A Challenge to Rivers and Lakes Presbytery at Her First Gathering
Rev. Jeff Moore,pastor
First Presbyterian Church,Aurora,IL
Before I begin, I wish to give some disclaimers. First, I am no church expert or missional guru. I’m a pastor of a 152 year old church. Second, I’m never satisfied with how things are, and because I’m not. I live with the constant agitation that the church can and must do better. If we are to be better, we must be more faithful and more obedient than we are now. Third, I am convinced that we have an amazing and fresh opportunity to be a presbytery that is truly outward focused.
Now to some demographics. The combined population of the states that currently comprise Rivers and Lakes Presbytery is 26,867,898 people. The combined population of the churches that currently comprise Rivers and Lakes: 2534. I’m no math expert either, but my calculator tells me that we total up to just a shade under one one-hundredth of one percent. Yet this is a target-rich environment.
Paul Borden, a Baptist who is a missional guru and author of Hit the Bulls Eye and its follow-up Direct Hit, takes a picture of the opportunity out there. Borden notes that a mere 17.7% of our population attends church regularly. (That’s less than 535,000 in our four states combined.) Where do they all go to church? Well, 9.2% (more than half of the 17% go to evangelical churches. Another 5.5% are Roman Catholic. And 3.1% are mainline. The average congregational worship attendance is 124 people.Read More
But these figures are shrinking. Three thousand congregations die every year. And offsetting that, 3800 new congregations are planted each year. But that doesn’t account for population growth. We would need 10,000 new congregations a year to equal population growth.
We’ve got to make a decision:
Is the church of Jesus Christ a missional entity?
Is the church of Jesus Christ an organization with a mission?
The way we answer that question defines how we see ourselves. If the church is first an organization, then all of the following will become more important than the mission.
History and tradition
Order and information
Organizational structure and politics
Significance and survival
Many of us know what it is like to be part of a denomination where these things vie for superiority over the gospel. A church who has allowed these things to cloud the mission of the gospel is a church that has lost its way.
Now these are important ingredients of the church. They bring us stability, they garner our energy and direct it toward specific do-able tasks; they endow us with learning from the past and so protect us from similar mistakes in the future; they bestow on us the wisdom of our spiritual ancestors; they help us to become thoughtful Christians able to discourse with thoughtful people who do not yet know Christ. But if this is ALL that the church is, then I don’t want any part of it.
If the church is first God’s missional entity to reach a lost world with the Good News of Christ, then we will be willing to risk even these:
History and tradition
Order and information
Organized structure and politics
Significance and (even) survival
Let’s try to phrase a working definition of missional: I would say that to be a missional presbytery is: “to live out the reality that the church is God’s created and chosen and empowered entity to spread the gospel!” If God has called us to this, then how do we plant/become that kind of church?
I believe that the Apostle Paul has asked (and answered) that question ahead of us. In First Thessalonians, Paul writes a letter intended to edify the church. Paul is writing to a fledgling church only a few months old. They have newly adopted the Christian faith with its moral tenents. If we listen to Paul’s letter we will find that God goes ahead of us in this process. It is the gospel that creates the church. The church at Thessalonica existed because of the gospel. We of Rivers and Lakes Presbytery are here because God came to us. Let’s listen to Paul:
To the church of the Thessalonians
in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace and peace to you.
We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers.
We continually remember before our God and Father
your work produced by faith,
your labor prompted by love,
and your endurance inspired by hope
in our Lord Jesus Christ.
We know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you.
because our gospel came to you not simply with words,
but also with power,
and the Holy Spirit
and with deep conviction.
You know how we lived among you for your sake.
You became imitators of us and of the Lord;
in spite of severe suffering,
you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.
And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.
The Lord’s message rang out from not only Macedonia and Achaia—
your faith in God has become known everywhere.
Therefore we do not need to say anything about it,
for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us.
They tell how you turned to God from idols
to serve the living and true God,
and to wait for his Son from heaven,
who is raised from the dead—
Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
Here in the opening of Thessalonians we see that the gospel creates the church. We are here because God came to us. Paul can write to the Thessalonians with confidence because they are God’s church. Focus on the first four verses and we see that the church as a community that derives its strength and stability (not from agendas and by-laws) but from Christ (v.1:1b) Ecclesia: the called out ones is a common word for assembly; this assembly is in God the Father and Jesus.
“In?” That’s an important word! Jesus said that the disciples are “in” him as branches are “in” the vine (john 15). Paul says that the limbs are “in” the body (1 Cor 12), We the people of Christ’s church are “living in,” “drawing our life from” Christ himself! Christ’s church was located in the city of Thessalonica but it was living in rooted in God. The church is in Christ. We can sit together in this room because we are branches in that same vine.
