Acts 1-8: A Pattern of Spiritual Growth

What’s wrong with the church?
What should it be like?
What was it originally like, in the time of the apostles?

Have you ever pondered these questions? 
It seems to me that this sequence of three questions, or something like it, has probably entered every thoughtful churchgoer’s mind at some point.  When things seem to be going wrong, at least from our view, we wonder what we’re missing, and our thoughts go back to the early church.

Kenneth J. Stewart, an author to whom I am related, has noted that many evangelicals are looking to Catholic and Orthodox churches for more “authentic” or “original” experiences of Christian worship.  However, he argues that it is not tradition, form, or succession of leadership that defines the true church, but biblical doctrine.  Staying true to the authority of Scripture, the need for personal faith, and the practical living out of that faith is what has historically separated the true church from its variants.  Ever since apostolic times, there has always remained a stream of faithful believers who hold to these convictions.

Ok, but what would this look like today?
How can a church gather and worship, practically living out their faith in a way that is faithful to Scripture?

Many people look to the book of Acts for answers, trying to find a formula to follow, or a model to replicate.  Acts 2:42 might be the most popular verse to be used for this purpose:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Of course, this list of activities are to be recommended and practised by churches today.  But this verse was not meant to be a complete blueprint for the church of all ages.  Acts 2:42 is actually one of many point-in-time snapshots of the early church, as it developed.  Using this as a timeless model would be like trying to replicate Martin Luther’s lectures, John Wesley’s “holiness groups,” or the Azusa street revival in our present time without any regard for our particular context.  Moreover, viewing this point-in-time as ideal would be ignoring the process of how the church developed to that point, and how it developed from there. 

When you read Acts as it was written – as a narrative – you can see a fledgling group of Jesus-followers develop into a united fellowship, then into a mature organisation, and then into a global movement.  It is this pattern, I believe, which we have seen repeated in other places and other times over history; it is this pattern that we can hope to replicate in our own context, in its own way.

I’ve reflected further on this in a short sermon series.
Or, here are some brief thoughts, below:

Acts chapter 1 may be one of the most forgotten chapters in the New Testament.  Readers and preachers may be eager to get to the story of Pentecost in chapter 2 – but what led up to this?  After Jesus resurrected, and before He ascended, Jesus instructed His followers to wait for the Holy Spirit, Who would empower them for their mission (Acts 1:1-8).  So, the apostles and other followers of Jesus, numbering 120, gathered in an upper room to pray.  And as they continued to meet, we see something completely ordinary happen – they open the Scriptures, and seek God’s will together.  This, it appears, is the seed of the church – a “small group Bible study & prayer time.”  Before any public gatherings, programs, or missions developed, these 120 disciples of Jesus committed to meeting together, united in worship of their Savior and Lord.

How much effort to churches and church planters put in to attracting large gatherings?
Didn’t Jesus shy away from these sort of things, in order to prioritise time to disciple the few? 

He knew that He would never physically reach every single person – so He started a multiplying movement, commissioning His disciples to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).  And as the story in Acts continues, we’ll see how this worked.

In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descends, fills the disciples, and empowers them to proclaim the good news to a multicultural crowd in their own languages.  The result is an instant mega-church – three thousand new believers were baptised, having repented of their sins and believed in Jesus.  This is where we arrive at the famous snapshot in verse 42, mentioned earlier.  And certainly, it could be seen as a description of the pristine, ideal church gathering:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Devotion to Scripture (the New Testament is the apostles’ teaching), to fellowship, eating together/celebrating communion, praying – these, of course are essentials, and serve as a good model to follow.  But the description of this early church goes on – the church also had miracles, communal possessions, daily worship gatherings and meals, favour in the community, and daily conversions.

How did they have time for this?  What motivated them to such a courageous and committed lifestyle?
The closest I’ve come to this is youth group, where I was part of a community of people with a lot of time for each other, and a lot of energy to spend on behalf of others.
Acts 2 was a special time.  Pentecost had just happened, which was a one-time event, birthing a new era among God’s people.  It’s not that we shouldn’t expect these things in our church, but we must recognise this as a step in the journey – a journey that can be taken again and again by God’s people, but never exactly the same at every time or place.

By Acts 6, the church had grown by the thousands, and the apostles were beginning to bend under the weight of the practical needs that came with such a large flock.  Offerings were being given, and needed to be redistributed fairly – particularly to the widows among them.  The church had become culturally diverse since Pentecost, and conflict emerged between Hellenist and Hebraic Jews.  Note that at this point, the church is still basically Jewish – those are the people who had come to the Pentecost celebration, and that is the nation who had been awaiting the Messiah, Jesus.  But some Jews, especially those who were dispersed around the Roman Empire, had adopted some Greek customs and certainly spoke the Greek language.  It was these newcomers who were feeling neglected by the widow-relief program that had begun.

