Well, I’m back from Kenya, Uganda, and England. If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s how desperately the message of the church is needed. God constantly teaches the church, and the world is in desperate need of what he’s taught it.
If you’re a Christian, then what you think of when I say God teaches the church is almost surely doctrinal. It’s matters of theology he must be teaching us, solving the things that divide Christians. However, theology doesn’t divide Christians. Carnality divides Christians. Divisions, schisms, and factions are works of the flesh, and theology is just an excuse denominations use for carrying out the dictates of the flesh. What God teaches the church is the marvelous way that he overcomes the flesh…through love.
We had incredible power in Kenya and Uganda. Pastors showed up asking us what made us different from all the other muzungus (white men) that visit and preach to them. Hearts were opened, and no one could deny the power or the need of our message. What did we do? What did we say?
We didn’t say anything. We lived the way God taught us to live, which is to be a friend to everyone, and people who saw it were moved. They knew that it was good, and they knew that it was from God, and they showed up and asked us how we learned to live with such power. What power? It was nothing more than the power of love.
Please don’t get me wrong. We are not the only loving people who have shown up in Kenya and Uganda. Wonderful, kind, and powerful men of God have shown up and helped struggling Africans in all sorts of ways, digging wells, passing out mosquito nets, starting businesses, and numerous other great acts of kindness and hard work. Lots ofÂ them have done this, and many have done much more work, sacrificed much more, Â and are much more worthy of praise than we are. I’m not talking about us in this blog. I’m talking about the life of God.
What people noticed is that we were different from other preachers. The difference is that we knew we weren’t there for words. We were there to bring the life of God because that Life can teach Africans just as well as it has taught us. So we simply showed up and did what we always do. We fellowshipped with the people we met. Since we are God’s people, this allowed the people we met to fellowship with God, and they liked it. They asked how they could have this life, and our words weren’t just words. They were to a purpose, explaining how they could have and be taught by the life of God as we have been.
God’s life hasn’t taught us theology. It has taught us how to get along with one another. Humans can fly to the moon, but they don’t know how to get along. Self-consciousness, emotions, fears, and a myriad of other things stand in the way of us simply being what God is: love. Entering God’s Life is entering a life-long process of learning how to deny ourselves and love. Every one of us has a very long way to go, but every one of us who has lived church life knows what it means to be taught by God to love. This trip taught us once again the immense power of that love. It breaks down every door, opens hearts, and paves a path not just for the Gospel of Christ, but for the Spirit of God that makes that Gospel effective.
In England we met some rather extraordinary members of a small Baptist church. They were godly, loving people who had hurt their careers and social status in order to minister to people. I was impressed. They are much better people than someone like me. They’re harder working, more caring, and certainly run their lives a lot better than I’ve ever run mine. Yet, when we showed up, they told us that we taught them something about ministering to the very people that they have devoted their lives to ministering to. How is that even possible?
It’s because of the power of church life. Modern Christians devote themselves to ministry. Ancient Christians devoted themselves to Christ unless they were specifically called to ministry.Â When they were called to ministry, they devoted themselves to learning theÂ ministry they were called to. The power, however, that created the need to minister came from their devotion to Christ. Devotion to ministry is a distraction.
Paul, the apostle,Â was a student of theology. It’s clear from his letters that he devoted himself to the theology of Christ. The need, however, to teach theology sprung from the life of God at work in the people of God.
Have you ever noticed that those who heard the apostles teach didn’t go anywhere until persecution forced them to? Nonetheless, when persecution spread them out, their faith was infectious. Even after spreading out, as new communities of disciples formed, word spread about the love and faith of those communities (1 Thes. 1:6-10).
This created a need to explain the departure from the typical Jewish faith. These new followers of Messiah, both Jew and Gentile, lived differently than the typical interpretations of the Old Testament would lead you to live. Messiah taught a new way of life, and it had little to do with sacrifices and rituals. As one early Christian put it, “We embrace chastity…dedicate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God…share with everyone in need…live familiarly with men of different tribes…and pray for our enemies” (Justin, Apology 14, c. AD 150). Not much there about ritualistic religious practices, temples, and priests.
I don’t want to get lost in making my point here. God has things to teach us in church life. They are subtle, but they are powerful. They have nothing to do with words, so often they are hard to explain. The fact is, though, that what happened in England is simply typical of the fruit of what God teaches. Where we showed up, everyone had time for fellowship, for prayers, for the discussing of the apostles doctrine, and for prayer. In fact, it’s almost all they wanted to do. They were drawn to it as by some unseen power. That power was the life of God, the very power that draws us as well, that creates the church, that teaches the saints, and that produces a power that will cause the sons and daughters of God to flock to the Gospel rather than having to be chased down by it.
I hope even a little of that is clear. I hope that I don’t sound like I’m boasting about something we did. The things that are learned in church life are powerful. They’re not even to be compared to what you might learn in Bible school, which is almost all completely useless (sorry, but it’s true). All I want is that all who name the name of Christ get to partake in the school of Christ, the church, which is the pillar and support of the truth. All by itself it will produce what people are not obtaining through study, diligent discipline, and toilsome ministry. “It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors,” says the Scripture (Ps. 127:2). Why? Because he gives to his beloved even in their sleep, but only where the Lord has built a house for himself.
“Behold, children are a gift from the Lord,” that Psalm goes on to say. That verse is not a verse on birth control for Protestants, Catholics, Mennonites, and environmentalists to argue about. It is a statement that if you want to reach the world, allowing Zion to bring forth children, it will be the gift of the Lord, not the product of “painful labors.” Modern Christians have never seen the power of church life, so they don’t believe in it. The devil gave the true and Biblical doctrines of the authority and truth found in the church a bad name during the Dark Ages. People are scared of them now, but experience testifies that what the apostles taught and passed on to their churchesÂ is true. The church is the pillar and support of the truth, it is the mother of the saints, and God will lead it into things that are true, and not a lie. I would add, into things that are powerful beyond what we could know in our schools, Sunday meetings, and Bible studies.
This is way too long for a blog, but I want to add one more thing. I’ve been saying over and over on this trip that growth does not come from Bible study and prayer in our rooms alone. Growth, according to the Scripture, comes as we speak the truth to love in one another and as every part does its share (Eph. 4:11-16). If you want to grow, you have to be with others to do so, and you have to be with them daily. Sorry, that’s what Scripture teaches (Heb. 3:13). You can pray and read the Bible all you want, but it’s not going to make you grow in ways that will allow you to be an effective minister. Those things are learned in church life. They are learned in the need to get along, having to work things out, having to put yourself aside, and not having the option of separating from Christians you disagree with. Division is death.