Seeing the Problem
I WAS HAVING AN OUT-OF-BODY experience. I was standing near the foot of the cross witnessing something beyond words. My mind could scarcely take it in. I was stunned. Afterwards, I was barely able to stand but I couldn’t sit. I felt frozen, unable to speak, but couldn’t stay silent. I was shaken by what I’d seen. I saw a scene where the mantle of Christ was descending from Jesus as he hung on the cross. The mantle enveloped a team that was gathered at his feet. The garment, a seamless robe, represented the anointing of Jesus being given to those he called to become apostles. (More on this vision later.)
When I was a young man, I began to experience the call of God on my life. I knew that I was being called to preach God’s word. I turned away lucrative career offers to devote myself to that calling. I gained a good education for ministry by attending a four-year college where I studied Bible, church history, theology, and missions. Even before that, I began to prepare myself for this call by reading the Bible, devouring and absorbing it, often on my knees, and by spending much time in prayer. I soaked up good, anointed teaching. I learned from great preachers. I was raised among believers who experienced many gifts of the Holy Spirit. But as far as knowing about apostles and prophets, not so much.
The day I realized the Lord was restoring not only the gifts, but also the offices of Jesus to the church was a momentous day for me. I soon learned, not everyone thought that way. Dispensationalism had produced a bias. I am convinced that Jesus is restoring apostles and prophets today. This is transforming the church’s structure. It is happening now, in our lifetime.
In this book I will lay out some contrasts between the organizational church versus the organic New Testament church. As you read, please understand that these words are being written by a man who has devoted his life to the church. I’ve believed in it, labored for it, and sacrificed for it. My whole family has been part of a saga that sometimes wasn’t pretty or edifying. Through it all, we learned and grew.
I’ve been in almost every kind of church. I’ve been in congregationally governed churches, churches with boards or deacons, churches with superintendents, bishops, and overseers, and churches run by local elders. I’ve served in churches that were about to die. I helped save some others from dying. One church, I helped disband and bury. I’ve planted churches from scratch and I’ve helped transition churches into life in the Spirit and adopt new wineskins. I’ve been voted in as pastor and I’ve been put out by the denomination. Because I carry scars that I earned while serving the church, I can speak to this issue with authenticity. Despite it all, I love the body of Christ and I love God’s people everywhere. They are his sheep!
This material isn’t theory, it is our reality and we face it every day. Either we give in to tradition, live with frustration, or we overcome our fear and face a better future. Assuming you want to learn more, let’s dig deeper. First, I need to lay some background by describing the dilemma the modern church is in. As you read, you may think I am laboring the point or that I’m critical of the church. I’m not critical. I love what Jesus loves. But I don’t like what we have made of it. So, I am making my points thoroughly because doing so is needful.
Think about it—if there is no problem needing to be solved, then let’s keep doing things the same old way. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
My goal is to prompt questions—to make you think. I need to ask about the elephant in the room. One elephant we ignore is the American church’s lack of evangelistic growth. Elephant number two lurking in the room is the perpetual immaturity of believers. Elephant number three is the church’s fear mentality concerning the last days.
Is it time to think about a better wineskin for God’s new wine? Are we so invested in our way of doing things that we’re afraid to make any change?
Looking at the hard facts makes me wonder—how can we succeed in our mission if we keep operating in the same way as we have for past decades? All the metrics of the modern American church reveal that it is an aging institution whose influence is dying. Our ability to shape cultural values in our nation has declined. We seem to have lost our power to turn people from death to life, from darkness to light, from hell to heaven. Biblical knowledge is low even among those who attend church. One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing but be expecting a different outcome.
How can we adjust if we won’t see the problem, much less see the solution? I think we delude our self by thinking we can do the work of the ministry better than Jesus did. We compare ourselves with ourselves and give ourselves a passing grade. Our relative success obscures our overall failure. Yet we try harder. If only we were more spiritual, prayed more fervently, witnessed more, read the Bible more, but it doesn’t work. We are losing ground numerically. Our corporate witness to the world is compromised. What needs to change? What has happened to the unshakable kingdom? Where is the power of the gospel? Is the church’s defeat inevitable?
