Yesterday I talked about working on the next step in church life with friends of mine, though friends far away in California. Today I want to tell you about searching for the next step for people I only heard about through the internet.
When I went to see this fellowship of only five main brothers and their wives, it was because one of them had wrote me feeling like their little church was settling down into a lively but unfulfilling Bible study group.
I asked if I could come help, and they said they’d be glad.
I’m going to be honest here, even though this honesty is pretty negative. I’ve been a reader and somewhat of a follower of Gene Edwards for years. I met Gene once in a very awkward situation. Gene was publishing a book, Open Church, and the author, James Rutz, had written that early Christian love feasts were a cross between a frat party and a Super Bowl celebration with a few cups of wine instead of a keg of beer.
I was at a booksellers conference as a representive of Scroll Publishing, a publisher that specializes in books about and from the early Christians.
A colleague wanted to confront Mr. Rutz about his claim. I was confident my colleague was on a hopeless mission. I tried to tell him so, but he was determined, so I tagged along.
He was entirely unprepared to deal with our challenge, and he quickly blurted out, “Go see Gene Edwards. I got it from him.”
In 1992, Open Church became the most publicized Christian book in history. Gene had spent $250,000 promoting it, but the author couldn’t defend its content.
We went to see Gene, and I laughed at my friend. “I have to go along, Dean,” I told him. “You are absolutely right in your complaint, so you represent an unstoppable force. Gene, however, never admits he’s wrong about anything, so he is an immovable object. You are about to empirically answer one of the most ancient puzzles of science.”
Gene was masterful. He had a couple of cronies who scorned and scoffed at appropriate moments. They would roll their eyes or chuckle whenever we suggested that an early Christian or a verse of Scripture should be taken for what it says. Gene told us we were too serious. We needed to throw away our Bibles. He supplied us with a couple outrageous interpretations of simple statements by appealing to God in eternity past and eternity future, then stopped abruptly to dismiss himself to buy juice for his low blood sugar.
That was 1992, and Gene was already towards the end of his time of greatest influence. As a storyteller, he is one of the greats, and his stories of the church and church life inspired at least tens of thousands, maybe millions, of Christians who were tired of “institutional” church.
The only problem is that his ideas don’t work. Hundreds or thousands of home fellowships followed his ideas, stagnated, then gave up in frustration to return to Protestant institutions or lose their faith entirely. Others simply repeated the process—grow to four or five families, get bored, start over—for decades.
Edwards admits all this, but he blames it on his hearers, not his message.
To this day, as I understand, there are a couple (or even four?) Edwards henchmen who go to struggling home fellowships to preach sermons in order to revive them and lead them into “the deeper life.”
I’ve heard some of these messages, great and glowing descriptions of the purpose of God, his revelation of the church, and the glory of the Lord Jesus as head of the church. Ephesians and Colossians are the main sources of these sermons.
They’re true, they’re important, they’re inspiring, and they’re very close to useless in changing the situations of home churches. Decades of experience have proven this method remarkably ineffective.
There’s a reason for that. When the apostle Paul launches into a glorious description of God, his purpose, his Son, and the church, he likes to end with some “therefores.”
At the beginning of Ephesians 4, Paul tells us “therefore”—because of all the glorious things that are true of God, his purpose, his Son, and his church—we should walk worthy of the calling with which we are called. Just a few verses later (v. 17), he tells us “therefore” we should not walk as the Gentiles walk. In verse 25, he tells us that we should “therefore” stop lying and stealing, humble ourselves, serve each other, stop bearing malice, etc.
Running around daydreaming of the glory of God doesn’t do too many people good. Maybe there are a couple. In the end, the purpose of the Scripture—and the incredible power and glory of God and his Son—is to equip us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17) and make us like his Son (Rom. 8:29). That boils down to diligent effort (Eph. 4:3; 2 Pet. 1:10), denying ourselves, calling out to God, and devoting ourselves to helping each other with the process of becoming like Jesus.
Gene never did like boiling Christianity down to those kind of basics.
Paul did it in every letter, though.
So when I went to visit this little house church, I didn’t do what Gene’s henchmen do. I didn’t preach any glorious sermons. I did the only thing I know to do, which is to join myself to fellow disciples, share their burdens, and listen to their hearts.
At the end, my message to them was not very glorious … at least to man.
I suspect that God found the message glorious.
“Love your wives. Save your marriages. If you can get your eyes off yourself and lay down your lives for your wives and rescue your marriages by loving your wives the way Jesus loved the church, then you will learn to love in such a way that God will send you others to be loved by you in just the same way.”
The message wasn’t difficult to find.
It is very difficult to implement.
I know that part of my job is to follow up. I call one of those brothers regularly to talk about how they’re doing, how their marriages are doing, and what they’re learning. I even have a friend in the area who was glad to devote himself to these brothers in the same way I did, not just talking to them, but sharing his life with them.
It is these things that cause churches to stagnate. We like to think it is other, more “spiritual” things, but it’s not.
Corinth and Falling Short
The church at Corinth is a great example. People talk about the first-century church in Corinth like its only problem was that it was overly charismatic, overboard in spiritual gifts.
Nonsense. Paul issues small corrections to their spiritual gift problem along with no rebukes at all. Too much tongues? Paul’s answer was “Hey, tongues are awesome, and I speak with tongues more than any of you, but they’re not for the church, brothers. In the church, you should want to prophesy. Be comprehensible. Speak in a language everyone can understand.”
That’s not a rebuke. That’s a minor correction.
Their real problem? Lack of love. Read Paul’s reaction to their neglect of one another at the Lord’s Supper (which was a supper, not a snack). He’s horrified. He warns them even of physical judgments such as sickness or death (1 Cor. 11:17-end).
All the other issues that alarmed Paul were matters of love for one another. He begins with division, the separation into denominations. He spends three chapters on this issue, and he tells them their behavior is carnal, the sort of behavior appropriate only for those who have not been freed from the race of Adam by being born again (1 Cor. 3:3 & cf. ch. 15).
1 Corinthians 5 addresses a situation of sexual immorality, and it is full of rebuke. In 1 Corinthians 6, he calls for shame because of their willingness to sue one another.
But on spiritual gifts? All he says is “I do not want you to be ignorant” (12:1). Then he explains the role of spiritual gifts, which should enhance unity, build love, and strengthen the body of the King.
The goal of the Scriptures is to produce men and women “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The goal of our fellowship together is the same. You say you don’t know what to do next? You say you’ve settled into the same ol’, same ol’?
Unless you’re perfect, you have things to do! There is something God wants to improve, something he wants you to learn or do. Find it. Obey him. He will give you more as you obey what he has given you now.