Local Church in a Virtual World


COVID has sent us through a roller coaster of restrictions in the last couple of months. One day you are struggling to get to church because you allowed yourself to watch a series late into Saturday night. Next day you have to stay indoors and stream through online Sunday service. Sometimes you hope they could cut down on some church events but you enjoy the freedom to be there. You go back to physical meeting before the next spike of infections hits and you are back to your Sunday sofa. I must say it’s quite a drain when everything else is also online.

But now we are in that phase where we can actually go back to the church building. There’s something with freedom that excites all of us even when we might not pursue it. We all want freedom to go anywhere any time even when we might not really be interested to. But for a country with a Christian majority who cherish the place of church community this is good news to many. So I’m quite eager to go back to the church building and meet up with the church family this Sunday. But I was just wondering whether this is a shared desire across the board. What’s the place of a local physical church in this virtual world?

The virtual world has brought the church into our living rooms. You’ve got access to some of the best preaching in the world and the license to lazy indoors on Sunday morning as we try to fight COVID. It’s really a dream come true for many for all kind of reasons, good and bad. You could say evangelistically this is a good thing as churches now must compete for the virtual space. But what becomes of the local physical church when the Global church is a switch away. What will motivate us to leave our homes, sometimes having to travel miles away to access a church with far less polished preaching and classy music?

If church is purely a preaching podium we really have no reason to leave the comfort of the sofa. Perhaps for us who think so highly of good Gospel preaching this is a reminder about the value of the church community. But if church was merely a community of like minded fellows with a performance in front then still that won’t get me off the couch. It’s easier to work that around my comfort. We can go mountain climbing in the afternoon, do Sunday lunch or better still do all that on Saturday for a lazy Sunday. That should challenge those of us for whom church is more of a social community club.

There’s a third category we easily forget, those who attend to serve for good or bad motivations. I’m an usher at church and I’ve got to say there’s a fulfilment that comes with seeing people welcomed well and everything flowing smoothly. So I don’t want to be hard on these guys. Actually statistics in this country will tell you volunteer members not preachers run churches. But without a community centered and influenced by faithful Gospel preaching there’s no life-changing basis for service. We may as well volunteer to serve in community humanitarian project.

For this reason I think these three arms must converge to get me out of the house. There’s a desire to hear from God as the Gospel is taught from the Bible. To sit and serve in a community lead and informed by the Gospel. The church community unlike a social club is not based merely on shared ideals and ambitions but a people built and informed by the Gospel. Service is not just for fulfilment or to earn points with God but an overflow of the Gospel teaching. And the sermon isn’t just a presentation or entertainment slot but a meal time for the Gospel community.

If we idolize any of these the local church will be in serious danger in our virtual world. Where preaching is all that matters then I won’t feel the need to bear with unclear and unpolished preachers when I could easily turn on the TV. And I will detest the local church even more when I have to serve and live among difficult sinful people. On the other hand, if community is all I want then soon I’ll find people who fit my ideology and they don’t have to call themselves a church. In any case I can stream services and catch up with friends later. And serving where the church isn’t built on Gospel preaching in a Gospel community makes no lasting difference. You might do more helping in an orphanage.

I would like to confess that I’m in the category that is prone to sometimes value good faithful preaching far and above Gospel community. Maybe serving comes second as a response to the Gospel. But such a view sees a Jesus who only made sermons and went home. It misses all the time spent with hard hearted disciples who would later desert, betray and deny him. And yet he died for them and went after them first thing after his resurrection.

I’m preparing to teach Exodus in the coming weeks and you can’t read Old Testament and miss how God values community. God’s people cannot merely be defined by preaching good sermons. God’s people are called into a Gospel community, to be a community set apart for God. The two go together.

5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

Exodus 19

The church is not a preaching class but a Gospel community set apart for God. But those who sacrifice good Gospel preaching for community need to be warned of another community that sacrificed the Saviour to keep the peace of the community. The value of community and unity though priceless for God’s people can also become a snare where Gospel Truth is not the foundation. And we cannot afford to sacrifice faithful Gospel preaching for a get-along society otherwise we miss why we exist in the first place. If we tread on that path then our high priests will soon crucify the Gospel to keep their positions.

49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

John 11

As we walk back to church my prayer is that we’ll go back joyous and thankful for this freedom. But also with a renewed commitment to Gospel preaching, the Gospel community and ready to roll our sleeves to serve the church family wholeheartedly. To be quick to listen and built up by God’s Word through the preaching and ministry of the church family. But also ready to be corrected and rebuked from the Gospel by the church community. We need the church family for our growth and sanctification more than we realize. And after spending a lot of time without meeting physically you can be sure we’ve picked up bad habits for our soul that need a gentle rebuke.

