Category Archives: Church Membership

Three Recent Reads (Part 3)

discipline-of-grace3.jpgThe pursuit of holiness is even more dangerous than you think.

And, pursued biblically, it is unspeakably more rewarding than you imagine. This is the message at the heart of The Disciple of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness, a follow-up and complement to his The Pursuit of Holiness (see yesterday’s post).

This is quite possibly the finest, most well-written, clearly articulated, enjoyable and accessible book on sanctification and its pursuit that I have ever read. By accessible, I mean that it is a book I think I could give to just about anyone, from the newest convert to the mature saint, and they would be able to understand it—and not only understand, but richly benefit from it.

Future Grace, by John Piper, used to be my primary go-to book for working with people on sanctification, but this has now surpassed it, in my opinion. The chief strength of this book is its repeated emphasis on the gospel as the foundation for all progress in Christian discipleship and maturity, rather than viewing the gospel simply as the entry point into discipleship. It is thoroughly biblical, pastorally written, easily applicable, and enormously practical without being flimsy and parochial.

Some important excepts:

“We must not put the gospel on the shelf once a person becomes a new believer. He or she will have just as difficult a time believing that God relates to us every day on the basis of grace as a person has believing that God saves by grace instead of works. So we must not only preach the gospel to ourselves every day, we must continue to teach it and preach it to those whom we may be discipling in some way… . Discipleship must be based on God’s grace” (82).

“The gospel, applied to our hearts every day, frees us to be brutally honest with ourselves and with God. The assurance of His total forgiveness of our sins through the blood of Christ means we don’t have to play defensive games anymore” (23).

“God is not impressed with our worship on Sunday morning at church if we are practicing ‘cruise-control’ obedience the rest of the week. You may sing with reverent zeal or great emotional fervor, but your worship is only as pleasing to God as the obedience that accompanies it” (120).

“This standing in Christ’s righteousness [through imputation and justification] is never affected to any degree by our good-day or bad-day performance. Unless we learn to live daily by faith in (that is, by reliance on) His righteousness, however, our perception of our standing before God will vary depending on our good or bad performance” (50).

If it is any indication, the way I mark the matters of highest importance—things I absolutely need to remember—in the books I read is by dog-earing the pages (after highlighting, underlining, etc.). Typically, in a book of this length (242 pp.), I would probably dog-ear 3 or 4 pages.

I dog-eared 16 pages in The Discipline of Grace. I absolutely loved this book.

8 Marks of a Robust Gospel

mcknight.jpgNo one knows what to do with Scot McKnight.

Just like no one seems to know what to do with N.T. Wright. If Wright is talking about the historical plausibility of the resurrection of Jesus, evangelicals love him. If he’s talking about justification, we despise him. The same is true of McKnight. If he’s talking about the emerging church, we think he’s sold out to a passing fad. If he’s talking about the historical Jesus in scholarly circles, he’s the cat’s pajamas.

Clearly, no one has it all together. But McKnight is a guy who is always worth listening to. Not uncritically, mind you. But, like Wright, he is a guy always worth listening to and engaging with (apologies to the grammar police for ending all of those phrases with prepositions). Reproduced here, as exhibit A, an intriguing piece on the gospel from CT. This is lengthy, but very worth reading:

The 8 Marks of a Robust Gospel: Reviving forgotten chapters in the story of redemption
by Scot McKnight

Our problems are not small. The most cursory glance at the newspaper will remind us of global crises like AIDS, local catastrophes of senseless violence, family failures, ecological threats, and church skirmishes. These problems resist easy solutions. They are robust—powerful, pervasive, and systemic.

Do we have a gospel big enough for these problems? Do we have the confidence to declare that these robust problems, all of which begin with sin against God and then creep into the world like cancer, have been conquered by a robust gospel? When I read the Gospels, I see a Lion of Judah who roared with a kingdom gospel that challenged both Israel’s and Rome’s mighty men, gathered up the sick and dying and made them whole, and united the purity-obsessed “clean” and the shame-laden “unclean” around one table. When I read the apostle Paul, I see a man who carried a gospel that he believed could save as well as unite Gentiles and barbarians with Abraham’s sacred descendants. I do not think their gospel was too small.

I sometimes worry we have settled for a little gospel, a miniaturized version that cannot address the robust problems of our world. But as close to us as the pages of a nearby Bible, we can find the Bible’s robust gospel, a gospel that is much bigger than many of us have dared to believe:

The gospel is the story of the work of the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) to completely restore broken image-bearers (Gen. 1:26–27) in the context of the community of faith (Israel, Kingdom, and Church) through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Pentecostal Spirit, to union with God and communion with others for the good of the world.

