AND SOME APOSTLES …

A call to recognise God’s master-builders in the Simple-church movement.

Man on construction site.
Man on construction site.

We are just about to have a much needed multi-story car-park open near the beachfront of our town of Yeppoon. It’s suddenly starting to take shape and is looking great. However, the spurt of obvious progress was no doubt preceded but a couple of much longer hidden stages.

Starting with the planners and engineers, who probably laboured over this for longer than the build. Then there was the clearing of the old site and the laying of sufficient foundations to support the visible, usable finished form.

The apostle Paul saw the Church taking a similar journey. Starting with the prophets labouring over the picture of what Jesus saw. This community in the earth that he would build, that “the gates (councils) of Hell will not prevail against.”

Then walking together with the apostles (the Master-Builders – 1 Cor 3:10), those with the gifting to actually see the thing come together, adding substance to the vision. Starting with the clearing away of the old and the laying of true foundations. Servants of Christ, gifted with patience and perseverance.

Both of these foundational gifts of Christ to his Church are “big picture” ministries (unlike the pastor and teacher and, to some extent, the evangelist, who are much more locally inclined) and Paul seemed to think that without them we would look in vain for the thing that Jesus was after. And in fact history has shown that without the big picture we finish up building short-term structures that the gates of Hell have a field-day with.

All of these gifts have been given to the Church until we rise to the fullness of Christ’s intent for his church. Without the whole five, and especially the first two, we are doomed to keep building structures that will never fully reflect Jesus nor hold the multitudes that are yet to come in.

SO WHY, IN THE SIMPLE-CHURCH SCENE, AREN’T WE TALKING MORE ABOUT THEM?

Especially when there are so many working among us!

Three reason’s I can think of:

  1. They are already among us – we just don’t often acknowledge them as such. Indeed most of those that I know don’t feel a need to use that terminology. They are not into titles and are much more focused on doing what they are gifted to do. Making disciples for Jesus and motivating and teaching the rest of us how to do the same. They shun unhelpful publicity and prefer to work in the background. That doesn’t mean, though, that their gifting is not recognised and sought after. They are simply not followed for their name or preaching skills but for the fruit they produce. We need, however, to up the game as far as our support for them because they are not meant to come begging and we owe it to them as unto Christ.
  2. There are elements of the simple-church movement who have a hard time with leadership. Having moved away from front-led church some are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Especially if they (i) have an underlying independence that has not been dealt with or (ii) have sat under the kind of controlling leadership that was stifling and needed to be escaped from anyway. The problem, however, is not “leadership” in itself. Leaders will and need to rise in every group. Indeed Christ has gifted them to us. Without them there is no movement but just an encamping around grievances, pet doctrines and “fellowship”. True servant leadership is to be embraced, honoured and walked with.
  3. A third reason is the perception that anyone who claims to be an apostle is self-serving and false. And the truth is that, as Paul discovered, some are. Some indeed seem to need titles (Reverend, Father, Pastor, Apostle, etc) in order to maintain respect for their ministry. To many though, such titles, though they may carry them, are unimportant.  They see such references as merely job descriptions and are more interested in the job. Which they are carrying out to the best of their ability, answerable first to Christ and then (if they are wise) to those they work among. They deserve to be recognised and appreciated.

Simple-church is for many a part of God’s movement of the church back to the simple, relationship-centred and easily multipliable model that Jesus birthed. However, unless Jesus is allowed to build, with the team of his choosing, it will be far from simple and we will end up frustrated and disillusioned. Paul wrote that “God was kind and let me become an expert builder. I laid a foundation on which others have built. But we must each be careful how we build, because Christ is the only foundation. (1 Cor 3:10)”  We need to have the same “kindness” toward the “expert builders” that God has placed among us. We will never rise to the fullness of Christ’s vision for his Church on earth without those that he has appointed to help us do so.

He has give “Some to be apostles…”  Let us acknowledge them, receive them, love them, feed them, and honour them. For the sake of Jesus and his Church.