People complaining in a church about favouritism …sound familiar?  What to do?
This is a point where we see the church grow and mature as an organisation.  The apostles create a new level of leadership – a sort of middle-management.  The congregation nominates Hellenistic “deacons” or “ministers” to oversee this practical need, and the apostles affirm them, so that they can be freed up to focus on prayer and Scripture (remember how it all began?)  So the apostles keep the main thing the main thing, and the church is beginning to run its own ministries.  Finally we have a healthy, fruitful church…

And then Acts 7-8 happens.  Stephen, one of the new ministers, is martyred.  The church scatters.
All is lost…or is it?

Just as we can overly-idealise the organic, pristine, ideal fellowship of Acts 2, we can also fall into thinking that when you get to Acts 6, you’ve arrived – big numbers, functioning programs, appointing leaders – this is the dream of every church leader, right?

But what was their mission, again? 
Why did the Spirit come, again?
Acts 1:8 tells it pretty plainly:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Just when the church was getting comfy, enjoying growth, stability, and favour among the people, it gets scattered.  But as the believers scatter, they begin to fulfil the mission to which they were called in the first place:

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. (Acts 8:4)

And as the story continues, we see the gospel spread from Judea to Samaria, and the ends of the earth – embracing all peoples into God’s family.  We see that God saves people to send them; He calls people to commission them; He blesses people to make them a blessing.

In light of the whole story, we see the purpose of each step along the way.  The church begins with a gathering of worshippers; that grows into a thriving community; that develops into an organised ministry; and that multiplies into a global movement.
I believe we can see this process in individual people’s lives, as well as in the development of churches (see how Rick Warren described church ministry in The Purpose Driven Life, below).

Does it relate to you and your church?
If so, what stage might you be at? 
What step might God be leading you to take?

 

 

Is Your Church is Too Safe?

Just over a year ago, I was called by Parkdale Evangelical Free Church to join their family and serve as Pastor.  God had led me through a searching year of letting go of where I was and what I was doing – and now He had shown me the next step.  God provided us with a ministry calling, a home, and a loving community to join.  We moved on September 1, 2016.

Since then, people have often asked me, “How’s it going at Parkdale?”  I tell them that I am very grateful to be part of such a healthy, loving family of believers.  I appreciate that our gatherings can provide a time and place for people of various generations and backgrounds to unite in worship and warm fellowship.  It is a family that likes being together – whether it be cheering on their softball team, building homes in Mexico, or enjoying a barbecue lunch.  Parkdale is a community that I am glad to share about with others, and when they visit, they speak of it’s warm atmosphere.

Not long into my time as pastor here, a senior member of the church showed me a photo directory of Parkdale, from the early 1980’s – before the time that I was born.  What struck me most was not the odd hairdos, or the lack of ethnic diversity that are characteristic of that decade – it was simply this: that less than a handful of the people in this directory still attended the church!

This is not to say that there are no seniors at Parkdale.  Thankfully, we have a good cohort from that generation.  While some from the 1980’s directory have passed on to glory, there are many who have not.
So, where are they?

Some people leave.  It can be connected to a pastor’s departure – three have left since the early ’80’s.  It can also be for personal reasons – a crisis of faith, a personal conflict, or a new chapter in their life journey.  But, for every “leaver,” there is usually a “comer” – someone leaving elsewhere and coming our way for a similar reason.  So, what do we do when they come?

Some people move.  People don’t keep jobs and careers like they used to.  And when one member of the family moves, it can start a chain reaction, as others follow to support or be supported by living closer together.  And yet, Victoria is not de-populating.  On the contrary, Victoria’s population has grown from 64,000 in 1981 to 85,000 in 2016.  Over the same time, Saanich has grown from 78,000 to 109,000.  People leave and people come.  Are we reaching those newcomers?

This is where the conversation gets a little uncomfortable.  It is wonderful to enjoy and participate in a loving church family.  But times change, and people don’t always stay forever.  Therefore, unless new people are welcomed into the fold, it’s only a matter of time before every church will go extinct.  Fortunately, in Parkdale’s case, the departure of 90% of the people from the early 1980’s has not resulted in the extinction of the church.  It lives on!

What does this mean for us, today?

Well, for one, the church is not all about us – nor is it all about the people who are in it.  Just like a family, there is an understanding that we are living, gathering, and serving for others – for the lost who will be found, for the next generation, who will rise to take our place.