I pray the Lord will help us whatever our blind spots are when it comes to our view of the local church. That God’s Word will capture our hearts, minds and hands to serve God and his people without hesitation. I pray we’ll quickly move past bad habits picked up from the Livestream couch. To not expect to be served but to delight in serving others. To not only feed but also be a blessing to the church family. To not only complain but participate. To be quick to receive rebuke from our brothers and sisters in Christ and slow to take offence. That’s what makes the local church different in a consumerist world especially when we can get everything we want virtually.

Goodbyes

It’s painful to imagine that I may never see some of these dear friends, my church family and the place that has been home these last few years. At times I wonder if I know what I’m doing. I ask myself why things have to change.

But what a joy to know that this is not the end. It’s the beauty of the hope we share in Jesus. To know that though we are separated by distance we have an eternal future together. The blessing of our church family here is but a taster of our true eternal reality.

It’s an amazing hope that frees us to enjoy the blessings God gives us now and endure the challenges without worrying about missing out. After all, we have a whole lifetime together. An unending adventure with the God who made the oceans and carved the mountains.

I feel greatly privileged to know that as I leave family and my best friends behind I have family and friends waiting ahead. It’s such a blessing to know that wherever we go we have a family as Christians. The world though not our home is full of dear brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers and grandparents in our shared faith.

In the words of our dear King:

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. Mark 10.

So we really never say goodbyes as Christians. It’s more like see you soon when the Lord allows before seeing you forever in our shared eternal future.

#leavingfamilybehind #countdown

Get ready for your ministry job!

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When I started my Christian ministry training it was quite hard to explain to my family and friends what I was doing. To be honest, not many people know what I actually do except my frequent jibber jabbering here. And honestly, I would hate it for my identity in Christ to be reduced to a title.

But in my mind I expected I would do an apprenticeship then maybe get some formal theological training and like everyone else get some proper job. Say something people acknowledge and respect like a pastor maybe even a bishop, college professor or some title of some sort. Because in our world training equals getting a job and some title.

There’s only one title and it’s taken

But I was deeply challenged when I realised there are no titles in Christian ministry. If you like it, there’s only one title for our Lord and Saviour and then there’s all of us his servants. He is the head and we are the body as we see in Ephesians 1:

22  …God placed all things under his (Jesus) feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

We have no titles only opportunities and gifts for service.

Problem is though most Christians are happy to accept that they still believe there’s a fundamental distinction between the man who stands in front and those who sit listening to them. Which is not surprising because in our world those who stand on the stage are the real heroes and the audience better listen to them. The show is on them as the rest of us spectate. But it’s not the case in Biblical Christianity.

Yes, there are responsibilities in the church according to God-given gifts, opportunities and training but they are all for the sake of the one master, King Jesus, and for the benefit of his body, the church. The pastor is no different from anyone else as long as it involves building God’s church.  And the pastor is not doing more ministry than the man in the back row if they are a Christian.

A ministry for all

In the Bible, we see that God is building his church by his Spirit as a whole and he achieves this through his Word. It tells us that God is working in us, Christians, not just the man in front to build his church. And the church as a body is responsible for ministry as we hear and speak God’s Word to one another. We see this clearly in Ephesians 4:

15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4. 

I used to think that the pastor, “the Minister”, is responsible for the ministry and everyone else comes to receive or support them in this. But that’s not how the Bible sees Christian ministry, not it’s how the world works not God. It’s a man-made dichotomy and bureaucracy that no longer exists in the redeemed community of God’s people.

Those in the teaching ministry are not the bosses and everyone else a slave. They are but mere servants given the responsibility of equipping the church with the Word for the noble job that every Christian share in, building God’s church to maturity.

 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

Ephesians 4.

The Bible teacher or preacher whichever title they go by are like the man who mixes the concrete for others to do the building work. Their gifts and training are important and a blessing to the church but don’t make them the big dogs as is the case in the world. Rather they equip others with God’s Word and they join the church in building the body.

Get ready for your ministry job

This should be very liberating for preachers. Can you believe how hard a task it would be if you had to do all the ministry while everyone else cruises for the rest of their Christian life? It’s also very reassuring as all we need to do is make sure to equip people with God’s Word and then join them in building the body by speaking this truth to each other.

It’s great news for every member of the body as there are countless opportunities and possibilities to do ministry at work, at home and at the church gathering as long as we are equipped with God’s Word. You are the minister at home, at the office and at your friend’s party. And for this reason you should get as much training as you can from God’s Word.

It means we don’t go to the church gathering as we do a show, rather we go with our sleeves rolled up set for some building work. And we don’t need to wait until the pastor comes to speak to a colleague at work or our struggling neighbour. No, as long as we have God’s Word then we are fully equipped for all the opportunities God has laid in front of us to do Gospel ministry.