The gospel may be bigger than this description, but it is certainly not smaller. And as we declare this robust gospel in the face of our real, robust problems, we will rediscover just how different it is from the small gospel we sometimes have believed and proclaimed.

1. The robust gospel is a story. Jesus didn’t drop out of the heavens one snowy night in Bethlehem to a world hushed for Advent. Instead, Jesus’ birth came in the midst of a story with a beginning, a problem, and a lengthy history. When Jesus stood up to announce the “gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23), the first thing his hearers would have focused on was not the word gospel but the word kingdom—the climax of Israel’s story and its yearning for the eternal messianic reign. Gospel-preaching for Jesus had the same hope and vision one finds in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55), Zechariah’s Benedictus (1:68–79), Simeon’s Nunc dimittis (2:29–32), and John the Baptist’s summons to a new way of life (3:10–14)—namely, the fulfillment of the whole story’s hope, the kingdom of God. This is why Paul defines gospel after its first mention in Romans 1:1 with this: “which he promised beforehand through his prophets, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David” (NRSV). To preach the gospel and to believe the gospel is to offer and enter into a story.

2. The robust gospel places transactions in the context of persons. When the gospel is reduced to a legal transaction shifting our guilt to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to us, the gospel focuses too narrowly on a transaction and becomes too impersonal. We dare not deny transaction or what’s called double imputation, but the gospel is more than the transactions of imputation. The robust gospel of the Bible is personal—it is about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. It is about you and me as persons encountering that personal, three-personed God. Indeed, more often than not in the New Testament, the gospel is linked explicitly to a person. It is the “gospel of Christ” or the “gospel of God.” Jesus calls people to lose their life “for my sake” and, to say the same thing differently, “for the sake of the gospel” (Mark 8:35; 10:29). Paul preached the “gospel of God” (1 Thess. 2:9) and the “gospel of Christ” (3:2) and “the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11). Paul tells us that the gospel is the glorious power of God’s Spirit to transform broken image-bearers into the glory of God that can be seen in the face of the perfect image-bearer, Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:18–4:6). In our proclamation, too, the focus of the gospel must be on God as person and our encountering that personal God in the face of Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit.

3. The robust gospel deals with a robust problem. Genesis 1–3 teaches us that humans are made in God’s image and likeness. These image-bearers were in utter union with God, at home with themselves, in communion with one another, and in harmony with the world around them. When Eve, with her husband in tow, chose to eat of the wrong tree, the image was cracked in each of those four directions: God-alienation, self-shame, other-blame, and Eden-expulsion. Sin results not only in alienation from God, which is paramount, but also in shame of the self, blame and antagonism toward others, and banishment from the world as God made it to be. The proportions of the biblical problem are not small; the problems are so robust that a robust gospel is needed. The rest of the Bible, from Genesis 4 to Revelation 22, is about these cracked image-bearers being restored to union with God, freed from shame, placed in communion with others, and offered to the world. Any gospel that does not expand the “problem” of Genesis 3 to these cosmic dimensions is not robust enough.

4. A robust gospel has a grand vision. The little gospel promises me personal salvation and eternal life. But the robust gospel doesn’t stop there. It also promises a new society and a new creation. When Jesus stood up to read Isaiah 61 in the synagogue at Nazareth, then sat down and declared that this prophetic vision was now coming to pass through him, there was more than personal redemption at work. God’s kingdom, the society where God’s will is established and lived, was now officially at work in his followers. That society was overturning the injustices and exclusions of the empire and establishing an inclusive and just alternative. We find this in Jesus’ opening words (Luke 4:18–19), the Beatitudes (6:20–26), and in his response to John (Mark 7:22–23). This vision for a just society led to the radical practices of generosity and hospitality in the Jerusalem churches (Acts 2:42–47). Any gospel that is not announcing a new society at work in the world, what the apostle Paul called the church, is simply not a robust gospel.

5. A robust gospel includes the life of Jesus as well as his resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit alongside Good Friday. Paul said he preached “Christ crucified,” but the crucified Christ Paul preached was an empty-cross Christ and an empty-grave Christ. That same gospel of Christ crucified was rooted in an incarnate life. And that same Christ crucified, after his 40 days of appearances and ascension, sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in order to empower his followers to become the church as a new creation. If our only problem is individual guilt, the solution can be reduced to Good Friday. But as we acknowledge our problem in its true biblical proportions, we need more than Good Friday: we need Christmas as Incarnation, Good Friday as Substitution and Paradigm and the stripping of systemic powers from their illegitimate thrones, Easter as New Creation, and Pentecost as Empowerment. The robust gospel incorporates us into the life of Jesus Christ, into his death with us, for us, and instead of us, into the Resurrection that justifies and creates new life, and the Pentecostal Spirit that empowers us to live together, as image-bearers of God, in such a way that we glow with the glory of the blessed God.