Second – safety, stability, and even unity are not our goal.  They are wonderful to have, but are fruits of something else, something deeper: a common mission of following Jesus Christ.  In church, there can develop a “Noah’s Ark” mentality, of creating a safe place to gather and visit – safe from the world and its evils.  But, pursuing safety leads to exclusivity, and stagnation.  We fear people who are different, who might hurt us or influence our kids badly.  We hesitate to try new things, or to be too generous.  We shrink back from doing anything together outside of the walls of our building – for fear of being seen, tested, and rejected.  And, as a result, the life is drained from the fellowship.

If, however, our goal is to follow Jesus, and to invite His transformation of our lives, then safety takes a back seat.  Jesus calls us to give up our lives and trust that He will give us a better, truer, eternal one.  Paul tells us that God’s will is our sanctification and wholeness.  He is working through all the challenges of our lives, to make us more like Christ.  As we give up our old lives, our new lives are being restored back into the likeness of our Creator.

This transformative journey can involve discomfort.  We may experience turbulence.  But, strangely, there is nowhere where we will find a deeper sense of safety than in our Heavenly Father’s arms; there is no more stability than in being part of God’s eternal plan; there is no truer unity than the fellowship of following Christ together, being one in Spirit and purpose.

Where have you experienced these things?  For me, it is when I know that I am in the centre of God’s will for me, exactly where he wants me, doing what He has created and called me to do.  Whether that be on an overseas mission trip, or feeding the downtown homeless, playing with my children, or praying with church members, there is safety, stability, and unity in following Jesus together.

What is He calling us to do?

Not long after I began serving at Parkdale, I invited the church to read a book together: Your Church is too Safe.  Perhaps the title turned some people off; but, evidently, the title attracted some – before long a group was gathering to discuss it.  The author, Mark Buchanan, had pastored on the Island for 17 years, and this was his 7th and final book – a last word, before he moved on to teach at a Seminary.  The book was full of stories – funny stories, inspiring stories, challenging stories.  Together, our group caught a vision for what church could be:

In the world:

  • Venturing into middle ground to meet people
  • Offering compassionate presence, not just money
  • Being hospitable guests, not just hosts
  • A fellowship of travellers, not tourists
  • Break down walls: free the captives

Not of the world:

  • Both attractive and relevant, by loving well
  • Utterly dependent on God, embodying faith
  • Full of grace and truth
  • Attractive and magnetic, unified community
  • Build walls: distinguish selves

Overcoming evil with good:

  • Transforming, not avoiding what is unclean
  • Reflecting God’s risky generosity
  • Turning the world upside down

Over the past year, it has been encouraging to see God at work among us at Parkdale, in some of these ways.

  • When an AA group asked to use our building, they were welcomed and accommodated.  We opened our doors, knowing that hospitality also means vulnerability.  What will come of this?  I hope and pray that our new friends will discover Jesus as the Higher Power.
  • When COBS Bread asked for charities to distribute their leftover bread, our people jumped at the opportunity.  Each week, bread is gathered, bagged, and given to those in need (even of just some cheer).  Gathering and bagging takes time and energy.  Distributing it takes courage.  What will come of this?  I hope and pray that it will create common ground with others and facilitate fruitful conversations
  • When I asked if there’d be an interest in beginning Freedom Session at our church, again, the response was positive.  This ministry will involve confession.  It will involve openness.  It will involve accountability.  But, I trust, it will open the door to healing and spiritual growth in our lives, and the lives of others who we reach.

Are we still too safe?  Perhaps.  Who knows what steps of faith Jesus will call us to take, as we follow Him?  How can our worship, our fellowship, our Daycare/Preschool, our homes, our jobs, and our social lives become instruments for His glory?

But I am grateful for the steps we’ve already taken together on this journey together.  Let’s be listening for His voice as we proceed.

 

Seeing People with God’s Eyes

I remember the fascinating and ground-breaking 1999 movie, The Matrix.  Neo, the protagonist, is living in an artificial reality – a dream-world created by robots who’ve conquered the earth.  Most humans have been reduced to dormant power-generators for their mechanical masters.  At some point, Neo is awakened from his slumber, and comes into contact with a few humans who have been liberated from the blindness to reality.  Their leader, Morpheus, enlightens him, beginning with the now-famous question:

“What if I told you everything you knew was a lie?”

Actually, no, he didn’t say that.  That line summarizes the main idea of the story, but much ink has been spilled in discussing and clarifying that this now-popular meme did not exactly originate in the matrix.  See discussions here and here and the movie clip here.

But this just strengthens the point.  Neo was deceived into believing in a false reality, and so were many of us.  I was one of many who, before writing this post, would have agreed that the quote above was spoken by Morpheus.  But it turns out to be a fairly common phenomenon – we often fail to see things as they truly are.

If there’s one thing I could say about Jesus’s teachings, it would be this:
More thank correcting our doctrine, deeper than cleaning up our behavior, Jesus is interested in completely transforming our entire worldview.

