I was attending a seminar where the speakers were instructing us on how to build a bigger, brighter, more attractive, contemporary church. I knew and respected the speakers and was diligently taking notes as I had done in the countless church growth seminars I had attended over the past 40 plus years.
While focusing on what was being taught, I was surprised by the following picture that grabbed my attention. I 'saw' this huge machine that straddled the whole width of a road. It was impressive! Wheels were furiously spinning, belt driven pulleys were whizzing, steam was belching from this strange looking object. It was a graphic picture of hyper activity. Then I noticed that people, including me, were being drawn as if magnetised by a power we could not resist into this huge hive of activity. The machine was demanding our time, our wisdom, our energy and our money, all of which was needed to keep it running. And while watching this strange vision, I knew it was a picture of the frenetic activity of many modern churches.
I then 'heard' two questions. The first, “How many times did Jesus use the word church”? I knew the answer was, twice. The second question, “How many times did Jesus use the word kingdom?” I didn't know the answer (but have since found out that it's something like 100 times). Also that the phrase, “kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven” is a common theme of the Gospels and could be described as the foundation of Jesus' teaching and mission. Then the words of Jesus came to my mind, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast used by a woman making bread. Even though she uses a large amount of flour, the yeast permeated every part of the dough.” (Matt. 13:33, NLT).
I knew from this unexpected vision that God wasn't telling us to abandon his church, but that our expression of it had to undergo dramatic change. We were being called to convert from man-power to yeast-power and to embrace a vision of kingdom life. Let me tell you what I mean by this and list some of the changes that have taken place in my life and in the life and ministry of our church.
For all of my pastoral life I have been encouraged by church growth teachers to have a vision for the growth of my local church. This vision, I was told, is a necessary building block that I as a pastor will need if I am to successfully build my local church. Since receiving the steam-belching-machine-vision, I have come to the conviction that it is Jesus, not me, who is the Builder of his not my, church. The second change has to do with our new vision, as well as our new style of evangelism.
We now 'see' that in Waikanae we are to be as yeast, possessing a pervading influence that will affect the whole of our region and every organisation where we have some input (knowing that a small amount of yeast can affect a large amount of flour). At the moment this includes two schools, some aspects of the business world, a counselling ministry, prison ministry, a child-care centre plus other places where we live and work. Our vision is now free from the secular vs. sacred dichotomy. We see everything as sacred and every employer or employee being an anointed kingdom of God minister in the place of their labour (and their places of leisure), sowing seeds of kingdom principles into their sphere of influence.
And we have also been freed from the pressure that says our influence has to result in the growth of our local church. We see just one Church in Waikanae meeting in different venues. Earlier this year I introduced five young teenagers to a local church youth leader so that they could join this church's youth group. Last year a Waikanae church took a brave step by leaving their history and tradition filled sanctuary and took their main Sunday service to a large public hall. We resonated with the step they were taking and decided to forgo our planned gathering and identify with our brothers and sisters by joining them for their inaugural meeting at the Memorial Hall.
Neil Cole, in his trailblazing book, "Organic Church - Growing Faith Where Life Happens", states, "If you want to win the world to Christ, you are going to have to sit in the smoking section." We have ceased to do stuff to attract people to our gatherings. The attractional aspect of church growth says, "If you bring a rabbit out of the hat this Sunday, you'd better be able to bring a hat out of the rabbit next Sunday” We're off that merry-go-round, believing the principle recorded in Acts 2:47b, "...the Lord (not the program, the music or the preaching) added to the church those who were being saved."
We now believe that the key to successful evangelism is relationships. Relationships built by sitting in folks homes or places where they hang out - coffee shop, pub, sports club etc - sometimes it's like the smoking section - and building genuine friendships that contain no hidden barb of expectations of becoming a Christian or attending church.
Open Home. Apart from getting together on Sundays, some of us meet in a home during the week with a small group of people who are exploring Christianity at different levels. You could hardly call these gatherings 'churchy' but we can testify to seeing the Spirit of God at work as lives are opening up to him. One of this group, on her own initiative, has started a weekly meeting with some people of her ethnicity, teaching them how to understand the Bible. Is this a small example of 'organic church - growing faith where life happens'?
Our Sunday gatherings aren't very churchy either. Have you ever thought just how un-kiwi, un-Aussie, un-whatever (un-churched Harry or Mary) can our traditional church culture get?. A wise missionary studies the local culture and learns what is offensive and acceptable. When this is learned he/she plans their evangelism and church activities accordingly. Why don’t we do this with our inherited church programs?
One surprising thing I have discovered is when a non-church person asks me, “Where is your church?” On hearing my description of where we meet and what we do, without exception their response has been absolutely positive.
Our journey of changed vision has been difficult yet gratifying and freeing. But the on going story of our pilgrimage is for later letters.