What a joy that the God of the universe would entrust us all with his most precious work, the job of his Son, the ministry of reconciliation. How amazing that all of us, Christians, regardless of titles have the one job that has lasting significance. For we all share in the ministry of our Lord and Saviour:

…And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5. 

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Worship beyond the church door!

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I recently listened to this song, My Church by Maren Morris and it got me thinking what Biblical worship means and doesn’t mean. You may need to check the lyrics and maybe listen to the song to understand where I’m coming from. I promise you will find it interesting and won’t fall away from grace.

But if you are not comfortable listening to secular country music then just read along and please tell me what you think.
Here are a few lines:

Can I get a hallelujah
Can I get an amen
Feels like the Holy Ghost running through ya
When I play the highway FM
I find my soul revival
Singing every single verse
Yeah I guess that’s my church…

(My church lyrics by Maren Morris)

Some of us might actually struggle to realize this is not a Gospel song or a church hymn. Perhaps it would pass the test in a couple of churches. But I found the song interesting not because it draws me to worship but as it warns me to be clear what worship is and isn’t about.

Some of you may have valid reservations about listening to this. It is a mockery of what church and worship are about and could even be termed blasphemous. But bear with me for a moment and please let me know what you think in the end. Perhaps I need to be rebuked for entertaining this thought.

In this song you have everything that would make a good “worship experience”: well-played music, a choir, and a congregation to sing along and you can be sure of many “hallelujahs” to this one. But one thing is missing, the one thing that defines Christian worship, God’s Word.

Worship as we see it in the Bible is a response in total surrender, submission, and reverence to God and his Word. It’s God’s Word that cuts people to the heart and brings honor to God through his people’s lives.

It is not a one day in a week affair but affecting all of life. In Romans 12 we are called to a way of life as a living sacrifice in response to what God has said in this amazing Gospel focused letter. This is Biblical worship:

1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:1-2

You cannot read those verses and think Paul has in mind just your normal church service. If so he has missed a lot that would be deemed essential for worship Sunday. He doesn’t even think about music when he talks about worship!

But far from it, the letter has bigger fish to fry. One day a week is too low a bar to define worship. He has in mind your Monday to Sunday, every day, all the time and all of life. Because a Christian is called to a life of worship when he turns to follow King Jesus.

God’s Word as the heart of worship
But it would be a big lie to assume worship is merely our response and outworking for God. As with grace, it is a gift and not something we achieve on our own even with all the right motivations to do so.

No, God produces worship in us as we submit to his word. Not even worship is our own doing but a product of our renewed minds by his word to do his will.
We see this in Romans 12:2:

2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

We can only worship God because of what he has achieved in us as those he has breathed new life in his Son. As he says somewhere else, Christians are God’s new creation made to do his good work:

10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2

It’s because of what Jesus has achieved in us, our redemption and reconciliation that we have become worshippers, that is, Christians.

And it is the work of his Spirit in us through his Word that brings out a life of worship instead of conforming to the pagan and religious life of this world.

What about the church service?
Back to Maren Morris’ song, if Sunday is just a tip of the iceberg that is a life of worship; why do music, the service, and all the liturgy matter?
To some extent, it doesn’t matter how we organize or sort our music as long as the heart of worship remains to be God’s Word.

I must not be heard as saying music is irrelevant but that it is not the heart or even the catalyst of worship, God’s Word is. Music is very helpful in echoing the truths of God’s word to each other and in response to what God has said.

Mostly I remember the songs more than I remember the sermon outline. But if we don’t have God’s Word at the center then we are not different from Maren driving down the highway with her radio on.

Most of us would enjoy a church service that has well-played music and a good choir but if I left without hearing from God’s Word and speaking this to my brothers, then I should never claim I was in church. At least not a Biblical church as we see it in the New Testament.

Is church just about the sermon then?
God’s word is the heart of worship and yet we don’t go to church as we do a school. Back to our definition of worship from Romans 12, we know worship has life in mind and the Sunday service should have people’s lives at heart.

We are not there merely to tell each other what a book says but to hear from God, encourage one another in this truth and share this life of worship together. Everything we do including music should serve this goal. If music competes or distracts us from this aim then we should be ready to cut it down or even cut it out.

In the rest of the chapter, Paul continues to talk about how church life and the body of Christ looks like and again he has in mind more than just the official Sunday service. He has every member in mind, each of us using our gifts to fully serve and build up one another not to compete with one another.

6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. Romans 12.

And as you read on it becomes perfectly clear that worship life flows beyond the Sunday service in your local church to your work place and community to how you live in this secular world.

When you clearly understand this then Maren’s car or my bicycle becomes a place of worship like anywhere else for a Christian.

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