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A BETTER GOVERNMENT IS ON ITS WAY!

stephenmichell-flickrIn all the political dramas going on I’m so glad that my first priority is to another Kingdom; and as much as I love Australia it is not my first priority and its Parliament will NEVER produce the kind of society that many of its citizens long for.
I’m looking forward to a Kingdom that will not have to get laws through a divided and verbally abusive upper house or lower house because it will not be based on the constant and continual enacting of loop-hole mending laws.
I’m looking forward to a Kingdom whose citizens will love each other, not because a law has been passed requiring us to treat each other with respect and dignity but because such attitudes are written in our hearts.
I’m looking forward to a Kingdom whose ruler does not have to guard his back or make deals with vested interests or hide his past or put down his opponents or feather his nest or look to the next election.
I’m looking forward to a Kingdom whose leader has proved himself by happily walking among us as a publicity-shunning servant, giving the outcast a future, embracing the lepers of society, giving women a voice and men a goal worth living for and their children a great destiny.
A leader whose back-the-front values were rejected by the leaders of the current system, a system that has not changed over the centuries and never will. A leader who did not recoil from death at their hands but who, by facing death, defeated it – and with it this world’s failed systems.
His Kingdom is growing in the hearts of millions across the planet, hidden and opposed (because it is counter this world’s culture) but ready to spring forth in its time.
And though to many it may sound like a pipe dream, it is, I believe, what we are longing for.
God is not finished with Planet Earth and will not allow His creation to go down the tube. He has a plan. We need to get with the plan. Whether we do or not it will (and is) happening.
Let your will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven. Amen!

THE GOOD WINE

‘And no one after drinking old wine desires the new, for he says, “The old is good”‘ – Luke 5:37-39

One of the joys I’ve had at the end of 2015 has been that of knowing that my kids, having outgrown the church fellowship that Esther and I pioneered 25 years ago, have each become part of fine_red_wine_picture_2_167120vibrant, outgoing churches in their own right. And as I’ve attended some of the Christmas celebrations of my kids’ churches over the past month, I’ve thought to myself, “Why wouldn’t you want to be part of something like this?” And I’m reminded of Jesus words (above) concerning old wine.

I never could understand that add-on. Jesus is addressing the Pharisees who want to contain everything in old lifeless religious patterns, old wineskins. And here he is seemingly complimenting the product of those wineskins. And of course he is right. If the fruit of the vine has been good and the wine maker and wineskins have done their job then the product will be ‘good’. That’s the aim of the good vintner.

It didn’t, however, start out that way. At one stage it was new wine in a new skin. And not necessarily very appealing to the taste buds. But, through a process of heat and fermentation and age, under the care of wise vintners, it matured and turned into a highly desirable product, one that you’d want to let linger on the palate and then come back for more.

However… no winemaker, having produced such a vintage, then proceeds to simply increase his product by adding new wine to it. That’s not how it’s done. What he does is start a new wineskin. With fresh grapes that will not necessarily produce the same tasting wine (the same hints of mulberry and subtle notes of grapefruit and old boot leather).

And it seems to me that no matter how ‘good’ a church fellowship is it will not get better by simply adding new people. Someone has to go off and start a new wineskin. And stick with the new wine through its unpalatable fermentation stages.

This is surely why Jesus’ church planting strategy centred on finding a new wineskin, a new ‘person of peace’, and kicking off something fresh in his home (Luke 10:5-9). With a disciple-making, apostolic type person checking in to see how the maturing process is going, making adjustments here and there, but allowing the new fellowship to find it’s own flavour and characteristics (hints of their own ethnicity and background and subtle notes of their housing estate). And in the end becoming so ‘good’ why would you want to leave? Why would you want to go back to immaturity?

Unless of course you’d caught the bug of wanting to create more wineskins and more wine.

 

 

GIVING PRISCILLA A LIFE

PriscillaBack in 2000 I commenced as a Prison Chaplain at our local prison, a bit raw and apprehensive in a strange new environment. This was at the old jail which was basically a load of cage-like open yards, each enclosing a lawn area surround by the inmates’ units. The yards were in turn arranged around a large open area containing the admin blocks. The chaplain’s office opened onto the open area.

