Two of my favourite passages in all of Scripture are found embedded in two short epistles of Paul. But both speak to the same subject – the maturity of God’s people. And this is a deeply important topic to me, not just because I am a pastor, but because Jesus and the New Testament put it high on the list.
Of the two passages, the first is in Ephesians:
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (4:11-13)
One of the main practical reasons why I believe apostles and prophets are still needed and given to the church today is to help us reach the goal of a unified faith in Christ and becoming mature. That is what this passage communicates very strongly. Hence, the need for all five ministries (or four, if one sees the shepherd-teacher as one) to help us get to that goal.
The second passage is found in Colossians:
28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (1:28-29)
These words communicate very directly one of the passions of Paul. He obviously struggled with all the energy of Christ to present the saints of Colossae, and elsewhere, as mature in Christ. Something worth being gripped over.
But, unfortunately, few can grasp the calling of the body of Christ to maturity. Or as John worded it, the Bride making herself ready and prepared (see Revelation 19:7; 21:2). Simply stated, we are moving towards a day of unity, maturity and preparedness. I’m just not sure it had to take 2000 years to get there.
True, Christ is both the founder and perfecter of our faith. And we are called to a very Christ-centred and Christ-focused faith. But I doubt anyone would argue the responsibility we have to submit to the founder and perfecter of our faith. Hence, our calling to, ourselves, take ownership of moving towards maturity.
I think there are few pointers that can immediately identify whether we have begun to walk the path towards maturity in Christ or whether we are still land-locked within an immature state. These are very, very practical. And so I share three simple questions to ask ourselves.
1) Do we recognise that the church is relational at its core?
This seems simple enough, but it is absolutely foundational. Many have moved past a belief that ‘church’ is mainly an institution or a building or a specific day of the week. But, many times, we can fail to move beyond confession of belief to practical outworking, beyond what some term as orthodoxy and into orthopraxy.
What I mean is that we can easily get caught up in seeing ‘church’ as just another appointment on the schedule (or ‘diary’ for Brits). We can simply act as if ‘church’ is just another social club we have joined. So, to miss a gathering or to only see people every once in while, well, it’s all ok. Why? Because we see it simply as another scheduled appointment just like the eye doctor or workout at the gym. If we are tired or don’t feel like it, we bypass joining in the corporate gathering or purposefully meeting up with those in the body because, in the end, it’s not a big deal that we missed another appointment.
Please know I do not advocate legalism here. I abhor legalism, though sometimes it looks enticing to the eyes. But I believe that when we get a true vision of the relational nature of the church, the church as Jesus imagined it, we understand that we are actually a family together, a body deeply interconnected to one another. And people who understand that want to stay regularly connected to our own body and family.
Yet, if we are not family, if we are not called to covenant commitment with one another, if ‘church’ simply is just another appointment at another social club, well, we can take it or leave it. It really doesn’t matter. But I cannot envision that this is what Jesus had in mind when he envisioned the church. it’s not what he bled, died and rose victorious for. Just as he was relational at his core with the Father, so was the church to be relational at its core.
2) Is our only engagement with the body of Christ in church-scheduled activities?
If the church is relational at its core, then we should realise our main calling is not simply to join in during scheduled activities by the church secretary, or whomever. Church scheduled gatherings, training times, home groups, Bible study, prayer gatherings, outreach opportunities, youth group events, etc, are not bad things. I know I will continue to organise such opportunities as I am stirred by God and sense a need within our local church. But if our only engagement with the actual body of Christ is found in those activities, then I think it shows a level of immaturity.
I absolutely love these words found in the early church record of Acts:
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (2:42-47)
In those days there were no websites, no church bulletins, probably no regularly scheduled slot in their gatherings known as the ‘announcements’. But they were still purposefully gathering together on a regular basis, on a day by day basis. And I will bank on this being more than simply church-scheduled activities. They were constantly involved in each others’ lives.
So, what would we do if our leaders decided to cancel all church scheduled activities for the month of October? Would we survive? Would we freak out? Or would we continue to move forward into the purposes of God? If we don’t think we would survive, I think it shows a somewhat immature church. If we would freak out, again, I think it shows that we don’t understand the relational nature of the church and the importance of being a part of one another’s lives outside church scheduled activities.