But Paul’s progression does not end there. The gospel creates the church AND the Church spreads the gospel. Every church lives in God and in the world! This is a great reminder for us—for it is from God that the church derives its life, strength, and stability. An outward focused church is a church that is redirected. It has turned its attention from inner obsession to outward mission. It seeks to model Christ. It faces outward to our fellow human beings. A church that is from God redirects resources and energy to those who are not yet among them.
Look again at verse 3. The church is a community which is distinguished by faith, hope and love. Therefore the church is OUT-going. John Stott in his commentary on Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians writes: “Faith is directed toward God, love toward others (both within the Christian fellowship and beyond it), and hope toward the future, in particular the glorious coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Similarly, ‘faith rests on the past; love works in the present; hope looks to the future.’ Every Christian without exception is a believer, a lover and a hoper (not necessarily an optimist, since ‘optimism’ is a matter of temperament, ‘hope’ is a matter of theology). Faith, hope and love are thus sure evidences of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Together they completely reorient our lives, as we find ourselves being drawn up toward God in faith, out toward others in love, and on toward the Parousia in hope. The new birth means little or nothing if it does not pull us out of our fallen introversion and redirect us toward God, Christ and our fellow human beings.
A missional church (a real church) is not only outgoing, it is active. It practices faith, hope and love. Faith works! True faith leads to good works and “without works faith is dead,” said the early Apostle James. Love labors! Love without labor is mere sentimentality. Labor is not a light word. The word labor denotes “either the fatiguing nature of what is done or the magnitude of the exertion required.” Hope endures. Hope looks to the coming of Jesus with patience and conviction regardless of hardship. Calvin comments on verse 3 with its faith, hope, and love by saying that this is “a brief definition of Christianity.” Not only of Christianity, but, I would hope of Rivers and Lakes Presbytery.
This active, outgoing, Christ-centered gospel mission can only happen if we are willing to be obedient and healthy as individuals, churches and a presbytery. Do we agree that our mission is to make disciples—or not? Do we believe that the church is God’s chosen vehicle for that work? If we do then we need to shore ourselves up in three areas: health, prayer and accountability.
First health. Unhealthy presbyteries cannot produce healthy congregations. I’ve only been with you since last April and I’m still in recovery from the trauma of my past ecclesial life. I’m looking forward to a day of spiritual restoration when doing church is no longer a matter of “us and them.” But I know that even we evangelical, orthodox, reformed congregations can get caught up in dysfunction and disease. I don’t want us to become an evangelical presbytery that goes about our work in a diseased way. We need to proceed with a measure of caution. Just because a church or pastor is looking for a new home and they are evangelical and Presbyterian does not mean that their new home is here. Rivers and Lakes Presbytery is not, nor should it become, my old presbytery under a new name. Let us be healthy. Let the Scripture and the Spirit wash over our business!
One of the joys in my short term in Mid-America Presbytery has been to see a healthy body conduct its sometimes tense business passionately, faithfully, with love and respect. We disagreed with one another about pastoral ordination and gender. We are now past that hurdle, but we don’t want to lose the ability to disagree, perhaps on other subjects, in a loving and healthy way. Rivers and Lakes must continue that heritage. I’m so glad, as Jeff Jeremiah reminded us, that our officers are also our friends.
Health begins by admitting disobedience and sickness. In the Lausanne white paper “Missing Peoples: The Unserved One-Fourth World: Especially Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims,” S. Kent Parks and John Scott write on pages 3-4: “Christians still give only about 1% of our money to Christian causes. Of that money given to Christian causes, 95% is spent on the church. Less than 1% is used for the 28% of the world without access to the gospel. 90% of missionaries work among the 33% of the world without access to the gospel. 90% of missionaries work among the 33% of the world that claims to be Christian. Only 2-4% of Christian cross-cultural witnesses serve the 28% who have almost no practicing Christians.” How much money and ministry do our churches devote to unreached people, lost people?
Health sometimes requires tough decisions. What are we willing to risk to be the mission of Christ to the world? What are we willing to risk to spread the gospel? From the same Lausanne white paper (p. 4) “Many writers have illustrated the truth that lost people often reject our trappings for the gospel as opposed to rejecting Christ. Jesus is so hidden in our cultural and theological wrappings (including materialism, phariseeism, denominationalism) that they don’t seem to have any chance to hear the basic gospel. One of the main challenges in reaching the unreached is being willing to let go of our ethnic and Christian cultural baggage as we struggle for a standard of only biblically necessary truth in sharing the gospel and seeking to make disciples of the unreached.” We as Rivers and Lakes Presbytery need to guard and promote and doctor our own spiritual health—because only then can we forget about ourselves enough to place our major focus outward—where it belongs. How can we do that?
