.
One topic we covered that made a significant impact on my thinking was strategic planning. I was struck by the way in which Hamilton and Slaughter both developed very specific plans, though often quite different plans, to implement their respective visions. Fruitful ministry does not just happen; it is the result of planning and implementation.
After some ongoing reflection, the thing that strikes me is that I didn’t have a class on strategic planning in seminary. I didn’t learn how to build a comprehensive strategy that would bring cohesion to the mission and ministry of the local church. I think seminaries are attempting to compensate for this lack with courses on Christian leadership, but those classes cover a range of topics related to leadership. They do not necessarily put strategic ministry planning in the core of the basic divinity degree.
Now let me be clear. I’m not bashing seminary here. My time at Asbury Theological Seminary was a hugely important part of my ministerial training, and I look that time with fondness and appreciation for professors who made a significant investment in me both inside and outside the walls of the classroom. And every pastor has the responsibility of continued learning after graduate school in order to cultivate continuing effectiveness. 
I’m wondering, however, whether this is a place where seminaries need to find creative ways of providing students with training for developing and implementing a strategic plan for the local church.
I also wonder if this is something that even can be accomplished in the typical way we’ve done seminary. By virtue of their vocation, many (if not most) seminary professors have not been pastors in local churches where they’ve had to develop and implement a long-term plan for carrying out the mission of the church. Again, the goal here is not to be overly critical but to consider whether this is a limitation of the traditional way we’ve trained pastors.
So, what’s the solution? Well, Hamilton and Slaughter are making a contribution by gathering young pastors together to teach them the basics of  strategic planning. Beyond that, perhaps seminaries need to look at partnering with local pastors and churches who have demonstrated that they can plan and implement effectively to take a vital role in the training of upcoming clergy. I think some schools and churches are already engaged in such partnerships, but I also think that we need to find ways to make these partnerships the norm rather than the exception.
I’d like to learn from you on this. Pastors, do you have a strategic plan for the church you serve? Where did you learn how to create such a plan? Has it been fruitful? What resources did you use? Can you recommend any helpful books?
Laypersons, do you know whether your church has such a plan? If so, what is your role in implementing the plan? Has the leadership of your church been effective in communicating the plan?

Eschatology is Everything

I’m reading a lot on the Apostle Paul these days. And among the many things I’m learning, one stands out from the others: for Paul, eschatology is everything. His view of “last things” soaks his theological thinking. You cannot escape it. It’s pervasive. I’ve read this before, of course. But it is now taking root in my own thinking in a new and exciting way.
Consider, for Paul that justification is the present faith-anticipation of the eschatological verdict. Sanctification is the Spirit-life of the future come into the present. Salvation itself is a matter of being united with Christ in his death and resurrection, which is the first fruits of the final resurrection of the people of God. The presence of the Spirit in the Church marks it out as an eschatological community. And the Mosaic Law, though it was a good thing, is now obsolete because it was intended for an age that has now ended with the coming of the Christ and the Spirit. More could be said, but you get the picture.
But why is Paul’s theology so pervasively eschatological? I am persuaded that it is because of his all-consuming focus on Christ. The first coming of Christ was an eschatological event which inaugurated the eschatological kingdom of God. His death on the cross is the decisive end of the old age; his resurrection the decisive beginning of the new. As already observed, his resurrection is also the initial phase of the general resurrection, his new life the beginning of the new creation that will find its ultimate consummation upon his return. Let’s not forget that Paul’s eschatology is not fully realized; to suggest as much would be a grave misunderstanding of his thought. But Paul did believe himself to be living at the end of the old age and the beginning of the new. And the crucial difference was the presence of the Messiah, Jesus Christ the Lord. And because of that, for Paul, eschatology is everything.