Jesus calls for repentance.  In Greek, the term metanoia literally means to change one’s mind.  We need to understand things differently.  When He says that He is the Light of the World, He means that He is the Source of truth, the embodiment of Truth, the One Who can reveal how things really are.  C. S. Lewis put it this way:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Many of Jesus’s teachings were difficult to accept.  He repeatedly turned people’s world upside down, affirming returning prodigals over self-righteous servants (Luke 15), affirming repentant sinners over prideful religious leaders (Luke 18:9-14), and assuring all that our reward from God is a result of His grace, not our work (Matthew 20:1-16).  He affirmed attentiveness over busyness (Luke 10:38-42) and indicated that earthy fortunes may be reversed in the afterlife (Luke 16:19-30).  In light of this different worldview, He began His Sermon on the Mount this way:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10)

Wow, what a different way of viewing the world!

Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that Jesus’s earthly brother, James, should teach along a similar vein.  In a previous post, I’ve already shared how James seeks to give us perspective in the midst of trials.  In 1:9-11, he reminds us that the current state of both rich and poor is transient.  Therefore, we should learn what we can from present trials, and realize that God is the solution, not the cause, of our problems.

Now, in chapter 2:1-13, James addresses a practical issue: showing partiality.  For those who hold faith in Jesus Christ, there should be no partiality shown.  Then, just as Jesus illustrates a deeper point by giving practical instructions on how to throw a party, James illustrates his point with instructions for seating at an assembly: do not distinguish between rich and poor when you gather to worship.

Why not?  

Because showing partiality does not correspond with the new reality that we see in Jesus Christ.  No doubt remembering Jesus’s words from Matthew 5 quoted above, James reasons:

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?

The truth of the matter is that the poor may actually be rich, and the rich might actually be poor.  As became quite evident in Jesus’s ministry, it is the “poor in spirit” who tend to receive the kingdom of God (His reign in their lives).  It was the Rich Ruler who rejected Jesus’s invitation, prompting Jesus to remark,

“How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! (Luke 18:24)

It is difficult because the rich are tempted to trust in their things, rather than God.  Their things might be financial savings, educational credentials, social reputation, dwellings, life insurance, etc.  To the extent that they give in, they are cheated from experiencing the joy of growing in faith through trials (1:2-4), and knowing God as the Giver of everything good (1:16-17).  in chapter 2, James is even harsher, claiming that it is the rich who oppress you and blaspheme the Name by which you were called (2:6-7).

After denouncing what is wrong, James points us to what is right: the “royal law” of loving our neighbour as ourselves.  Showing partiality is antithetical to this simple and all-inclusive law to love.  A person who keeps the whole law, but fails at this point is as guilty as someone who broke the whole thing (2:9-11).

So, what should we do?  James concludes with this exhortation:

12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Verse 12 summarizes how we are to operate in this world.  If we view the world through worldly eyes, we will operate under worldly laws of how the world works.  We will pragmatically show partiality, in order to win the favor of powerful friends.  We will judge others to raise our own profile.  But if we view the world through God’s eyes, we will operate under the “law of liberty” that sets us free from the trappings of backstabbing competition, working for everyone’s approval and grasping for security.

When we realize that “every good and perfect gift is from above,” and we receive His “word of truth,” we are “brought forth” as “firstfruits of his creatures” (1:17-18).  Born again.  New Creation.  Believing and receiving the truth makes us children of God – adopted into a new family, with a new identity.  Old lines of division are wiped away, and we are united together as we are united to Him.

When we operate under the “law of liberty,” we are putting our faith in Jesus Christ, who set us free from the guilt and power of our sin.  We are believing that “mercy triumphs over judgement.”

So, James says, if you view the world this way, then “so speak and so act” like it!  Show the mercy to others, that you’re counting on receiving from God!

 

Two Ears, Two Eyes, Two Hands, Two Feet, One Mouth

As a teenager, I took a trip to some northern First Nations reserves, where my youth group planned to work with a local missionary and serve the community there.  During a training session, our instructor shared with us a proverb from the local tribes:

You have two eyes, two ears, and only one mouth.

The point was obvious – we should approach the people as humble learners, earning the privilege to speak.  Jesus, in coming to earth as a baby, took His time to relate to humanity before beginning His ministry.  In fact, 90% of His life could be considered to be preparation!

As our Bible sharing & prayer group read through James 1:19-27, it seemed that James seemed to be describing us in a similar way, to make a slightly different point.  To James, the present concern is living a righteous life, or practising “pure religion” – and the way to accomplish this may be surprising.

