WHAT’S THE LOOP?
That’s a good question! Over the coming months, I’d love to take some time to regularly write a few ideas down for you. Some of them will be teaching, some will be news items and others will be ‘pencil sketch’ ideas that I would really value your feedback on. For me, a healthy church life is a constant conversational commitment to one another (see below). So I hope you will benefit from The Loop.
A CUP OF COFFEE
Since arriving in Stockport, I’ve drunk quite a lot of coffee. In fact, I’m not sure how my heart is coping with all the caffeine. Leaving that aside, it’s been really good for me to sit around a table with lots and lots of different people and talk. For me, this is such an important part of church life. When we read the New Testament, so much of it (more than we might want to admit) is filled with family (and not organisational or institutional) language. Take for example the glorious (!) sixteenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Paul has been pouring out rich and glorious theology, that has mesmerised people ever since (and incidentally, has been the bedrock of Protestant theology for the last 500 years). Then he, surprisingly for some, switches gear and lists ‘our sister Phoebe’ (v1), Priscilla and Aquila, Paul’s ‘fellow workers in Christ Jesus’ (v3), Epentus who Paul calls ‘my dear friend’ (v5)… and this goes on for 16 verses! Paul, here and elsewhere, does not shy away from deep affectional language for the people of God because he is aware that the glorious gospel he has been expounding has led to a radical family-ing (I know it’s a made-up word, but I like it) of people who were once strangers and all of this has taken place because of our union with Christ (see Ephesians 2). Put another way, drinking coffee and talking together as friends and brothers and sisters in Christ is one of the privileges and outworkings of Christ’s redemption. In fact, the language of Ephesians 2 is ‘Genesis-chapter-one-like’ in that we’ve been made into ‘one new humanity’ (v15)!
So what might the future look like, I’m hoping and praying that the future will be filled with many more steaming cups of coffee and conversations together as a church. In doing that the family bonds will be strengthened and we will be able to discern together all that the Lord has for us! As an aside, here are the four questions that I’ve been asking as many people as I can:
- What is it about ECC that you love?
- What is your dream for the future of the church?
- What apprehensions do you have about me coming into post? Let’s be honest,
whenever a new Pastor joins a church there are apprehensions, I would just prefer to
talk about them.
- If you could set my priorities for the next 3-6 months, what do you think I should give
For those of you who I’ve not had the chance to sit and chat with, I’m looking forward to it soon!
THE GATHERED CHURCH
In the following article, I want to help us all think afresh about why we gather on a Sunday. So many things over the past few years have blurred the lines around gathering as a church (COVID is just one of many examples). In fact, what I’m hoping through this article is to paint a captivating picture of what it means to be the people of God and how gathering as a church has a significant part to play in our 24/7 mission here in the Heatons and Reddish (and let’s be honest there are lots of people at ECC who live in plenty of different communities in Stockport, Manchester and even the towns and village nearby). I hope that sounds intriguing. Here we go…
At this point, it would be easy to put down a whole bunch of biblical ideas with corresponding Bible verses, such as: to be obedient to the command of scripture (Hebrews 10:23-25); to be equipped for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-14); to have our minds washed and renewed by God’s word (Romans 12:1-2); to use spiritual gifts for the good of the whole (1 Corinthians 12-14); etc. However, the problem with listing a bunch of verses is that it doesn’t really paint the biblical vision of the gathered church. Our hearts are led by vision and not lists and we need a biblical vision of why we should gather that compels and energises us. So why gather? I want to start with a quote by Eugene Peterson and then expand this quote into a biblical vision of the importance of gathering:
‘So, why church? The short answer is because the Holy Spirit formed it to be a colony of heaven in the country of death. … Church is the core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in this world. It is not that kingdom complete, but it is a witness to that kingdom.… Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines. … The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life.’(Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 12)
I believe that this quote by Peterson gives us an ‘in’ to understanding why it is so vital that we gather as a local church. A local church is ‘a colony of heaven in the country of death’. Other writers have described the local church as an embassy of God’s kingdom in an oppressive and anti-Christ empire. These metaphors are soaked in biblical truths, such as:
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ”(Philippians 3:20)
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passion of the flesh, which wage war against your soul”(1 Peter 2:11)
“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been frightening, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”(John 18:36)
So, when the church gathers, week-in-week-out, it is in fact a prophetic and future-longing way of life as this colony of heaven. By the very fact of our gathering, we are declaring (prophesying) that this world (of sin) we inhabit is a world of death and at the same time that there is a beautiful alternative – life in the kingdom of God. Here in this vision of the gathered church, we are a million miles from a cosy social club and are instead people living together as a very distinct/alternative kingdom in an alien and oppressive world.
Why is this vision for the gathered church so important? I want to suggest that in our weekly gatherings, we are living out a number of key activities of colonial life:
Note: The following is loosely based upon some ideas from an article written by Jonathan Leeman
We gather to worship or exalt the true King (Mark 12:30-31; 1 Corinthians 10:31). When we gather we are together worshipping the true and everlasting king. Not the kings of the country of death. Not the emperors of conveniences and comfort. Not the rulers of DIY religion. Not the weak-kneed princes of feelings and emotions. No, we gather as people living in a ‘colony of heaven’ and we joyfully and deliberately choose to worship the one true and living King.
We gather to represent and display the rule of the King in our lives (Matthew 5:14-16). As citizens of this new colony, we gather together as a visible display, to the world around us, that we are people living under the rule of a different Kingdom. This is a vital aspect of church life and is probably more and more so as the erosion of the underlying Jeudo-Christian culture accelerates, meaning the gap between the colony of heaven and the surrounding culture becomes even starker.
We gather to identify as citizens of this colony (1 Corinthians 12). Christianity is never a solo pursuit. We’re saved into a community and our gathering is an expression of our acceptance of his Kingly rule of our lives and joyful acceptance of his rule among these people in this place at this time in history! Gathering is a vital part of identifying as part of this new colony that is set up to subvert and undermine the kingdom of death that surrounds it.
We gather to be formed into citizens of this new colony (John 17:17; Philippians 1:6). Citizenship is by ‘faith alone’ but to live as citizens (sanctification) is a life-long process. A huge chunk of that formation process should take place in the week-to-week gathering of the church.
We gather to mobilise the people of this new colony for mission (Acts 1:8; Acts 13:1-3). Our colony is not to be on the defensive, pulling up the barricades to this kingdom of death. No, as citizens of this colony of heaven, we’ve been called to a life of mission and advance. We gather to enable that consistent mobilisation to take place.
So to summarise, we gather as a local church to be a prophetic and future-longing people in a surrounding world of death. We gather in this colony of heaven so that the rule of the true King can permeate every aspect of our lives together as its citizens. Finally, we gather together with a future-longing-heart for the day when our true king will return (Maranatha) and men and women from every tribe and tongue will gather around his throne declaring “Salvation belongs to our God” (Revelation 7:10).
I’D LOVE SOME FEEDBACK
One of the first things that the elders have agreed that I should focus on over this coming season, is to strengthen pastoral care across the church. This is not to say it’s not happening, however, whenever a new season of mission takes place, things inevitably get put under pressure. As a result, we want to ensure that we have strong and healthy means of pastoral care for the growing and diverse family at ECC. In light of this, I would love to hear from you in response to this question:
What does strong and healthy pastoral care look like in a growing church?
Answers on a postcard (or better still email firstname.lastname@example.org )