In Bible College, I majored in Missiology which is the study of Christian missions. My degree caused me to be aware of successful waves of church expansion from its first days throughout civilized history, penetrating new regions, affecting more people. My wife and I read about famous missionaries to whom the world owes such a great debt. Every year she would read “Through Gates of Splendor.” I would read “Ever Increasing Faith.” We were fascinated with missions. We went at great cost to spend a year in Africa to witness first-hand what we had longed for. I prayed, "Lord, let me take the riches of Christ to the poor of the world." We wanted to see the growing edges of the spreading gospel taking root among the native tribes of the earth.
Back in America, my career track as a pastor displayed my passion for increase. I always had a touch of missional energy to cause expansion or bring about re-vitalization. Not only did we plant new churches, but we re-energized failing churches that were nearing extinction.
The church has succeeded in its mission before. In the years following Pentecost in Acts 1-2, the church blossomed. It grew beyond cultural barriers, religious traditions, and ethnic boundaries. As Jesus predicted, the transforming gospel went from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and then to the uttermost parts of the earth. This growth was despite having the odds stacked against them.
The Pharisees persecuted the Jewish followers of Jesus. The Romans executed Christians as traitors to Caesar. Many apostles died fulfilling their ministry. Paul was repeatedly stoned. Travel was hazardous and slow. Communication was by handwritten letters. Yet the church thrived and grew stronger. How did they do it? How did kingdom colonies spring up so fast and spread so far? The answer is recorded for us—if we have eyes to see and are willing to learn.
In Roland Allen’s famous missionary classic, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, we can see documentation of how—left to its original intent and its organic design—the church overcame obstacles and grew rapidly without the baggage of modern conveniences. Modern researchers have unlocked secrets of interlocking apostolic spheres, mysteries laid bare like new DNA discoveries. We’re learning to read between the lines. The Holy Spirit shows us how.
In the Book of Acts, whenever the church became bogged down and began to focus on maintenance rather than mission, the Lord allowed persecution to disturb his followers. (Acts 8) The feathers came out of their nest leaving the thorns. Believers became uncomfortable until they scattered. They ran with the message of Christ’s resurrection and his advancing kingdom into other cities and other cultures. The church went from being viewed as merely a Jewish cult called “The Way” to becoming a multinational movement with disciples of Jesus, now called Christians, spreading into distant nations. They were accused of filling the earth with their doctrine, which indeed they did. “Jesus is Lord!” was their confession, a word that directly challenged Caesar’s empire.
Can we think about why our version of the church is weak, so impotent? Francis Schaeffer was the founder of La Abri Fellowship in Switzerland and author of How Shall We Then Live? and The God Who Is There. That last book anchored my faith when I was a young Christian. Schaeffer was a brilliant thinker and remarkable Christian apologist. Before he died, I had the privilege of hearing him address a gathering of evangelical church leaders in Ft. Worth, Texas. After his lecture ended, he took questions from the audience. Someone asked how the early church could expand so rapidly, overtaking pagan religions and affecting the course of the entire world. In his considered opinion, he said the reason was the early church’s orthodoxy in beliefs and practices. Three areas that must be orthodox are doctrine, power, and praxis. Of these three, praxis is usually overlooked.
Evangelicals focus on doctrine. Pentecostals focus on power. But no one focuses on praxis. All Christians in all churches ought to be orthodox in all three aspects, don’t you agree?
Doctrine is right theology or good teaching. It comes from properly interpreting the Scriptures. This requires knowing and teaching the Bible. Doctrines are core beliefs that come to us from Old Testament Prophets, from Jesus, and from the teaching and examples of the New Testament Apostles. Some doctrines developed during church history as difficult issues or heresies were settled in church councils, such as the Council in Jerusalem in Acts 15.