19-21 – First, we are to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  Here, we’re reminded of how many ears and mouths we have.  Speaking quickly is associated with anger, which “does not produce the righteousness of God.”  What an understatement!  What a gentle, Canadian way of telling us what a bad idea it is to speak quickly, in anger.  Rather, we should put away evil, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”

This “word” is the Good News of Christ, Who lived to show us God’s love, Who died for our sins, and rose to reign over His followers, dwelling in them and working through them by the Holy Spirit.  In 1:18, James calls this the “word of truth,” which essentially makes believers reborn as a new creation, and a foreshadow of the great renewal to come.

While speaking in anger does not produce God’s righteousness, hearing the Word can save our souls, and make us a new creation – making us righteous in heart, and increasingly in deed.  But the word must not just be heard, but we must receive with meekness the implanted word.”  The Word must be humbly received, with a silent mouth, open ears, and open hands.

22-25 – But, having heard the word, which saves us, we must also be “doers of the word.”  Using our two ears should lead us to activate our two feet.  For James, this involves using our two eyes.  We are called to “look into the perfect law, the law of liberty,” and not just hear and forget, but respond with action, and be blessed.

James offers an analogy – if you hear without acting, you’re like a person who looks in the mirror, and forgets his own appearance.  This analogy is appropriate, because the law functions like a mirror – its purpose is to show us our sin, and our need for Christ.  But, James doesn’t just say “law;” he says “perfect law, the law of liberty.”

What’s the difference?  While the Old Testament Law showed us our sin and pointed forward to our Savior, James is here referring to God’s “perfect” law – in Greek, that word is teleios – meaning finished and complete.  Jesus fulfilled the law, just as He said He would.  In His life, He interpreted the heart of the law – that it is all about loving God and one another – and then He fulfilled it perfectly.  In His death, He paid for our sins, freeing us from the law which condemns, to serve in His grace. And having  resurrected, He reigns over all, living in us by His Spirit – to fulfil the law through us.  By faith, we receive Christ’s righteousness, and become “instruments of righteousness.”

This “perfect law, the law of liberty: (25) is the same as the “implanted word, which can save your souls” (21).  It is the good news of Jesus Christ which, when believed and received, brings us new birth (18) as a sort of firstfruits of the coming harvest – a redeemed creation, reconciled with God!  As John says in 1:12 of his Gospel account:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

And what is life, as a child of God, like?  Here, we go full-circle – having heard God’s word of truth, having looked into God’s perfect law of liberty, we are called to put the words into action.  For James, belief necessarily leads to action.  If belief results in a new birth, a new beginning, and a new identity, then a new way of life should follow: pure religion.

26-27Religion has become a dirty word in our language and culture.  It is often associated with rigid, restrictive rules that suffocate our lives and leave us feeling inadequate or worse, condemned.  But, strictly speaking, religion simply refers to one’s order, system, or way of life that flows from their beliefs.  In other words, it is faith applied.

James begins by asserting that anyone who cannot bridle their tongue, but rather deceives their heart – their religion is worthless.  Being “quick to speak” is associated with anger, and not with God’s righteousness.  Rather, righteousness comes through hearing and receiving God’s word of truth.

Then James delivers one of the most memorable phrases in his entire letter: That, in God’s eyes, pure and undefiled religion looks like this:

  • visiting orphans and widows in their affliction
  • and keeping oneself unstained from the world

Visiting orphans and widowsdo you know any?  You may or may not.  But, it might be more likely than you think.  In Biblical times, when there was no old age pension or social welfare system in place, people would rely on family  when in need.  Those who lacked family would hope that there’d be help in their community – especially their religious community.  Today, do you know anyone who has lost a spouse or their family?  This can happen through death, divorce, estrangement, abuse, etc.
How many people do you know, who’ve been through the foster care system, or through divorce?  They may lack a lot of the relational support that others may take for granted.  Pure religion calls us to give to others what we have received from our generous Father.

Remaining unstained from the world.  Here’s where it begins to sound really difficult.  Usually people tend to succeed at either the former requirement, or the latter.  It’s hard to do both!  While offering great compassion and understanding to those in need, we run the risk of falling into temptation – to conform to the lifestyle of others, or enable their unhealthy behavior.  On the flip side, by focusing on remaining “unstained,” we run the risk of being cold-hearted, aloof, and neglectful toward those in need.  We are saved to be sent; we are blessed to bless.  Pure religion involves holding your tongue, and offering a helping hand – while “keeping them clean”.

What could this wholistic religion look like?  Look to Jesus for an example.  And continue with me in this Letter by the Apostle James!

