Is Church Renewal a Viable Option?
It is always dangerous to base an argument on an assumption—particularly one that you believe most readers would also hold to be true. In this case, the assumption would be that the church in fact is in need of renewal. Rather than compounding one assumption with another—assuming my readers see the need for church renewal—I will commence with at least a cursory argument that the church today is indeed failing in witness, redemptive power and missional integrity. If I am successful in establishing this groundwork, it will than remain my task to examine whether renewal is in fact the answer or if a more radical transmogrification is in order.
In simpler terms, is our response to a spiritually emaciated church to work for church renewal or does the answer lay in the creation of a completely new work? Is the church Jesus is coming for a redressed, made over, improved version of what we now see or is it going to be a re-creation in essence of the pristine church which conquered the Roman Empire within four generations of its inception? Ultimately it will be the readers’ challenge to weigh the evidence and decide whether to remain part of something—in this writer’s opinion—that has devolved into a deformed caricature of its original glory or courageously choose to become with others the church without spot or wrinkle that Jesus is coming for.
Most of Christendom today tends to measure the viability of the church by the number of persons attracted to it and the extent of activity in progress. If a church tends to have a continually growing membership base and offers an array of satisfying activities it is usually considered a healthy and successful ministry. Even if church attendance and programs were legitimate indicators of what constituted a God approved church—which they are not—the church in the West today would still be failing miserably. There are very few churches today that are maintaining growth patterns that reflect the increase in population for the communities they serve. The majority of churches today are demonstrating a decline in attendance and many are struggling to simply hold on to the buildings and presence they have.
The church isn’t failing today and in need of restoration because it isn’t attracting new persons to its programs. It is failing because it has abandoned most of its biblical and theological moorings and is therefore no longing functioning under the spiritual guidance and empowering of the Holy Spirit. The early church was never enamored with the idea of attracting new persons. They did not build “church” buildings in which to perform, entertain and build memberships. They had no seminary trained, professional clergy to conduct their services and lead them. They lacked every conceivable form of mass communications and printed materials with which to teach and train congregants.
The “success” of the early church was in the reality of the transformed lives the believers lived out in Christ. The world wasn’t attracted to a location, a building or to established activities and programs; it was attracted to believers reflecting Christ in every aspect of their lives. Those seeking out the church were desperate people lost in sin and all the ramifications attending it and beleaguered under demonic oppression. They wanted the peace, love and relationships evident within the body of Christ. They were in awe of persons who faced the same trials and tribulations they did but yet appeared to rise above the fray with joy and contentment much as Noah rose on the flood of old. They were drawn to those exhibiting hearts like Joshua and Caleb who looked upon overcoming odds as that which would bring them spiritual sustenance.
God’s eternal purpose has been to create a people in whom he would inhabit and thereby continually manifest his presence to the world. When God called Abraham he promised to multiply his seed exponentially and to take them to a Promised Land. Moses was led to build the Tabernacle to God’s precise instructions and to tell the people of God’s desire to live among them. It was God’s intent that the other peoples of the world would behold his presence in his people and be drawn to him. Everything in the types and shadows of the Old Testament points to the extraordinary fact of the incarnational reality of Christ—God dwelling among us, Christ in us the hope of glory.
Israel was a picture of what the church was to be—a people filled with the presence of God who journeyed unto completion in Christ. I spoke earlier of how the church is failing in witness, redemptive power and missional integrity. The church’s witness is principally to the resurrection of Christ and to all that appertains to it. This witness was not just to an historical event but even more to the incarnational reality of Christ within one’s own life. The true witness to Jesus’ resurrection is in how we deny self, take up our cross daily and follow him. This is what is meant by “lifestyle evangelism.” It is interesting to note that when the disciples were tasked with replacing Judas, the principal qualifier was choosing one who would witness to the resurrection. Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples were clarifying that they—upon receiving the Holy Spirit—were to become “…witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
The redemptive power of the church is in how it lives out its life in congruity with God’s purpose. It is God’s life within the church that is the essence of this redemptive power—the power to save. In order for this to be true there must be a “spiritual ethnicity” within the body of Christ. This is foreshadowed in the life of Old Testament Israel in how God commanded them to refrain from intermarrying with the peoples of the land they were possessing. In their case it was a literal ethnic purity being commanded. The anti-type for the church—a spiritual ethnicity—is in the purity of its composition in terms of true believers in Christ. The truth being told, most churches today are comprised of a mixture of persons running the gamut from true believers to outright Satanists.