One morning, only about a month after I started, I got word that a young guy wanted to attend our Bible study that afternoon, so I decided to go down to his yard and check him out. When I got there the guy who came to meet me was a young aboriginal guy, very effeminate, could have been a black version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I invited him up and went back to lunch and then awaited the afternoon study.

After five or six guys had arrived and were making a coffee (in those days we enjoyed such freedoms) I stepped out of the office to see where our new attendee was, only to be confronted with the spectacle of him coming across the open area accompanied by wolf-whistles and jeers from the surrounding yards. About ten metres from the office he whisked off his outer shorts and, waving them about his head like Priscilla herself, minced into the office. I shut the door and thought to myself, “This is going be interesting.”

Fortunately the guys already there where a bit maturer and welcomed him, making him a coffee. Then the question came.

“What does God think of gays?”

To which I replied, “It’s not a matter of being gay or straight. It’s a matter of whether you have a relationship with the God who gave you life.”

And that to me is the bottom line. There is a God whose first thought toward us is one of love, not one of rejection and judgement. “For God so LOVED the world that he gave …. (John 3:16). There is a creator who loves and then gives, so that He can enjoy us forever. For sure that relationship is on His terms. We need in response to drop our rather life-less independence and to get to know Him, learn to love both Him and His ways. But from His side there is nothing standing in the way.

He longs for relationship. He longs to bring Priscilla out of her desert … and give him a life.

LESSONS FROM THE STORM

There are thomalcolmwells.flickrse who would see the judgement of God behind every storm and flood but I tend to agree with Jesus – these things are often just a part of our fallen world.

That doesn’t mean that when Cyclone Marcia hit Yeppoon on the Central Queensland coast in February, carving a trail of destruction through the community, there were not lessons that could be learned. Jesus found lessons in the events and rhythms of life, and in the days that followed the storm, as I prepared for the Oikos Gathering that we were hosting in a few weeks’ time, a few lessons grabbed my attention as well. Here are three.

IN A STORM BIG THINGS COME DOWN!
Even things that have been a part of the scenery for a long time and that seem immoveable and permanent – they come down. Driving into or out of town in the hours and days that followed Marcia we marvelled at and lamented the power of a wind that was able to bring down huge trees and whole forests, root systems ripped out and trunks snapped in two. And looking over our fallen trees we felt sad that much that we have loved and appreciated had come down.

However looking over the structures that make up much of modern western church and political life we often feel sad and frustrated that they are still standing, seemingly entrenched in our culture, their root systems often drawing more from the world’s systems and culture than from the Spirit of God. We struggle to bless expressions of the church that we feel are actually a hindrance to the Gospel and to the emergence of true Kingdom life in our communities.

And sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that it’s actually our job to try to bring them down. So, instead of giving our attention to the establishing of new plantations we huff and we puff, with our Facebook comments, our prophecies and prayers and online petitions, with the hope that we’ll expend enough wind to bring it all down. And in the process often finish up breathing out the very spirit that we oppose.

A cursory read of the Book of Acts, however, should be enough to show us that there is a wind from heaven that even the most entrenched religious and secular systems of man cannot withstand. Rome fell once and its legacy, found in much of our church structures, will fall again. The Temple was destroyed and its lingering legalism will come down as well. The wind that blew so powerfully in Luther’s day will blow again.

Let’s quit our huffing and puffing and use our breath to breathe blessing over the plantings of the Lord that will rise up in place of the old, their roots deep down into Christ, their branches a gathering place for the world.

WHEN THE LEAVES HAVE GONE YOU CAN SEE FOREVER!
One of the most common comments after the cyclone was that, with so much of the foliage gone, you could see neighbours that you never could see before! Indeed, from our rear balcony we can see a prominent mountain that previously had been hidden from our view. And I was reminded of Jesus looking for figs on a very leafy fig tree and finding none. It was all show – lovely but fruitless.

I tend to feel that the days of a fresh wind of the Spirit will be days of exposure. They will be days when our façade will be stripped back and the affections our hearts made bare. In Psalm 84 the psalmist speaks of eternity running through our hearts. In other words, when our outer show is removed and our hearts made bare people should be able to see straight through to Jesus, unhindered by the foliage of our own shallow and short-term ambitions and plans. Under the leaves they should find fruit, the fruit of the Spirit of God, which is nothing less than a reflection of the life of the future and of the One who is to come.