6. A robust gospel demands not only faith but everything. Inherent in the robust, biblical view of the gospel is a view of faith that involves repentance, trust, surrender, commitment, and obedience. Paul warns of those who do not “obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 1:8). Paul can say that his intent in preaching the gospel is to bring about the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5). Jesus’ gospel can be found in Mark 1:14–15: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ ” And he called his disciples to surrender themselves to him in self-denial so they could follow him (Mark 8:34–38). A robust gospel summons each of us to respond in repentance, trust, surrender, commitment, and obedience. Indeed, whole-hearted response to God is what the Jesus Creed, the double commandment to love God and to love others, is all about (Mark 12:29–31). The robust gospel calls for a robust response of a robust person.

7. A robust gospel includes the robust Spirit of God. How often do we hear about the Spirit of God in our gospel preaching? To our shame, the Spirit has been defined out of the gospel. But notice these words from the New Testament’s most notorious gospeler, Paul: “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ” (Rom. 15:18–19). For Paul, the gospel, the power of God unto salvation (1:16), was also the “power of the Spirit of God.” Again, “In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:13–14). Jesus, too, said, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Matt. 12:28). The gospel is animated by God’s powerful Spirit, and its result is Spirit-empowerment for new living.

8. A robust gospel emerges from and leads others to the church. The little gospel creates individuals who volunteer to attend church on the basis of their preferences in worship, friendships, sermons, and programs. The robust gospel knows that God’s work, from the very beginning, has revolved around three words: Israel, Kingdom, and Church. Again, the words of Paul make this abundantly clear: “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:5–6). The mystery of the gospel is that Gentiles have become fellow heirs with Jews in the promise of Christ Jesus. The gospel’s intent, in fact its substance, is the creation of God’s new society with Jesus on the throne. The robust gospel emerges out of the church with good news and calls others into that same church. For 13 years I have been teaching a survey of the Bible at North Park University. I eventually learned that we cannot skip from Genesis 3 to either John 3 or Romans 3. We cannot skip from the Fall to the Cross. God chose, instead of sending his Son to redeem Adam and Eve in Genesis 4, to wait. And what God did between the time of Adam and Eve and Jesus Christ was to work redemption in the form of community. The Old Testament is about Israel; the New Testament is about Jesus and the church. The Bible is about God’s people, the community of faith. The church is not an institution that provides benefits for individual Christians so they can carry on their personal relationship with God until that church can no longer provide what they need. Instead, the church is the focus of God’s redemptive work on earth in the present age.

So “joining the church” isn’t an option for Christians. How often do we preach entering into the community of faith, the church, as inherent to what the gospel work of God is all about? The little gospel gives the new believer the choice about the local church; the robust biblical gospel offers the new believer the church along with its Lord. Because ultimately, only a redeemed community is robust enough to do justice to the problems we confront—and the gospel we proclaim.

My physician tells me that the way I live during this decade will shape the way I live in the next decade. Likewise, the way we preach the gospel in this decade will shape the church of the next. A more robust gospel now will mean a more robust church for the next generation.

© 2008 Christianity Today International

(HT: Maurice Hagen)

Can You Spot a Church-Dater?

From Josh Harris’s book, Stop Dating the Church: Fall in Love with the People of God:

“Can you spot what I’m calling a church-dater? Here’s a quick profile. Do you see one or more of these characteristics in yourself?

First, our attitude toward church tends to be me-centered. We go for what we can get—social interaction, programs, or activities. The driving questions is, “What can church do for me?”

A second sign of a church-dater is being independent. We go to church because that’s what Christians are supposed to do—but we’re careful to avoid getting involved too much, especially with people. We don’t pay much attention to God’s larger purpose for us as a vital part in a specific church family. So we go through the motions without really investing ourselves.

Most essentially, a church-dater tends to be critical. We are short on allegiance and quick to find fault in our church. We treat church with a consumer mentality—looking for the best product for the price of our Sunday morning. As a result, we’re fickle and not invested for the long-term, like a lover with a wandering eye, always on the hunt for something better.”

(HT for video: K. Rabe)

Not Everything is Black and McWhite II.2

vince.jpg My short response is “ditto” (see previous post).

Maybe we should quit our jobs, grow long beards, build a house together, start a commune and require formal church membership of everyone who wants to join our commune.

I appreciate your thoughts on this question. Honestly, I think I would agree with everything you said. One aspect of membership that I would like to see done more effectively is fostering the ‘family’ mentality. I don’t know that I have any great suggestions for making this happen. I don’t want church membership to take on a ‘club’ or ‘fraternity’ atmosphere. I would like to see our churches lean more heavily on the family aspects of membership.

