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Monday, May 19, 2014

The Almost Perfect Church: Chapter 4 - The Original Purpose-Driven Church

This is Chapter 4: Vision and Mission.  (Click here to begin at chapter 1).

We only get one shot at life on this earth and I knew that I probably only had this one shot at launching a church – a ministry that I not only hoped would grow and prosper in the Lord but which also may very well be, God-willing, our church and ministry for the rest of our lives on earth.

I knew that I had some excellent senior pastor skills and abilities as well as some notable weaknesses. I knew that most, if not all, successful pastors could say the same and that God’s grace is sufficient for our weaknesses.  I needed to be aware of my inadequacies without being paralyzed by them.  Our Father has a long history of building His church via woefully inadequate servants!  And I knew that to experience His blessing we had to try our very best to do everything God’s way.

Our core guiding principle was that TA must be a “theo-centric” church. Our goal could not be to seek to create the church WE always wanted (or that Mark always wanted) or even that the congregation or community desired. Instead we scoured the NT to see what the Lord of the Church wanted/expected/demanded His Church to be.

Redding didn’t need just another church in a new flavor. If we weren’t going to seek to become a genuine manifestation of what God wanted a church to be and to do, then we had no reason to exist.   The entire time I served TA, keeping the church radically theo-centric was my underlying and undying passion.

As our church-planting team studied the Scriptures together once a week for a year prior to the official launch of TA we discovered that the absolutely non-negotiable activities that a church must dedicate itself to - if it is to be God’s church- glorifying Jesus, blessing His children and ministering to a lost world – were evangelism, edification, worship, prayer and fellowship.  

If we were to ever lose our focus on these five core callings, through neglect or by becoming consumed with lesser things, we would be betraying our purpose for being.  One of my core callings as the pastor was to make sure that that never happened.  We were a "Purpose-Driven Church" before the book was even written.

My other, closely related, passion, which I also never stopped thinking about, praying about and seeking for the next two decades, was how our church could best pursue these five activities/ministries in a God-pleasing way in the time and place in which He had placed us.  Ministry must always be contextualized in the historical time and place in which each generation of believers find themselves.  We must always be doing the same old things in brand new ways.

In retrospect, I believe that in most ways we did very well at fulfilling our calling.  But never once in 19 years did I ever feel that we had come anywhere close to “arriving” in any of these areas.  The constant gap between who we were and who God desired for us to be, in each of these big five priorities, was the primary cause of the 24/7 stress that I (like any other godly senior pastor) lived with for two decades.

While I never felt that it was my responsibility in the flesh to “make it happen”, it was always my responsibility and calling, as the “chief steward” (humanly speaking) of this manifestation of God’s family on earth, to keep the pursuit of this divine calling at the heart of all that we did as a church.

Not everyone thinks of church in these terms. Some Christians, some at TA, even some elders and leaders, if asked to define and explain what a church is meant to be, would answer with not just different words, but with a radically or subtly different vision.  Most people form their ideas about church from their own experience rather than from the Bible.  Usually that results in being more focused on the felt needs and preferences of the congregation, each member of which has their own ideas and expectations based on their own experiences and history and smattering of Bible knowledge.  There is usually a lot more discussion and energy focused on worship styles or political issues or theological controversies or generational differences than there is on effective evangelism, on how we can best fulfill our mandate to reach our generation with the gospel.  That’s just the way it is and has been for a long time.  It is one of the primary callings of the senior pastor to prevent the spiritual entropy that will cause a church, over time, to degenerate from a mission for God to a mere support group for aging believers.

Equally central to our vision was that being a theo-centric church, a church that “lets God call the shots” meant keeping the Bible absolutely central as our authority.  The Bible is where the answers are found to the question: “What does God want His church to be and to do?”  It is easy and expected to say this, but always challenging to live it.  One way that I did it was to preach expositorily, passage-by-passage.  This did two things: it meant that I preached on what was on God’s mind, not what I thought was best.  The Bible is a very different book than what I would have written, but it was not my job to edit it or “fix” it, but to present it as it is, translated as faithfully as possible to our culture.  If I wrote the Bible it would have been more “systematic” and user-friendly with more emphasis on some topics and less on others.  And that’s how many pastors preach.  But God is smarter than us and I was determined to let God pick the topics and themes and how much weight each one got.

Second, and just as important, to the very best of my ability I wanted to handle the Word accurately. This meant not jumping to quick conclusions about what a passage said but holding my own opinions and biases in check (as much as possible). If something didn’t come out of each week’s study that surprised or challenged or changed me, then I knew that I wasn’t yet hearing what God really had to say.  The study, prayer and wrestling which this discipline (known as “exegesis”- drawing the original meaning out of a text, as opposed to “eisegesis”- reading one’s own prejudices or ideas into the text) required were the hardest part of my job in terms of the amount of work and discipline involved.  Yet this time before God, hearing His voice afresh, was also extremely satisfying due to the sheer power and glory of God’s Word when it is allowed to run free.

Chapter 5

4 comments:

David said...

I often pray for America's pastors that they would first believe the Bible and preach it in season and out. You certainly believed and preached the Bible with intelligence, conviction and without trying to soften its message.

Anonymous said...

Your preaching is what initially drew me to TAC.

-Kelly B.

Michael Huster said...

Ditto. I am reading my way through your chapters, but maybe you talk about some of these things later. One thing I was struck by when we started attending was that I thought many members wanted a "safe" place for their families. One way this was shown was by the number of homeschooling families. Personally I thought this attitude conflicted with the idea of Christians being light and life to their communities. Like you, I came to Jesus in college and was "infected" by ideas of radical discipleship. I'd rather serve God an inch from hell... ideas.

Mark Swanson said...

That is a challenge Michael. One of the current elders at TA recently told me he is opposed to evangelism because he "knows what those people are like" and doesn't want them around the kids of the church. I'm sure AB Simpson heard similar comments back in the day.

There are always greater immediate risks when we go on the offensive against Satan than when we build defensive walls to hide behind. But there is also a danger in raising children who aren't regularly seeing the transforming power of Jesus in people's lives as they are set free from Satan's power. They could easily end up practicing "a form of religion while denying its power".