And there is a mountain, the one that Ezekiel spoke of, that will rise in the earth and to which the people will stream. Right now it is hidden, certainly here in the West. Lord, send a wind. Strip us of our foliage. Let the world see Jesus. Let them see a wonderful forever.

YOU CAN LIVE SIMPLY AND ENJOY IT!
Five days without electricity forces you to live more inventively and more simply. That’s not to say that we were not glad to have the electricity back (as evidenced by my wife Esther’s embarrassing yahoos from the front lawn), but the culinary delights and dining experiences that emanated from the combination of our one-burner gas canister camping stove and our Christmas solar lights are a lovely memory. Of course those people who enjoy camping would have had no problems and already have many of those kind of ‘around-the-fire’ memories.

We live in the day of switched on, entertainment church. Professional high powered worship is a flick of a switch away. PowerPoint sermons mean you don’t have to open your bible – it’s up there, verse by verse, with a lovely sunset background. Or streamed onto your iPhone if you didn’t manage to get out of bed in time. And after a while it’s the easiest and most sophisticated way to go. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad but like all good things we can finish up so hooked that when the electricity crashes so do we.
Unless, like father Abraham, we’ve learned to love camping. Unless, by choice, we have supplemented the above with a love for the simple and the unsophisticated. The acoustic guitar and the hand drum. Or the silence. The “everyone has a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation…”, the two or three gathered, with Jesus in the midst.
And it may be that in the days ahead, as the Lord strips the church back – whether by storm or otherwise – from its dependence on mode and method, and brings us back to Jesus only, we will discover a joy, an inventiveness and a quality of Kingdom life such as we have striven for but not known.

No-one wants a storm. And I don’t really believe it is the Father’s favourite way of bringing change. But the Lord is on a mission. One way or another He WILL shake those things that can be shaken. He WILL flood the earth with the glory of Jesus. The Church is his instrument for bringing in the Kingdom and therefore judgement begins with us.

Let us not wait for a storm but let us embrace the simple. Let us give people a clear view of the eternal. Let us give our labours, not to bringing trees down, but to raising up new ones, rooted in Christ, their glory – His glory – covering the earth.

Thank you Marcia.

LEGISLATING RIGHTEOUSNESS? REALLY? IT WORKS?

Sometimes it seems that the main criteria by which Christians judge politicians is their stance on abortion and same-sex marriage. As if these were the major sins that bring down a nation. However if we look at the main reasons listed in Isaiah for the judgement of Sodom these sins get no mention. Instead “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.Ezekiel 16:49. Sins, I might suggest, that are often more associated with the right wing of politics than the left (indeed the reaction by the Right to Obamacare might well be an example).

Perhaps it is these more acceptable sins of a nation which assault heaven more and by the time the sins of abortion and same-sex marriage raise their ugly heads it’s a bit late. The horse has bolted long ago. And the task of turning it around is too great for even the most Spirit-led politician. Which raises real questions for me about the relevance of Christian engagement in politics.

I should say to start with that I don’t have a problem with Christians running for a political office as a way of serving the community. What concerns me is the idea that we can somehow bring about a more tolerant, caring and God-honouring society through legislation. I would have thought that the history of Israel under the Law is proof enough that righteousness cannot be legislated. Israel had the perfect law but the inherent self-centredness of their heart meant that they either flouted those good laws or turned their observance of them into a cause for self-righteousness. And Paul, in the New Testament, makes it clear that, no matter how good the law, that will be the result. Which is surely why the only reason that Paul gives for praying for government is that we will have a peaceful environment for the proclamation of the GOSPEL.

Because even the ‘law of Christ’ – love God and love others – can only be acceptably lived out of a changed heart. Without that change of heart we simply get religious observance and humanistic welfare (epitomised by the ‘right’ and the ‘left’?). So, while I’m sure that there is a place for us to raise our voices against some of the more glaring sins of our society, our major calling has to be pointing people to Jesus. We need to come to grips with the reality that for some time now we have lived in a post-Christian society. And without a major heaven-sent revival no amount of political intervention is going to change that.