The Leadership Dynamic: A Biblical Model for Raising Effective Leaders

Books on Christian leadership abound these days, and many take the approach of applying insights from the secular business world to the church in order to aid church leaders in building successful organizations.  This is not an altogether unhelpful approach.  I’ve read several of these books and have benefited from them in various ways.  On several occasions I’ve come away with ideas and initiatives that I’ve found to be truly helpful in leading a local church.  But each time I’ve been a bit cautious at the basic assumption that business leadership models should be taken as the primary way of thinking about developing the leaders of the church.  That’s why I was hopeful when Harry Reeder’s The Leadership Dynamic (Crossway 2008) was recommended to me.  The subtitle says it all: A Biblical Model for Raising Effective Leaders. 
Reeder is also wary of starting with the business leadership models of secular culture when thinking about cultivating leaders for the church.  Thus, instead of going outside the Christian tradition for insight, Reeder goes straight to scripture to see if a biblical model  for leadership development can be found; his answer: an emphatic yes.  Without going into the details of the book, Reeder’s overall framework is what he calls “3-D Leadership“: Defining, Developing, and Deploying Christian leaders.  The chapters of the book fall basically into these three categories to articulate a comprehensive plan for developing Christian leaders that is thoroughly biblical and rooted in historic Christian belief. 
Let me mention three features of Reeder’s book that are particularly commendable.  First, when Reeder says he is giving a biblical model, he isn’t kidding.  This book is scripture saturated.  Every leadership principle is grounded in or drawn from the biblical text.  The strength here is that we know we are not twisting an idea from a non-Christian context to try and make it fit church culture.  Instead, the result of Reeder’s method is a model of leadership development that is shaped and refined through scriptural interaction.  Second, if Reeder’s first calling is that of a pastor, his second is that of historian.  The book is chock full of historical vignettes that make Reeder’s points vividly.  Many of the short but potent narratives are drawn from the lives of Christians who made leadership decisions based on their understanding of scripture, which clearly falls within Reeder’s goals.  Third, Reeder is ridiculously good at coming up with short and punchy memorable maxims that help the reader follow and remember his main points.  This makes the book highly readable and easy to follow.  For these reasons and others, I highly recommend Harry Reeder’s The Leadership Dynamic: A Biblical Model for Raising Effective Leaders.

Looking to be Led by the Blind?

I’m presently reading Why We Love the Church by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck.  I’m only in the third chapter, so I’ll avoid any sort of full review for the time being.  The book, to this point, is largely a response to the myriad of voices who are frustrated because the church appears unattractive to outsiders.  There are plenty of quotes like this one from Leonard Sweet, “The world is not impressed that people attend church on Sunday morning. If anything, such a habit is viewed as a quaint waste of time.”
My initial response to that quote, and the many like it, was to ask: What do you expect?  Why would you ever think that the world would be impressed with the church?  Have we forgotten that “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor 1:18)?  Do we fail to recall that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers” (2 Cor 4:4)?  What would ever lead us to believe that outsiders might find it a good use of their time to habitually gather to worship a God in whom they do not believe and hear a gospel they find to be utter foolishness?  A major point of the power of God for salvation through the gospel is the paradoxical nature of it.  God saves people through the hearing of news that offends their natural sensibilities.  As a rule of thumb, when the world begins to grant approval and accolade to the church, we ought to pause and consider whether we’re doing something wrong.  Have we left out the gospel?  Have we excluded an essential element of worship?  Why would we ever allow the worship, structure, or mission of the church to be dictated by those who think we are fools.  Is it not folly to seek to be led by the blind?

Healthy Churches…Healthy Members

Every Christian should be committed to the health of his own local church.  Likewise, every Christian should be committed to his own health as a church member, as well as to the health of his co-members.  Here are two little books written with aim of nurturing healthy churches and healthy members.  Both books are written on the presupposition that churches do not primarily need more programs, campaigns, and gimmicks.  Rather, churches need to hear God speak, and God speaks through his Word, the Bible.  If a church and its members are to be healthy, the scriptures must be central and authoritative.
The first is Mark Dever’s What is a Healthy Church? (Crossway 2005).  The book is organized into three parts, the first of which sets out to introduce the reader to a basic theology of the church and to make the case that churches should aspire towards health.  The second part and third parts outline what the author takes to be “essential” and “important” marks of healthy churches.  Dever is interested in drawing attention to those matters that are normally neglected.  As a result, he doesn’t spend time arguing that a healthy church emphasizes prayer.  Rather, he devotes his pen to the essential marks of expositional preaching, biblical theology, and a biblical understanding of the gospel.  The important marks include chapters on conversion, evangelism, membership, church discipline, discipleship, and leadership. 
What is a Healthy Church Member? (Crossway 2008) by Thabiti Anyabwile is a companion volume to the book by Dever, with whom Anyabwile served as assistant pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.  Presupposing that healthy churches are made up of healthy members, Anyabwile takes uses each chapter to apply Dever’s “marks” to the lives of individual members.  Thus, the chapters claim that a healthy church member is an expositional listener, a biblical theologian, gospel saturated, an evangelist, etc.  Anyabwile adds a tenth chapter on being a prayer warrior.
Both authors are pastors of Baptist churches, and the distinctives of their tradition come through in their writing.  This does not mean, though, that the principles outlined in these books are not widely applicable across the denominational spectrum of Christianity.  Also, both authors have Calvinistic understandings of salvation.  Fortunately, this does not pervade the texts and is likely to go largely unnoticed by those not familiar with the finer nuances of the debate.  All in all, pastors would do well to distribute these books widely in their churches, not least among the leadership.  These two brief but powerful books should be standard reading in every local church.