 

C. S. Lewis and “The Four Loves”

C.S. Lewis has written many books on many subjects, in many genres.  Often, people find his non-fiction writing to be too complex to navigate, or its context too distant to understand.  His examples from his contemporary world don’t always relate to today’s reader, and so they require a sort of translation.   Many great writers have undertaken this task – of studying and interpreting Lewis’ works, and applying them to the issues of today.  In many cases, this proves worthwhile, as Lewis’s writings are often quite applicable to issues that arise in postmodernity.

But, even for those who have not read Lewis or looked into his ideas with any great depth, the name Lewis carries an authority, perhaps unlike any other writer in contemporary Christianity.  If one can attach a Lewis quote to any claim, it provides instant validation.  Lewis is one of those few people who, after finding success in his given academic field (literature), became an authority in almost any other field – at least in the eyes of his followers.  Something similar could be said of Einstein (just look up what the famous physicist says about marriage, philosophy, etc.).

I grew up having the Chronicles of Narnia read to me and my siblings every summer vacation.  Their overall narrative allegorised the great meta-narrative of which we are all part; the plot and characters accomplished something similar to what the Bible’s narrative can do.  As a young adult, I worked through Mere Christianity, finding well-reasoned treatments of classic philosophical problems – especially concerning the existence of God.  Since then, I’ve tried to chip away, little by little, at his other writings.  I’m glad to say that, finally, I’ve finished The Four Loves.

Rather than formally reviewing it, and rather than picking out juicy quotes to share, I’d like to share what I got from it: a framework for understanding love.  Lewis did not provide a chart, like I have below; he followed his typical essay-format, progressively working through the topics in sequence.  Yet, as I worked through it, my systematic mind began noticing relationships between the Four Loves – how they were similar or different in various ways.  Below, I’ve attempted to express a few findings that have proved helpful for me:

Survival, Need
Involuntary Feeling
Possessive
Civilisation, Enrichment
Voluntary Decision
Disinterested
Indiscriminate
Not Exclusive
Giving
Unmerited
Unconditional
Affection” = Storge
-“Need Love”
– Natural sentiment, loyalty, familiarity
– Family care
“Care for”
Charity” = Agape
-“Gift-Love”
– Giving without self-interest; sacrificial without self-protection
– Divine source
“Love”
Discriminate
Exclusive
Pleasure
Merited
Conditional
Eros” = Eros
– Desire to possess
– Romantic attraction
“Want”
Friendship” = Philos
– Approval, appreciation
– Culture, camaraderie
“Like”

To me, the advantage of a chart like this is that it doesn’t rank them; like many personality tests, it simply expresses them as a combination of binary choices.  The Myers-Briggs test offers four binary choices, resulting in sixteen possible personality types; similarly, Lewis presents us with four possible Love-types, and I have attempted to identify the two binary choices.

Lewis begins with a discussion of Affection, coming from the Greek word, Storge.  In many ways, he rehabilitates this word, showing how essential it is for the survival and stability of humanity.  It refers to a mother’s care for an infant, and any person’s pity for someone in need.  Moreover, it can apply to any sentimental feeling, toward something familiar – a place, a taste, an old friend.  The difference between this and Friendship is it’s indiscriminate, involuntary nature; while friendship comes from approval, affection reflects a deeper loyalty.  For me, I can think of a few friends who have become like brothers – through our common experience, especially in my younger years, they have become like brothers to me; because of our common past, there is a sense of loyalty.  Though I may find others with whom I have more in common, or even for whom I have more respect, no one can share my past.  What about for you – what happens when you meet someone new, who has had a similar past, or who is from the same hometown?  Perhaps that feeling, that sense of brotherhood, is Storge.

Lewis proceeds to describe Friendship, coming from the Greek word, Philos.  Unlike Affection, it is discriminate, or selective.  It occurs where there is commonality – of opinions, values, and preferences.  A bond forms when people, who have identified themselves with certain interests and characteristics, find the same in each other.  Yet, also unlike Affection, it is not needy.  Lewis warns of how familial affection can become a “need-love,” when the lover desires to continue being needed.  In contrast, Friendship respects the individuality of the other, appreciating and reinforcing his or her unique qualities that make him or her worthy of appreciation.  I can think of classmates, teammates, roommates, and co-workers who have stood out from the pack because of their unique qualities.  A mutual appreciation formed, where we did not try to change or control the other.  Yet, Friendship can also move beyond this to become needy – to become Eros…

Eros, a Greek word referring to romantic, possessive desire, is fairly straightforward.  Like Friendship, it is conditional, and discriminate.  But, beyond appreciation, Eros involves attraction; like Affection, it is needy and possessive.  Family affection can involve an unconditional, but possessive care.  Friendship involves appreciation from a healthy distance.  Eros combines elements of both – a conditional attraction with a desire to possess.  Obviously, this can sound rather negative; indeed, conditional and possessive love can become ugly.  But, in light of its similarity to the other loves, Eros can have a positive outcome.  Essentially, it involves a desire to move someone from “friend” to “family.”  In my own life, I’m glad to have Eros in this assigned place.