Power is the manifest presence of God; heaven touching earth, often in answer to believing prayer. It is dynamic divine energy; ability; might; potency; often displayed in supernatural charismatic gifts. God’s power confirms God’s word. When heaven invades earth, material restrictions don’t apply. Miracles happen. To flow in power, we need to study pneumatology and know the Person, the Holy Spirit.
Praxis involves our ways of thinking about the work and doing it; how we conduct the practical aspects of the ministry. Orthodox means “straight or correct” with no deviations. We want to be orthodox, right? Praxis means “right practice,” doing things the right way by using the right people, talent, methods, tools, strategies, or structures. It is more than just preaching the right word. Praxis is how we grow or build the church. God’s purpose requires truth, power, and methods like Jesus used. It must be fleshed out.
Right doctrine alone can’t create a vibrant community of believers. That can be a good start but other essential elements may be missing. What about love? What about a kingdom honor? What about a familial culture? What about pursuing righteousness? What about praying? All are important. In addition, the vibrant enlivening presence of God is essential.
Doctrine can be the railroad tracks that keep us on a straight path. But where is the powerful engine and the train? Based on obvious biblical models, lacking the Spirit’s tangible power among us is most certainly a “lesser-than” reduced or un-orthodox Christianity.
Paul said faith should rest in the power of God, not the wisdom of men. This was spoken by a brilliant well-educated preacher who was an apostle. He knew the church was designed to possess heaven’s power in the Holy Spirit, a Person. To have him present is to have the delightful gifts that he brings. To believe this but not permit it is a grave error. Right doctrine absent the manifest presence of God causes dry orthodoxy, a white-washed empty building. What’s left is lifeless Christianity, devoid of power, unable to deliver people. Wrong methods inevitably create dead ends for churches. Defunct practices produce churches that can’t reproduce—our sad status quo.
Seeking right practices is difficult to think about because we have invented methods that work, to a certain degree. The good thus becomes the enemy of the better, so we don’t consider our ways.
This book will examine forgotten practices—the kingdom secrets of church growth that Jesus gave to his twelve disciples as a legacy. The Holy Spirit has canonized Jesus’ ways for us in the scriptures. This book is an introduction to the innovative thoughts I’ve had to study as I allowed the Lord to challenge my thinking. The title has two words: emerging and developing. There is nothing static about the church Jesus is building. This study is about the evolving ecclesia (the body of Christ assembling in his name) and the missional thrust of energy that’s moving it.
Could it be that we have mastered the rhetoric of emotionally moving homilies or spell-binding sermons like Paul delivered on Mars’ Hill, but missed the early church’s strategy? Have we substituted marketing practices and rhetoric instead of relying on the gifts of God and the callings of God? We look for innovative programs to make the church grow bigger but God is looking for the right person who has encountered King Jesus. That person could be you!
Instead of tweaking our technique to grow a crowd faster, what if we went back to the drawing board and analyzed Christ’s methods? What if we studied the early church’s ministry teams?
Have we been blinded by traditions? What if we made a radical decision not to leave our Jerusalem until we are clothed with power from on high? What if we cried out to the Lord for laborers for the harvest—apostles, prophets, and evangelists? Heaven knows, great preachers and fine pastors—who are in abundant supply—haven’t been able to finish the work. What if we used a low-cost way to multiply small cells in the body of Christ so that the gospel message becomes unstoppable and the love of God incarnate becomes irresistible? What if we shifted the vision and operating system of the church so that campus-based facilities became schools to train and equip a new generation in practical ministry, turning each believer’s vocation into a calling?
Could we turn our world upside down? Yes! We will do it because God's word is true and because Jesus is alive. The orthodox truth is laid out in the scriptures. The power of the risen Lord is available to us. Can we adjust our ways? The real question is, are we willing to try?
"Emerging Apostles in the Developing Church" (chapter one) "Seeing the Problem" Copyright 2017 by Ron Wood. All rights reserved.