So, when Jesus and the first Christians taught about ‘church’, it wasn’t to make sure we all attended church-ordained meetings. Again, they are not bad, even being a launching point into greater things. But Jesus didn’t imagine a people gathering one morning a week for an hour and a half and then another evening a week for another hour and a half, stamping it with word ‘church’ as a seal of approval. Jesus imagined a people who understood that we were called to be involved in each other’s lives on a regular basis, continually sharing life, gathering together in the smallness of two or three, and much more.
Sure, we all have busy schedules with family, work and varying extra-curricular activities to juggle, not to mention our children’s varying extra-curricular activities as well. This is a very real situation for many people. Hence, the call is not to join a monastery. But the call is to be the relationally-focused body of Christ that we see breathed across the pages of Scripture. The call is to be what Jesus imagined when he imagined the church.
Where is the best place to start in moving beyond church scheduled activities? As we see in places like Acts 2, the best place to start is in our homes. What an inviting place of hospitality. As a friend reminded us this past weekend, we don’t need to entertain, we need to be hospitable, which calls for us to be seen in the normal, ordinary life that we actually live. Quite beautiful.
And the best setting to start with in our homes is over a meal. There is something special about the home, one reason being that it is a place of family, and the church is called to be a family. And there is something special about sharing life around food, which is probably why Jesus gave us a meal to share in the bread and wine until he completes all things. Hospitality through food is a sure way to build towards the relational nature of the church. At least that seems to be a foundational practise of the saints of old.
Therefore, let’s move not just beyond the walls of our church buildings (if we have one), but beyond our church scheduled activities. And we might even find that we need to have a willingness to say ‘no’ to a church activity so that we might say ‘yes’ to the Christ-intended purpose of church.
3) Is our main question – What can the church offer me? – rather than the more mature question – How can I serve within the church?
I am glad I have never had to church shop. I have been in 4 churches since I became a Christian almost 14 years ago. But I have never had to church shop. But, even more, I must say that I am not a huge fan of the concept of church shopping. There is something so, how do I say it, wrong about such a mentality.
Now, please understand. I know that many of us move cities, move states, move countries, and there is a practical reality of finding a church body to connect into. We utilise the internet, we attend a few varying church gatherings, all to get a feel of God might be calling us to. It is a practical reality. But I believe that the mindset of church-shopping, as well as church-hopping, has a very unhealthy focus about it. Remember, I said a mindset about these things.
But what happens is that, as we attend the gatherings, as we get a feel of things, one of the major questions going off in the heads of many is, ‘What does this church have to offer me?’ I don’t believe that is the best question to ask, at least for those ready to move into maturity in Christ.
Listen, I believe it is good to look for a local church with healthy and biblical teaching, a church that is a solid relational community, a church that allows for the full gifts and full body of Christ to express themselves within the setting of gathered worship. I understand parents will consider solid opportunities for their children and other such things. But if our mindset is continually, ‘What can they offer to me?,’ I think it is a sign of immaturity.
This is part and parcel of our consumerist mentality, which took a leap into the church a while back now. So, we go to church to select a plethora of products that they provide for us not only on Sunday mornings, but also every day of the week. ‘I’ll take some of that and some of this, oh, and don’t forgot the non-fat latte at the coffee bar.’ Such becomes detrimental to the people of God actually growing up into maturity.
Rather, I believe a mature people will ask, ‘What can I do to serve the people of this church?’ And we might even ask that question with a willingness to serve in an area that does not extremely excite us, like on the cleaning team or children’s ministry (probably two of the more neglected ministries in the average church that does not have money to pay people to do those things). And we might join a church community that doesn’t seem to offer as much as the one down the street. But, hey, they already have 10 people on ‘staff’ and hundreds (or thousands) of people to draw from.
Think of the major move across planet earth (or at least the western world) if the people of God started asking what they can do to serve the church rather than what the church can do to serve them. I believe major transformation would take place, maybe even in a matter of weeks. We would start to see fruit bore in our lives like never before. Ripe and delicious fruit.
I can only dream of such right now…..
We are ultimately headed towards the high calling of maturity. We will get there one day. I hope it begins to unfold in a greater way before my days end. But we will get there. Why not change our thinking now and head towards the goal a little more swiftly today?