Charity, (based on the Greek word, Agape) similarly, combines elements of Affection and Friendship – only they might be considered to be the positive ones.   Like Affection, Charity is indiscriminate.  The objects of Affection and Charity are not selected – and so the love must be unconditional.  Yet, rather than being based on the un-chosen factors of family and background, Charity is based on the un-chosen, un-merited love of God.  Charity is given to us by our Creator, because we are His creation.  This is often referred to as “common grace;” God shines the sun and drops the rain on everyone (Matthew 5:44-45).  Charity is also shown preeminently in the Son of God, Jesus Christ, Who died for the sins of humanity (1 John 2:2), so that we can be forgiven, and reconciled with God.  It is from receiving this love that we can love (1 John 4:19).  While sharing the non-selective nature of Affection, Charity also shares the disinterested nature of Friendship.  It is not needy, but enriching to the other.  While Eros and Affection desire to possess and be needed, Charity gives unconditionally.  Rather than arising from a felt need, Charity, like Friendship, is a voluntary decision.  Yet, unlike Friendship, Charity is not exclusive; Charity gives to all, equally.

Charity, of course, is impossible – humanly speaking.  I just performed a wedding where the couple chose 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 as their theme verses.  It gives a perfect, beautiful picture of what Charity/agape is.  Yet, as we read this inspiring vision of the perfect love of God, we are also made aware of how much we fall short of it.  These verses serve as a double-edged sword, serving as both an inspiring ideal and a condemning comparison.  

I actually once heard someone tell another person to insert their name in place of the word “love” in 1 Corinthians 13, and to use it as instructions for life.  Imagine reading that – while at first it may sound flattering or inspiring, deep down you’ll know it’s a lie.  At the wedding I recently officiated, I didn’t want to just leave the poor newlyweds with a set of instructions.  I wanted to assure them that there is good news.  Look what the apostle John, “whom Jesus loved,” says about love:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7-11)

In light of John’s words, how should we treat 1 Corinthians 13?
Try inserting “God” in place of the word “love.”  God is love.  Therefore, God is patient, God is kind…etc.

How does that change things?
We are made for love.  Loving God and our neighbor sums up all of God’s commandments, and Jesus’s special commandment to His followers is to “love one another.”  Pretty simple.  Yet, we are completely unable to do this, until we begin receiving His love.  We are not only made to love, but to be loved by God.  Only God satisfies the need that we feel, and once we find it in Him, we find ourselves loving others!

Augustine famously said in his Confessions,

“You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in You.”

Similarly, Jesus said,

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35)

If we are ever to love in the best way, we’d better get good at being loved.  We’d better get used to the fact that Christianity is not about what we can do, but what God has done, is doing, and will do for us and through us.  Jesus said that you cannot enter His kingdom unless you humble yourself like a child.  And this is how you become His child:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12).

Believe in Who Jesus is, receive His love, and it will transform you.
It will reverse the order of everything in your life, when you find that His love is actually the source of everything else you need to do.
It will re-orient your thinking, and make you a new person – a child of God, growing up to resemble your Father!

Easter Week: Remembering with God’s People

Has God done some great things in your life?
Does this have an enduring effect on your life, or is it too easy to forget?

Over the years, God’s people were called to remember the wondrous works that he has done” (Psalm 105:5).  Entire Psalms (105-107) were written to help them with this endeavor, as they sought to “tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done…that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God (Psalm 78:4-7).

Israel was called to always look back and remember their salvation from Egypt and entrance into the promised land – when they passed through the waters of the Red Sea and River Jordan.  The work was complete, and they were called to live in light of this new reality.  Likewise, a Christian is given the experience of baptism – as a milestone to mark the death of their old self and rebirth as a Christian.  The work is complete, and we are called to live out the new life that we’ve been given.

On Sundays at Parkdale, we learn from the stories of God’s people in the Bible – but we also invite people to share testimonies – to help us remember what God has done.  There are always parallels between our stories!  Yesterday, as the AA group met in our church building, I observed a similar dynamic – people being encouraged as others take time to look back and see how far they’ve come.

