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Series Theme: Characteristics of a Vibrant Church

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Vision for the Characteristics of a Vibrant Church


PART THREE: Majoring on Relationships



Content of this Part


3.1 Introduction
3.2 The Jesus Model
3.3 Walls to be overcome
3.4 Personal Testimony
3.5 Putting it into Practice




3.1 Introduction


We concluded the previous Part as follows: “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is quoted as saying, “Whom you would change, you must first love, and they must know that you love them,” and that followed the assertion that change is what church should be all about.


In the past I have known – and benefitted from – churches that were really just preaching platforms, and crowds came together from many miles away to hear the great preacher whose words truly brought life to the church but that, many of us would say today, is not enough.

I have watched churches for many years, often from a distance, and I am going to risk making an assertion that could threaten and offend but that is not my intention, but I will say it nevertheless: there are many churches where ‘attending church' is a pure spectator sport, and this prevents believers growing as the Lord wants them to, not only in knowledge and grace and character, but in gifting and ministry as well.

Yes, we stand up and sit down when required, we sing the songs and we listen to what goes on from the front, but little is demanded of us apart from that. This we'll pick up on in the next Part about allowing the Holy Spirit room in His Church, but for the moment I want us to focus on the need that we all have for relationship.



3.2 The Jesus Model


Jesus clearly had some obvious goals – to reveal the Father and His love and reveal and bring in the kingdom, and then to die as our source of redemption on the Cross. But Jesus was also training up his disciples to continue on doing what he had been doing (see Jn 14:12 and Matt 28:20 esp.) and it seems fairly clear that he trained them by having them live alongside him for three years, watching him and listening to him and learning from him. When he taught them, As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” (Jn 13:34) one has only got to see

•  how he tolerated Peter's ‘foot and mouth' antics, so often putting his foot in it,
•  the way he took on what were basically a bunch of misfits, patiently correcting them and accepting them,
•  even when he knew Judas would betray him, Peter deny him three times and James and John rant on about sending fire on those who didn't fit their prejudices and talk about getting leadership roles,
      so one cannot help but marvel at his loving grace and acceptance of them all.

Step outside the circle of disciples and marvel at the way he healed thousands and obviously would not have time to counsel them all. Watch how he ate with tax collectors and ‘sinners' and was just happy to spend time with them all. The Jesus' Model says Jesus loves us and accepts us just as we are, and yet loves us so much that he has something yet better for us. And if that's how he has loved us, that is how he instructs us to love one another.


However at the heart of that is that you cannot love someone in practice without being with them, getting to know them, listening to them, accepting them – and let them know you love them as Martin Luther King Jnr said – and to achieve this, especially the knowing I am loved bit – requires three things:

•  teaching from the leadership that this is what being part of Church is all about,

•  making it a fundamental foundation stone of the life of the Church, and

•  making opportunity for people to get to know one another and love and be loved.



3.3 Walls to be Overcome


Now if we dare be honest about these things, most of us either put up walls around ourselves or recognise, tolerate and do nothing about walls we see around others. Recognising these walls is a key requirement if we are going to make relationships of vital importance in our church. Let's be very simple and very practical about this. The following are some of the walls we struggle with.


1. Basics of Being a Redeemed Sinner


On one hand this Christian life is truly wonderful as we think about being redeemed, justified, adopted, empowered, sanctified, glorified, all of the good things we major on when teaching, but all the time our listeners are thinking deep within themselves, “Yes, that is great and all very well, but what about all the struggles that I am having to deal with that you clearly have no idea about?”


It's not a word that I've heard used in preaching but I believe each one of us is in some measure or other dysfunctional – we aren't the perfect beings God originally designed us to be. We rejoice that we are told that ‘in Christ' we are perfect in God's sight as far as our eternal salvation is concerned, but we know behind closed doors we get edgy, may get angry, don't always have the right words to say and so upset people, don't always have right attitudes towards the less-than-perfect people we meet, sometimes find our emotions ranging all over the place, finding doubt bearing down on us, fear piercing us and so much more.

It's a battle and on a good day we handle it but on a bad day, after a bad night's sleep, when we seem to have been struck down by a cold, bad food or whatever, grace is sometimes running a bit short. We want to be good people but every now and then in one of these ways we blow it, which is why the apostle John said, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ.” (1 Jn 2:1)


It's not the norm but the exception but here's the crucial point – we know what we're like but we're not sure how other people will respond to us if they found out what we're like. Because of this we feel defensive and can put up this wall that says, “Keep out, private property,” and so we struggle on believing this is how it always will be. But it's not, or at least it doesn't have to be!


