Church as we know it

The whole point of church is that we are a community of people who follow Jesus

Part 1 of a series – What are we doing?

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The time has come to ask some questions about church as we know it in 2020. What cause lies behind the shrinking attendance at mainstream denominations? Why do we do the things we do? Do our traditions and assumptions match up with church as Jesus wants it to be? If we need to change, how do we go about that? Should we even be asking questions like these?

I believe we should. Not that things are worse than they were ten years ago, or a hundred years ago. But certainly things are not at all as they were at the beginning. Does that matter? If so, why? If not why not? How can we even begin to wrestle with these questions?

I believe we can – and must. But first we need to calibrate our knowledge and understanding and find a measuring system so that we can establish some basic parameters.

The fundamental measure

A steel ruler for measuring length

Let’s take length as an example of a physical quantity. To measure the length of something we need a calibrated tool – a ruler, tape measure, laser rangefinder – whatever form it might take. But the measuring device must be calibrated. A ruler with mm and cm markings on it would be useless if it didn’t agree with other rulers. The basic need here is for a length that never changes that we can use as a standard. Until 1960 the standard was a metal bar in France, and this standard meter was used for calibration; if your ruler didn’t agree with the standard meter in France, it was a bad and misleading ruler. The modern standard is based on the wavelength of a particular kind of light and is far more precise and reliable than the metal bar.

In church life we need a similarly precise and reliable standard concerning our organisation and behaviour. Since the whole point of church is that we are a community of people who follow Jesus, it should be obvious that he is the standard we must use for calibration. If our organisation and behaviour don’t agree with his, we are out of true and some adjustments will be essential to bring us back into line. The life and words of Jesus are the primary source for us. And all the church leaders who have ever arisen since Jesus’ day should agree with his standard. If they do not, they are bad and misleading leaders.

So how does Jesus measure up as a fundamental standard for his followers? Does he ever change? No, he is the same yesterday, today and forever. Can we use him as a standard? Yes, he is knowable in several ways, his words and actions are described in the Bible, he has filled his people with his Spirit as a guide and comforter. Is there anyone else with an equal or better claim to be our fundamental standard? Peter? James? John? Paul? A pope? An archbishop? Your pastor? Arguably, some or all of these might be more or less useful substitutes if the primary standard was unavailable. But Jesus is always available! So no, there is no man or woman who can claim to be a better standard than Jesus himself.

He’s consistent and he’s knowable – and that’s all we need.

Where do we go from here?

In future parts of this series we’ll begin to query what we’ve been doing, individually and corporately. We’ll check the standard of Jesus to see if we need to recalibrate. I’m not here to tell you what to do, but along the way I’ll try to encourage you to look for yourself, to examine Jesus and ask yourself some questions, and to act on what you discover. I’ll revisit this topic from time to time. In the meantime, may your journey be an illuminating one, may you grapple with the challenges, find your own answers, and always keep your eyes on Jesus.

What if you are not following Jesus?

Please note: If your faith is Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, or Hinduism or any other religion, or if you have no faith at all, then the paragraphs above are not aimed at you. They are aimed squarely at anyone who claims to follow Jesus.

But I do encourage you to take a look at the claims Jesus makes about himself, and I encourage you to read about him in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. A good place to begin might be one of the gospels. I suggest reading Luke (and then Acts for the early history of the church). And if you find Jesus is calling you to follow him, then the main part of this article does start to apply to you, as it does to all his people.

If you click those links to Luke and Acts you’ll be able to choose from many Bible translations in a number of modern languages.

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Hand, foot and eye

At a time when the disciples are well aware of Jesus’ glory, power, transcendence, and authority, they ask, ‘Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’

I was reading Matthew 18 this morning, and thought that there are depths in this chapter that can only be grasped when we see things from a kingdom perspective.

In chapter 17, Yahshua reveals his glory to Peter, James and John; deals with the disciples’ lack of faith; speaks of his death and resurrection; and explains that he and his followers are not subject to the demands of religion because they are already part of his holy kingdom. The scene is set, Jesus has demonstrated that he has all the glory, all the power, transcends death, and is subject to no human authority. These factors are all relevant to our understanding of chapter 18, which begins with the words ‘At that time’.

A three-year-old child (Wikipedia)

So, at a time when the disciples are well aware of Jesus’ glory, power, transcendence, and authority, they ask, ‘Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ As he often does, Jesus answers indirectly. He calls over a small child to place amongst them, and tells them clearly that they need to be childlike or they won’t make it into the kingdom of heaven at all. Only the humblest adult can be great in the kingdom, and welcoming such a person is, in reality, welcoming Christ himself.

Furthermore, even being drowned is better for me than putting obstacles in the way of a humble believer; Yahshua isn’t saying I must be put to death, he’s saying I’m already worse than dead! If I cause such stumbling I’m not really one of his followers at all. In verses 8 and 9 Yahshua describes how my hand, my foot, or my eye might cause me to stumble. So it’s what I choose to do, where I decide to go, and what I pay attention to that puts me at risk. There’s a challenge here for all of us: don’t do, go to or look at anything that might cause us to fall. Avoid actions, circumstances and sights that are unhelpful. Stay humble, remain in his presence, and we will share in his glory, power, life and authority. Now that’s good news!