This Sunday, we enter the week of Easter.  I look forward to kicking it off with a celebration of the Lord’s Supper – followed by a Potluck!  Jesus instituted this special meal among His followers as a way to remember His body and blood – given as a sacrifice for our sins.  Just as Israel would slay a lamb at Passover (Exodus 12) to remember how God spared them from the plagues in Egypt, so Christians celebrate with the bread and cup to remember how God spared us from our sins – through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ (Luke 22:15-20).  But that’s not all – the meal is also a time to look forward to the Great Banquet that we will again enjoy with Him when He returns, to complete His kingdom! (Luke 14:15-24; 22:28-30)

May your Easter season be a time of both solemn remembrance, and joyful anticipation, in light of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Online messages available here.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All, by Gary L. McIntosh

Some years ago, as I began shepherding my first church, I ran into some challenges.  The church where I was called to pastor was not like the church in which I grew up.  My childhood church had programs, leadership teams, and a variety of social sub-groups.  My new church was like one, big, extended family, informally led by a few patriarchs and matriarchs.  In my old church, novelty was sought after.  In my new church, history was valued.  Understandably, there were some communication barriers as I sought, along with the church leaders, to discern God’s direction for our way forward.  It was during that pastorate that I was given a book called One Size Doesn’t Fit All.

After following God’s call to a new church, one of the first things the elders and I agreed to do was read this book.  I hoped that it would help create some common ground between me and them – that it would help us understand where we were as a church, and where we should be going.  I wasn’t disappointed.

The book uses a narrative form to express points about the difference between small, medium, and large churches.  Each chapter involves a conversation between a young pastor and an older mentor – who offers him advice about how church ministry operates differently at different stages of growth.

Small churches are defined as 15-200 in attendance, and comprise 80% of all North American Churches.  Their defining characteristic is that they are small enough to be single-cell: they have one pastor, and everyone can know each other.  They grow by attracting people into their warm fellowship, but insist on remaining consistent with the history and culture of the church.  Key families provide continuity in leadership, and members value their individual voice in decision-making.

Medium churches are defined as 201-400 in attendance, and comprise 10% of churches.  They are described as “stretched cell,” where programs, teams, and committees have been added, but are still connected to a single building and leadership circle.  They grow through operating successful programs, which are run by teams and committees that are empowered with authority by the membership.  Leadership is transitioning from pastor + congregation to teams, who move beyond history to present needs.

Large churches have more than 400 in attendance, and comprise the remaining 10% of churches.  Only 1% of all churches have more than 2000 in attendance.  A large church has successfully transitioned to a multi-cell model, involving multiple pastors, services, and/or locations.  Growth occurs through word of mouth – the “buzz” created by its increasing size and impact.  Leadership becomes more centralized in select, specialized leaders, and is driven by a vision for the future.

Must every church progress from small to large, in order to be successful?  No.  While growth should always be sought, it can be accommodated through church planting as well as church expansion.

Does growth happen by simply changing church structure, by acting like a larger church?  No.  The size-descriptions above are descriptive, not prescriptive.  Yet, as growth occurs, these structures and modes of operation should follow closely behind.  They describe what is necessary to keep a church running optimally and smoothly, in its given size.

Then, how does growth happen?  How does a small church become medium?  The author identifies certain barriers to growth in small churches, with corresponding solutions:

  • A small-church image can become entrenched in its identity.  In response, a new sense of purpose must be connected to their identity – As followers of Jesus, what are we called to do?
  • Fellowship can become ingrown.  In response, new avenues must be opened for outsiders to become insiders: classes, small groups, leadership positions.  Ministries run by individuals should transition to being led by teams.
  • Evangelism and Programs can become stale.  In response, encourage new initiatives, celebrate successes, and raise the profile of activities that align with the renewed sense of purpose and mission.  Develop a “star program” that your church can specialize in.

As a church nudges toward medium-size, which issues arise, and how are they dealt with?

  • Complexity makes administration challenging.  In response, develop a distinct identity and focus as a church.  Work on a long-range plan, and improve quality of ministry before quantity.
  • Staff, facilities, and finances become stretched.  In response, duplicate services and ministries in the same location.  Hire more staff, before people begin falling through the cracks.

Clearly, as the book title indicates, there are different challenges and solutions for churches of different sizes.  For me, observing my church’s situation, a number of ideas stood out:

  1. Leaders must be intentional – we would be wise to learn from the past, be grounded in the present, while always looking forward.
  2. There are different sources of church growth – attractive fellowship, ministry programs, and word of mouth.  As the author puts it, “add…divide…multiply.”  To some extent, all can happen at any size, but we can play to our strengths.
  3. When it comes to programs, focus is key – we must identify the gifts and opportunities that God has provided, and respond to His specific leading.  We are not called to be everything to everyone.
  4. For a church to grow, leadership must make room – new leaders must be trained and welcomed.  Authority must transfer from individuals to teams, and from an inner circle to a broader group who share common values, mission, and vision.
  5. It all comes back to our sense of purpose and mission – we are led by Jesus Christ, Who calls us to follow Him, and invite others to do the same.

Did anything mentioned above resonate with you?  What have you seen and experienced in church life?