I would suggest that our calling is NOT so much to pray Christian politicians into our political systems but to pray the prayer of Jesus which was that HIS Kingdom would come. Mitt Romney and Tony Abbott may want to restore ‘traditional’ values to our countries but the best of American or Australian values fall way way short of the values of the Kingdom. So if we choose those channels as the way to bring in righteousness I suggest that we will be very disappointed.

But not to worry. All is not lost for we have a glorious and powerful Gospel, as did the early church. With it – and without any involvement in the far worse political system of their day –  they turned the hearts of men towards each other, broke down ancient barriers and turned the heathen world of their time up-side-down. And surely we are destined to see the same – if we stick to the main agenda, refuse the path of politics and look only to Jesus.

HILLSONG OR STING FOR CHRISTMAS?

As an Australian Christian it almost seems un-Australian to not appreciate Hillsong and the wealth of inspiring and God-glorifying music that they have given us over the years. Given indeed to the world. I am just returning home to Oz from the Philippines where, on one Sunday night, I endured a three hour concert where 4 invited worship teams seemed to compete with each other in replicating as much Hillsong as they could manage, complete with the same stage and audience mannerisms that make up the usual Hillsong DVD. I don’t blame the guys back in Sydney for that, but it does leave me with concerns and questions about the nature of modern Christian ‘worship’. How much of it is true worship and when does it just become soulish hype. And a pleasant experience on the plane on the way to Manila only served to heighten my concern.

 
I’m a great Sting fan. I love his music style and his skill with lyrics. So how great was my joy to find his Berlin Concert, complete with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, as part of the Qantas in-flight entertainment. It was a fabulous concert, filling up my senses and having me at times in tears. I watched it twice and told my wife that I’d love it for Christmas. But here’s the concern. A month earlier I had been into our local prison to facilitate the Sunday services and the lads in the first session had the latest Hillsong DVD which we used for a couple of songs. I’d not seen a Hillsong production for a while and so I was suitably impressed with the whole production, the smoky blue effects, the crowd angles, the music style, so professional, so drawing. I enjoyed it, worshipped to it and thought of some teenagers I’d love to get it for.

Have you already got my drift though? I don’t have any doubt at all about the integrity of the producers of the video BUT … when you put together a team of amazing musicians, skilful writers and a brilliant audio and visual team you have to finish up with a successful product that has all the dangers of leavings its participants emotionally high but not necessarily engaged with God in a life changing encounter that continues after the lights have faded. Especially when churches all over the country see Hillsong as the benchmark and are trying to replicate their style, all in the name of a spirit of ‘excellence’. So the push for talent in the worship team becomes a subtle mini version of Australian Idol and the expectations of an entertainment-driven generation of young churchgoers are catered for and driven higher. And we confuse the results for worship that pleases God.

And here I am reminded of David trying to bring the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6), on a ‘new cart’ (driven by the spirit of excellence?) replete with a plethora of professional musicians and skillful music that would surely rival heaven – but God was not in it. Indeed it was not until this new thing stumbled and God’s wrath burned against Uzzah for trying to keep it going, that the participants, as earnest as they surely were, were even remotely aware that their ’worship’ fell far short of God’s measure of excellence.

What was missing was the blood (verse 16). God’s presence is not brought down by highly skilled (and sometimes unknowingly ego-driven) musicians and polished performances but is carried each day by New Testament priests (ordinary believers) who are dead to performance driven religion and who’s worship is more about service than singing. Such worshippers do not need a professional song-leading team every Sunday and are quite satisfied with a poorer but sometimes more honest worship session when they do get it. Indeed such a genuine mixture of sacrificial service and heartfelt singing makes a big noise in heaven whether it is accompanied by excellence or not.

So will it be Sting or Hillsong at Christmas? Hopefully both. I’ve no doubt that God raised Hillsong for His purposes. And just as David “served the purposes of God in his generation” so I trust will they. May they do it though through a pathway of blood.