The reason for this condition lies in how the church has redefined itself. Biblically the church is the community of the redeemed—those persons who are adamantly committed to follow, obey and serve Christ, whose wills are already utterly surrendered to him and who have stepped on that path of grace that leads to conformity to the image of Christ. Today, most churches function in an attractional mode of evangelism wherein they attempt to draw unbelievers to the church building where they hope conversion will transpire. The activity of the church gathered should not be for evangelism but for the mutual edification of devoted believers one to another as a working out of the priesthood of believers exercising their respective ministries. The activity of the church scattered should be witnessing unto the resurrection of Christ. Biblically and historically persons were not allowed to be part of the church until they demonstrated a change of belief, a change of behavior and a change of belonging. Because the church has thusly redefined itself, it has in essence forfeited its redemptive power in the world.
The church’s mission is to faithfully reflect the heart of God from eternity past, to fulfill his desire and purpose. Stated simply, what God has always wanted was many sons and daughters just like his son Jesus. This means embracing a soteriology that goes far beyond escaping hell or gaining heaven. This is speaking of persons growing up into the full stature of Christ. This is leaving behind the fundamentals of the faith and moving on to full maturity in Christ. This is all about being fully conformed to his image. Reflecting once again on the types and shadows in the Old Testament, it is clear that God’s goal with Israel was not simply getting them out of Egypt but rather with getting them into the Promised Land. Scripture clearly states that he brought them out to take them in. Phrased a little differently, without the full intent of entering the Promised Land, there would be no reason to be brought out of Egypt. The Promised Land is the type of the full stature life in Christ. When the church fails to proclaim this word, it fails to proclaim the full gospel of Christ and thereby fails in its mission before God.
The church today is not going to be revitalized through efforts to renew, rectify and restore. The only hope for the church is to become an entirely new entity through the forsaking of everything it has embraced that fails to reflect the truth, power and essence of Christ’s life. It will have to rediscover its true calling and purpose of God. It will have to be willing to reform itself into whatever configuration will enable it to function according to biblical mandates.
Man has always resisted total reconstruction choosing rather to simply make whatever minimal adjustments and realignments he could. The underlying motivation for this was his attempt to maintain as much control and sway over his life as he could. Man’s method is to put new patches on old garments, new wine in old wineskins. However with God this has never been acceptable. He demonstrated this through Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus—you must be born again! Paul made it clear in his Corinthian letter that becoming a Christian meant becoming a brand new person.
There are two words for our English word “new” in the New Testament Greek. The one word, “neos,” simply means a new version of something that previously existed. If I ask for a new (neos) pencil I will be given a preexistent object which is simply later in time than the old one it is replacing. The other Greek word for new is “kainos” and refers to something original, not only new in time but in essence, something that has never existed before. When Paul told the Corinthian believers they were as Christians brand new persons, he used the latter Greek word “kainos” to indicate the awesomeness and quality of their regenerated lives in Christ.
This is the same sense in which the church must also come into entirely new life in Christ. Attempting to identify and tweak what we believe to be the debilitating problems in the church is not going to be effective. To begin with, how would you proceed in weeding unbelievers out of the local body? Any effort in this direction would only serve to create incredible disruption within the body and result in a dismal witness for the church to the world. The only solution is for those followers who by revelation see the truth of what the church is to be to amiably separate themselves from the institutional church and choose to become the church Jesus is coming for.
I have presented many concepts in this article which admittedly have not been fully developed nor supported. However, everything talked about here is treated in depth in my just released book, The Last Church Standing: Becoming the Church Jesus is Coming for, available for purchase on this website. In the book, I take you through the biblical, historical and theological basis for becoming the Last Church Standing including practical insights from this author’s experience on taking steps in this direction.
Remember, the simplest definition of the church is … “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20 NKJV). Neither numbers nor programs nor denominational proclivities constitute a church. The church consists of those who are all in for God’s purpose and who function ecclesially according to his design. It is my prayer that your heart will be ignited with the awesome possibility of becoming the church God envisioned from eternity past and that you will be filled with the courage of Caleb and Joshua who saw the impossible as that which brought them spiritual sustenance.