There is a church in the Chicago area that requires any prospective member to be recommended by the small group of which they are a part. Regular attenders at this church are encouraged to be a part of a small group. These small groups are the vehicle they use for accountability and life together. The small group leaders encourage the people in their small groups to consider membership. At this church you are not allowed to be a member without first being in a small group. I don’t know if I would take things that far but this process certainly reveals the community mentality of the church. Again, I don’t know if I would go this far but I appreciate their desires. I believe we need to work at correcting the business transaction feel of membership and make it into a relational or family adoption.

I am serious about the beards and commune thing…anyone else in?

Not Everything is Black and McWhite II

mcwhitew.jpgWe’re moving, this week, from the real to the theoretical.

Maybe a better way to say it would be that we’re moving from what is actually the case regarding membership in the churches we serve, to what we hope will one day be the case either in the churches we currently serve or in the churches we will one day serve.   So, let me kick off the discussion for this week:

Bryan: What do you think the best process for membership would be?

I’m going to assume that anyone who engages with my answer to this question has already read through my six posts on “Do You Need to Be a Church Member?,” because they explain in detail why I think local church membership is vital for Christian life and growth, and why I think local churches need to take membership very seriously.  If you haven’t read them and would like to, you kind find them here.  If you haven’t read them and don’t want to read them, but would still like to debate whether church membership is a good idea in the comments on this post anyway… well… your mom.

This is a fairly easy question for me to answer, because I’ve already seen a template for church membership that I intend to emulate and implement when and if I become a senior pastor of a church.  The process for membership at Mars Hill Church, Seattle, pastored by Mark Driscoll is nothing that is terribly original, but in my view it is right on the money in terms of how churches that take membership seriously should structure the process of becoming a church member.  Let me quote from their website on membership:

“Being a member of Mars Hill Church is really about being part of a family. Members who enter into a covenant with their local church are called to a higher degree of responsibility and service. At the same time, the elders and deacons are covenanted to assist members first and foremost, to love and lead, provide counsel and aid, as well as to pray for, teach, and guide.

I want to be a member: What should I do?

1) Start acting like one. Demonstrate your love for the church by volunteering.  Click here to learn about the ways you can serve at Mars Hill.

2) Make yourself known. Don’t keep your life to yourself. Join a Community Group and get with other Mars Hill folks to grow together in maturity, leadership, and love.

3) Get on mission. All prospective members are asked to take the Gospel Class to study and learn the essential mission of Mars Hill.”

The Gospel Class required of prospective members at Mars Hill is second to none in what I’ve seen:

“This 8-week class includes an overview of our church and our core values, with a doctrinal explanation of the Scriptures, God, Creation, Sin, Salvation, the Missional Church, Stewardship, and Spiritual Gifts.  This class explores basic, biblical theology and how this teaching plays out philosophically and practically in the way we embody the gospel to the neighborhood in which we live.”

In taking its members through such an extensive time of instruction, it can to so much more to ensure that the members of its church are on the same page on the essential beliefs, values, and mission of the church—something that is sorely lacking in the vast majority of evangelical churches today.

As MHC does, I would require prospective members to complete an interview with an elder or pastor upon completion of the membership class, in which they would be asked to articulate their ‘testimony’ of how Christ brought them to faith in himself, and they would be encouraged to invest in both a serving ministry appropriate to their gifts as well as a small group if they have not already done so.  Upon completion of the membership class and interview, the prospective member would be given the opportunity to affirm and sign the church covenant (I won’t elaborate on church covenants, since that’s next week’s question).

The names and photos of prospective members would then be published in the bulletin on the Sunday prior to the Sunday when the prospective members would be welcomed into membership.  During the announcements, I would ask the members of the congregation to peruse the list of prospective members and encourage them to inform an elders or pastor if they know of any reason (e.g. unknown persistent sinful behavior) why any of them should not become members at this time.

On the ‘membership affirmation Sunday,’ then, I would ask the members of the church (only) to stand, vote into membership the prospective members, and then together with the new members reaffirm the church covenant.  I would  hope, both in sentiment and in worship, this would feel like a joyful and warm time of celebration of God’s work in growing the body of Christ in our midst.

I suppose I should anticipate the objection that this whole process is just completely unrealistic and overly cumbersome.  My two responses to that are: (1) I take membership very seriously.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t require so much of church members.  But I do, so I will. (2) Mars Hill Church has thousands of members, all of whom have completed the membership process, and most of whom are 20- and 30-something formerly lazy, apathetic, postmodern, individualistic punk rockers, who nevertheless thought it worthwhile to commit the time and effort necessary to make membership at Mars Hill Church a special and biblical thing.  If it is manageable for Seattlites, it’s manageable for anyone.