19 August 2008

Church: Building, People or Team?

“Church” as defined in the Bible is not a complex organization. The leadership are few (elders and deacons), its purposes are defined very broadly (preach the gospel, disciple believers, minister to the poor) and the administrative processes are abbreviated (whatever you agree to on earth, God agrees to in heaven). Under these general guidelines many different “versions” of church have developed none of which represent the New Testament pattern exactly. I wouldn’t accuse any particular “church” of being completely wrong but it might be fair to suggest that we have all missed the point to some degree.

If we are going to get “church” right we must consider carefully the words and actions of Jesus. He introduced the idea so He sets all the precedents. Understanding “church” from His perspective should be our primary objective. So, the question is, what did Jesus say and do?

Jesus actually taught that a church doesn’t require more than two or three people to be operational. That means “numbers” is not a limiting factor. It can grow to any size and has authority to begin functioning even if it has only two members.

Jesus, of course, exemplified what He taught. The church He started began very small. His group ministered to thousands regularly but the recognized number of members was only thirteen, including Himself. Other believers accompanied Jesus occasionally but they were never named as a part of the core group. When Jesus wasn’t around, the “occasional members” were on their own.

Following the resurrection and before the Day of Pentecost the group had grown to approximately 120 people. Within days, however, beginning on the Day of Pentecost, that number began to increase exponentially.

Persecution arose within a year of Jesus’ ascension which precipitated the geographical spread of the Gospel and many churches were established throughout nearby regions even among Gentiles. His church started small, grew enormously and spread widely.

As far as we know there were no buildings associated with the church during these early years. Jesus bought no land and built no buildings. The first few generations of Christians met in homes or places commonly used for public meetings. But, in spite of this fact, the “church” was fully active and very effective. The church was first known for being mobile not stationary. They were fluid and in a constant state of flux. This is how Jesus ran His ministry and His successors followed suit.

At some point all that changed. Church authority structures were developed (canonized) and became obsessively restrictive. Buildings (cathedrals) sprung up and became central, also restrictive. These things strangled the church that Jesus started. In-fighting and power struggles were the result.

After many centuries, however, (since the dark ages or before) we finally figured out that “church” is more the people and not primarily a building but I’m not sure we have gotten back to where Jesus was yet. Jesus and the people He ministered with had a rare relationship. He and His disciples were never loosely arranged.

I believe Jesus managed His church start-up very differently to the way we do ours. He wasn’t anxious to increase His membership. He took His time before choosing the first group of twelve and following their selection, He worked primarily with these men. He taught them ministry by example and then sent them to minister on their own. They gained practical experience dealing with high pressure situations, all of which were fruitful.

There is no indication that Jesus maintained a regular schedule of theology classes. Jesus focused more on relationships and practical experience rather than theological minutiae. When Jesus took the time to do some teaching or answer questions the disciples had no idea what He was talking about and Jesus spent very little time trying to rectify that. When He did try to explain, they still missed the theology of it. They were constantly whispering their confusion to each other behind His back.

The strange thing is, at the end of three-plus years of ministry the disciples were still missing large amounts of technical information. Most of the New Testament hadn’t been written yet and the individual who wrote the largest portion, Paul, didn’t become prominent for many years. So, what did Jesus teach these guys? What was He training them to do? How much “theology” did they really absorb?

Well, I am certain He didn’t give them a “Ten Steps To Getting Started Right” pamphlet.

They apparently got very little eschatology until the end of Jesus’ ministry (Matt. 24-25) and what they got left them confused.

He let them know that they were always vulnerable to the influence of Satan no matter how close to God they were or clever they became (Matt 16).

Other things Jesus taught went right over their heads and stayed there for years to come, e.g., Gentiles can and should be saved.

Jesus spent a great deal of time actually testing their commitment and messing with their thoughts. Good theology would have been a waste on these men until they first realized how wrong their thinking was.

And, in the final moments of His ministry Jesus made it very clear that one of His primary goals was to teach them that ministry is done best when the ministers actually love one another. How wussy is that? That almost seems like anti-theology and the truth is, none of these men qualified as theological experts when Jesus ascended into heaven. Apparently it isn’t the most important issue. So what was Jesus trying to do with these men?

Truth is, we aren’t given a lot of the detail of the private or public teachings of Jesus and some of the teachings we did receive are still the focal point of many arguments, as to what Jesus meant and how it applies (e.g., Kingdom theology).

So what did the disciples take away from the ministry of Jesus? My opinion? They learned the importance of team and vision.

They probably fussed and fought a bit while ministering with Jesus but they stayed together.

They failed in front of each other regularly (how embarrassing!) and by that, they learned acceptance and humility.

They jockeyed for position and sometimes wanted the last word and through that, they learned deference and developed the ability to recognize the importance of every position.

They competed for the approval of Jesus but in the end they learned to trust and rely on each other. They never seemed to get the theology right even when Jesus painted a picture in living color. But, when everything looked bleak they banded together, even when they were wrong, because that’s all they had left.

Jesus developed a group who were captured by vision not spiritual trivialities. Vision transcends individual preferences and leverages personality friction into productive energy. Engaging the vision diminishes personal differences.

That is to say, the beginning stage in developing the first church was the framing of a team with a vision; not a crowd, not a gathering, not a class room and not a place.

Before the first disciples managed ministry they learned to interact and talk through their differences. This proved to be critical later on when they had to settle theological questions not answered specifically by Jesus, e.g., circumcision, Acts 15.

Therefore, the most important first step in building a church is establishing a team, with a common vision, who will work and lead together, trusting each other enough to agree to disagree and get on with the task. Team members share the same vision and care about each other. Splitting theological hairs is not a function of team.

That’s why we don’t need more than two or three to function as a church. Teams don’t need to be big to be teams. The smaller the team, to begin with, the easier it is to formulate a vision.

That’s why Jesus started with only twelve.

That’s why the New Testament uses very little space to articulate our goal (preach the gospel to every creature) and a great deal of time encouraging us to “love and defer to each other” (the whole New Testament).

That’s why Billy Graham and three other significant people could form a team that would last fifty years and impact an entire world.

What we are called to do is symbolically referred to as “moving mountains” and only a well-formed team can do that. Individuals can become prominent. Only teams make a difference.

The “team” concept is not usually emphasized in church gatherings, or theology books, because a very important point is missed, Jesus also gave Himself for the church (team). Next time you observe the Lord’s Supper make sure you include a team emphasis. Jesus gave Himself for the individual sinner so each one could become a team player. When you say the word “church” think “team” (synergy, 1 Cor. 3:9) and remember that church is a strategy as well as a sanctuary. ThinkAboutIt


Anonymous said...

just like children and God's promise that his word would not return void, Jesus taught his disciples wisdom before they even knew they had it. That is what the Church is to do teach, and develop others to grow in this same stature that they can multiply the love shown them. (eph 4)

EnnisP said...

Good thought Anon. Jesus taught the wisdom which only sunk in later just like parents with kids.

Tim said...

I like the concept of small teams doing great things. But it's scary too because it means committing to a group of individuals and becoming part of the 'whole' rather than being an individual. Not to say that the individuals talents and personality are not valuable to the team but there is a sense in which certain aspects of the individual are surrendered for the greater benefit of the team. That's hard.