But it's not helped by preachers who preach a behavioural message rather than an identity message. The behavioural message says this is what you ought to be (‘the Law'), this is what you to be doing, and results in much human endeavour, more failure and even more guilt. The identity message says this is who you are and what Jesus really thinks about you, and the resources he's given you, and here is what is available, and when that is properly conveyed, love flows – is received and transforms.


2. All Alone


A tendency I have observed across the church, is that of the individual feeling that there are cliques or groups within the church that are close knit and exclusive, i.e. the individual is not part of a particular group and feels excluded by them and isolated. The reality of isolation is not real often because there are probably others in the same situation. Now it needs to be said that these groups are quite natural and proper until they become ‘cliques' when they convey a superiority, a uniqueness of group, a feeling conveyed to those outside the group. The group may be leadership team, worship team, deacons, specific family groups, specific activity groups, youth groups and so on.


Now the reality of such groups is that each one has needs, activities, levels of grace etc., specific to that group. So, for example, parents of new babies, say, have all the pressures of new parenthood, sleepless nights etc. and hopefully get the grace of God to handle that. A contrasting group may be aging pensioners, who struggle with young children running amok, struggle with physical infirmities and the weakness and sometimes pain that accompanies old age and, again, hopefully get the grace of God to cope with those things. Both of these two groups have very real pressures in their life and the grace of God can come, as well as the general ability just to cope, in the form of loving interest from others outside that group.


To ensure this happens the leaders, in their preaching and teaching on say the body of Christ, need to bring these sorts of things to the surface and encourage the understanding of the body and their interaction with each other and with people from other groups.

The tension for leadership is to encourage the existence and experience of the individual groups, while ensuring there is ‘cross fertilization' across the church so all feel included and loved across the board. Mixing the groups up from time to time, perhaps only for a short and limited time, may give opportunity for sharing across the board.


3. The Environment of Transformation


In my lifetime I must have heard well over two thousand sermons and, yes, I am someone who holds the value of the sermon very highly in both communicating truth and convicting of sin, and yet I am convinced that although those sermons contributed to my belief system, it was not them that changed me but being loved.


Authoritative preaching (and authority comes when the man of God is one who has spent much time in God's presence and in His word) is the primary tool, I believe, for imparting truth and bringing conviction of the need to change. What this Part is about is in addition to that, and the bigger the church, the greater the need for this Part. The need for the individual is to be loved. So how do we create this environment of love?


Well obviously the first way is by preaching that is full of grace, that clearly understands the struggles we each face and, while bringing the challenge to change, shows that the way for that change to come is by realising that you are accepted by Jesus, just like you are, as we've already been noting.


The general answer to the defensiveness we referred to earlier, which hinders people coming out into the open about the failures or struggles in their lives, is to create an environment where these things are spoken of regularly and there is, if I may call it this, a blatant loving and acceptance of one another. Obviously, as we said above, it must start from the front but the person struggling with loss, bereavement or even pain, needs to hear more than words to overcome their feelings.


The problem is that we can hear words but unless the leaders reveal their vulnerability and difficulties, and clear and obvious loving acceptance of us, we will remain defensive and even the words of a powerful sermon can bounce off us.



3.4 Personal Testimony


I said that my life has been changed mostly by being loved. I have in mind three sets of circumstances that I went through as a church leader many years ago, that I think may have value if I share them here.


The first of these was when we invited some leaders from a nearby large church to come and take us through their Commitment Course. It was a very clear-cut package of teaching. As they applied them to us as leaders, I felt a natural defensiveness whereby I wanted to surrender to the word of God yet found myself excusing myself and justifying myself. The ‘in-your-face' approach simply raised a defensiveness in me. The Course didn't come with a sense that, “we love you whatever you're like”. After a couple of years we abandoned this ‘Commitment' Course and substituted it with a much simpler course that emphasised being loved by God and being changed by that love.


The second experience came about when we joined a large network of churches in the UK and abroad and started receiving input from a variety of apostolic and prophetic ministries. One of these was a more elderly husband and wife team, two of the most pastoral, wise and experienced leaders we have ever had the joy to meet. (We still see them every six months or so). They used to come to our church and conduct a pastoral and counselling weekend for the whole church. They used to arrive on a Friday afternoon and leave on Sunday evening. Now here's the thing: they insisted that first Friday evening was always for us, my wife and I, as the senior leaders. We ate together and chatted together, and they would ask questions about how we were and spent an evening listening to us – and they never ever criticized or judged us – and we felt utterly secure and were transformed by being loved.


The third experience happened a number of years later. This network used to have regular leadership training days, usually three at a time, and part of the practice over these three days was for there to be a prophetic team that was different every time, who would pray and prophesy over any leader who wished to come for ministry. On this particular occasion I had been going through some difficult and painful warfare times and was feeling a failure. Nevertheless I decided to turn up for one of these ministry times. You didn't share anything, you just received prayer and prophecy. My ministry team comprised some of the top prophetic giftings of the network and I was fully prepared to be taken apart by them. They prayed and prophesied over me for over fifteen minutes and from the first words to the last there was total love, acceptance and reassurance from the Lord and two seconds in, and for fifteen minutes, I was a sobbing wreck – and was transformed! Love transforms, judgment condemns.