Prayer. A common phrase about prayer is, “When we work, we work, but when we pray, God works.” With much prayer comes much power to fuel gospel ministry. Prayer is our declaration of dependence upon our Sovereign God who leads his people in ministry and mission. Without prayer we cannot hope to succeed in this business.
In Acts 6, when the early church found herself in crisis regarding the neglect of Greek-speaking widows in the daily distribution of aid, the apostles called a congregational meeting. They needed to solve the problems of friction among Christian people groups due to the growth of the gospel. In their rationale for appointing the seven Greek-named Christians to care of this burgeoning new demographic in the fellowship, the apostles give us a formula for the advancement of the mission of the church. They say, “We will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). Prayer and the ministry of the Word. We must preach the good news AND we must pray. We must speak to others the only message of salvation AND we must speak with the One who saves. We must speak the gospel to others AND to the Gospel-Giver. Prayer is essential for the increase and advancement of the gospel. Rivers and Lakes Presbytery, may we preach AND may we pray.
Accountability. Presbyteries must model accountability. Our Presbyterian governmental system (oh, those insider terms) decrees accountability. That’s why we teaching and ruling elders are not at home or in our office today. You are sitting here. And we’ve got to do that about three times a year. It’s in the EPC Book of Order. We the pastors and elders of Rivers and Lakes Presbytery must model accountability: not only in allocation of resources to reaching outward and church planting, but also in spiritual submission and accountability to one another. Not only are we front-end gate-keepers of accountability (you can’t join us as a spiritual leader unless you meet certain criteria), but we must become a true company that pastors one another through the work of accountability. That means we must get involved in each other’s lives as colleagues, as friends, mutual mentors. I need colleagues and friends to hold me accountable to my church, to Jesus Christ, to my wife, to each other, to the ministry of the Gospel. I need to have my brothers and sister mess with my junk because they love me.
This is not just for our own good. Pastors and elders must model spiritual accountability for their congregations. At First Pres we no longer ask elders to chair committees. In stead we equip them in peacemaking and reconciliation. We are praying about where God is leading us in this. This first step has led us to ask: Where is God at work in our city? Where is God at work in Hispanic ministry? We must reclaim a spiritual shepherding function of eldership through preaching and teaching and equipping so that we become able, willing, even driven to outward focused ministry.
And that’s just the first 4 verses of Paul’s letter. Let’s look at verses 5-10 because that’s where Paul begins to tell them what this gospel that they are so ably proclaiming is all about. The Gospel came to you (verse 5). The gospel came in word. The gospel is a word and words matter. That’s why I am speaking to you in words and you are listening to my words and Carolyn is writing those words. Jesus himself in John 1 is called “The Word.” Words matter. The gospel also came in power. It came in the divine power of the Holy Spirit who infuses the preaching of the gospel with power to turn a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. Notice that the Word and the Spirit are always together. We know from Ephesians 6:17 that the Word is the Spirit’s sword. The gospel came to them (and to us) in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who fuels all of our efforts to reach the lost. It is the Holy Spirit who fills, illumines, guides and transmits the power of the Gospel. We did not receive the gospel by our own strength, nor do we send it out on our energy alone. It is God’s Spirit working in us and through us and sometimes in spite of us because “God so love the WORLD . . .” So we can preach and teach and work and pray with full conviction: the confidence that it is God himself who energizes his own powerful word.
Indeed the Gospel was received by you (verse 6). For the Christians at Thessalonica, that word came during suffering. We find no particular explanation of that suffering here. But in that suffering the Thessalonians “welcomed the message with joy a joy given by the same Holy Spirit who energizes the gospel. The Thessalonians didn’t even have the whole Bible yet. But they became an imitation of Paul and therefore an example to all.
How long did the Thessalonians get themselves organized until they were ready to share the gospel with outsiders? Days? Months? It wasn’t decades! In the very next verse we read, “The Lord’s message rang out from you . . .” It “sounded forth.” The Greek word here is execheo which means echo. To sound, ring peal, or boom. We see execheo used of bells and trumpets and thunderclaps! The gospel, when preached, makes a loud noise. “Your faith in God has become know everywhere” (verse 8). Paul celebrates his Thessalonian brothers and sisters with the words: “Your faith has gone everywhere.”
We too, the elders and pastors of Rivers and Lakes Presbytery, can sound forth execheo as missional leaders. We can sound forth in the usual ministry basics: know our context, remove cultural barriers, build cultural bridges to the unreached: Missions 101. But this is why we exist.
So why should we do it? Why should we find a way to be the missional presbytery of the EPC?
Not because it is our duty—though it is.
Not because it will bring eternal life to many—though it will.
Not because we want to grow as a presbytery—though we do.
Not because we will be rewarded—though we will.
We disciple the nations, the 27 million in our boundaries, because Jesus Christ is worthy to receive their honor, glory and praise! To him be the glory.