3.5 Putting it into Practice


A Secure Group


If I may again testify about another experience that involved a particular ‘house group' I was involved with a number of years back, it might further explain where I am today. I have led many house groups over many years but this one was unique. Whenever I try to analyse the experience of this particular group (about 8 people) the one word that comes to me again and again is ‘security' and that security came about by applying a variety of principles which I will explain below.


Creating that Security


Our mission statement as a church started out by speaking of us creating a church that was “loving, caring and accepting” as caring and accepting are two vital aspects of loving and there are, I suggest, various things that need to happen in such a group to create a secure environment that is a vehicle for loving acceptance to exist.


The starting point in such a group must be to convey that each person is the most important reason for the group meeting. The potential for this being at the heart of the pastoral ministry of the church is great.


Such a group is not a Bible Study nor a Prayer Meeting although prayer and consideration of the Bible are likely to be part of the group being together. Many ‘house-groups' fail to create a sense of loving security because if you put prayer and Bible study before the individual, they will not feel loved and will not open up. When the group focuses on sharing lives together, if the following ground rules are applied, then real loving fellowship can develop and bring the possibility of life transformation in ways not found elsewhere:

i) It must be agreed that anything can be said within the group but whatever is said there must stay there.

ii) The things we covered under the basics of being a sinner need to be conveyed to the group, preferably informally, i.e. we're all imperfect, we're all alike, and we need each other.

iii) Also within the group we must convey that each and every person is important and whatever they are going through, we're there for one another.

iv) This must be linked to a sense that whatever they were going through and say, would not be responded to negatively, i.e. we would accept every person in that group as they are, and that means me accepting you just like you are and you accepting me just as I am (but we won't know what we are until we open up).

v) For the group to know that this approach is important, it must be backed up by prayer for one another and maybe even offers of help from within the group. i.e. there must be a response to our friends that is both spiritual (bringing them to God for His blessing) and practical (offering physical or financial help maybe). In accordance with Scripture we must not be those who just see or hear of needs of those close to us and ignore those needs.


To recap, when we genuinely convey that, then people feel secure and in that security they can be their real selves and share their real problems and real worries. It is at that point that accepting and caring really kicks in again. If I have a close friend (for that is what we become, knowing all about one another) and they confess to particular struggles then, in my caring for them, I will want them to know that I understand, I am there for them, and we are in no way judgmental about what they are sharing. ONLY in this sort of environment, I am convinced, will they feel free to genuinely share what they are going through.


These days my wife and I are part of a small home group in which we have worked to create this same open, secure but vulnerable environment – and it is wonderful! Within this group, family struggles are shared, and even past abuse has been shared and healing brought. It doesn't need deep counsel (although I do believe in that) but love. Love reveals, love heals.


A secure environment enables a hurting person to express it. Yes, the group will probably pray for the Lord to help their wounded friend, but actually prayers of understanding and acceptance help our friend more than anything else. When we pray like this, it is because we realise we are all the same, and next week it may be me sharing in tears, because that's what life is like. This is not to convey a picture of a group that is constantly navel gazing and pouring out their woes, but if there are woes there, they need to be openly acknowledged and accepted and the person loved and cared for and prayed over.


‘Fellowship' is all about being honest and open and secure and loving and being loved and receiving healing and blessing through one another. If you have never genuinely experienced this, then it may sound scary – the thought of others knowing you as you really are, but on the other hand it may bring a ray of hope to you, that there is something better than we so often experience. With tongue in cheek somewhat, I may suggest that others knowing what you are really like and what you are really struggling with, is possibly THE best motivator for their prayer life!



3.6 To Recap


Very well. In this Part we have:

•  thought about creating a loving environment that enables both growth and healing

•  considered how Jesus changed his disciples through relationships,

•  thought about the walls that we put up around ourselves as we:

•  try to cope as imperfect, redeemed sinners,

•  identify ourselves as different from people in other groups in the church,

•  need a secure environment to enable us to be ourselves,

•  observed personal testimonies of how love not rules has transformed the writer,

•  considered the goals and ground rules of home groups that become secure havens and enable genuine sharing, loving, caring, prayer and help to be brought.


The end result is an environment in which healing and personal growth can take place and the church itself grow and develop. We have based this on observation from scripture and personal experience from the past. However, so far these have been things that could simply make us a spiritual club. The biggest issue that transforms us into the supernatural people of God is the way we view and respond to the Holy Spirit and that is the subject of the next Part.