Equipped for a journey of renewal

The December Equipper (with the five articles linked below) focuses on helping us understand and live into the renewal the Spirit continues to grant our fellowship.

Raising Lazarus (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Raising Lazarus (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

From Greg: Our renewal continues
Greg Williams sets the GCI-USA theme for 2017, anticipating how the Spirit will continue to renew our fellowship in multiple ways.

GCI’s educational strategy for renewal
Greg Williams reviews the work of GCI’s Educational Strategy Task Force that has been looking at educational support for GCI’s ongoing renewal.

A renewed understanding of evangelism
GCI associate pastor Josh McDonald writes about how Trinitarian theology renewed his understanding and practice of evangelism.

Sermon summary: A renewed understanding of discipleship
In a CT article that would make a good sermon, Wesley Hill looks at how the Gospel of Mark renewed his understanding of discipleship.

Kid’s Korner: Renew your ministry to children
Looking for ways to renew your children’s ministry in the coming year? Read this article for helpful ideas.

Kid’s Korner: Renew your ministry to children

Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their lives. (Proverbs 22:6)
Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their lives. (Proverbs 22:6)

In congregations blessed with children, the transition into the new year is a good time to give careful thought to what might be done to renew their ministries to children. Here are two articles that provide assistance.

Children are a blessing from the Lord. With these blessings also come responsibilities. As stewards of God’s children, parents are responsible for helping children grow physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Churches have a responsibility toward children, too. We want to provide an environment in which children are safe, are taught at an age-appropriate level, and are encouraged to develop a relationship with Jesus Christ.

  •  11 Ways to Strengthen Your Church’s Children’s Ministry. This blog post from Chuck Lawless offers achievable ways to renew and refresh your ministry to children (click on the title above for details):
    1. Enlist your best workers for this ministry.
    2. Train the workers well.
    3. Establish clear security protocols.
    4. Upgrade your facilities for children.
    5. Don’t lower the bar when teaching children.
    6. Capitalize on media resources.
    7. Develop a church membership and beginning discipleship class for children.
    8. Hang out with the children.
    9. Kneel when talking to children.
    10. If you’re a preacher, remember the children in the audience.
    11. Establish prayer partners with children.

From Greg: Our renewal continues

Dear minister of Christ,

I hope you enjoyed the theme of Renewal at our 2016 US Regional Conferences. We heard inspiring accounts of how the Holy Spirit is renewing us—opening minds and hearts to become more missional in thought and action. It’s thrilling to see him transforming us into congregations willing to go “outside the walls” to gather others to the community of the church.

Greg and Susan Williams

In his Theology of Renewal presentation at the conferences, Dr. Gary Deddo reminded us that our Triune God is a God of renewal—he has been from the beginning when, “out of nothing” (ex nihilo), he created all things. His work of renewal, which is “making everything new” (Revelation 21:5), is leading to a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1) that will be revealed at Jesus’ second advent.

I believe the Holy Spirit is showing us that we should continue to make Renewal our guiding theme for the year ahead. This understanding was confirmed when I met recently with our US Regional Pastors to develop strategic plans for 2017. When I asked how they felt about continuing the theme of Renewal, their overwhelming response was “Yes!” Knowing that renewal is a multi-year process, we see the need to continue to keep our focus on the work of renewal the Father, Son and Holy Spirit continue to do in our midst.

This understanding also has been confirmed by our Educational Strategy Task Force (ESTF)a group of GCI administrators and educators (chaired by Gary Deddo) tasked by Joseph Tkach to evaluate our various programs related to educating pastors, ministry leaders and general members. The ESTF recently completed its evaluation, concluding, in part, that we need to continue our focus on spiritual renewal as the foundation of our educational philosophy and programs (for my report on the ESTF’s recent work, click here).

In preparation for the GCI Denominational Conference (previously called the International Conference) in Orlando in August 2017, we’ll be publishing articles here in Equipper and also in GCI Weekly Update to address various aspects of spiritual renewal. In a pre-conference seminar for pastors on August 1, Gary Deddo will address how the renewal of the Holy Spirit energizes our theology, and how theology then shapes our understanding of the church (ecclesiology) and its ministry practices (missiology). Gary has begun a series of articles in GCI Weekly Update on this topic (click here for part 1); please give his essay careful study as you minister these next several months and prepare for the conference.

I envision 2017 being a year of clarification, culminating in an epic celebration at our Denominational Conference. I’m excited about meeting all of you there, along with the many others who the Spirit will call to swim with us in the stream of God’s renewing grace.

I wish you all a blessed Advent-Christmas season and a “Happy 2017!

Greg Williams
Director, GCI-USA Church Administration and Development

Sermon Summary: A renewed understanding of discipleship

One of the areas where the Spirit is renewing GCI’s understanding and ministry practice is that of discipleship. We see him leading us to embrace an approach to discipling others (disciple-making) that emphasizes the hope and healing that is ours because of Jesus’ faithfulness, not our own. This approach is helpfully examined by Wesley Hill in a Christianity Today article titled “How I Found Healing for My Spiritual Blindness.” Hill describes how his understanding of discipleship was renewed by an in-depth study of the Gospel of Mark. His article would make a good outline for a sermon on this topic. Here are excerpts from the article:

I was hungry for instruction—guidance in how to go about deepening and enriching my faith. I wanted to grow, to change…. I read books and attended seminars that promised things like “seven steps to freedom”…. I followed these steps [but] predictably, my zeal foundered… Was this guilt-inducing cycle really what Christians meant by “discipleship”?

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A few years after… I discovered the Gospel of Mark… [and] began to grapple with Mark’s distinctively dark spirituality and his portrayal of Jesus’ disciples, in the designation of E. S. Malbon, as “fallible followers”….

One of the first things that stands out [in Mark] is his bleak view of the disciples…. When Jesus stills the storm, for example, and the disciples cower in fear for their lives, he rounds on them: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40)…. Taken literally, Jesus’ words imply that the disciples are not yet believers! As if that weren’t enough of a sting, Jesus soon thereafter accuses Peter of channeling the Devil’s point of view (Mark 8:31–33). After Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, Peter chides him, and Jesus fires back, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Mark 8:33).

Later, at the Transfiguration, Peter reveals his earthly-mindedness when he offers to build some tents for his luminescent Lord, and Moses and Elijah who are with him, foolishly hoping to freeze-frame this glimpse into Jesus’ kingdom (Mark 9:5). And once they’ve descended from the mountain, Jesus’ disciples are almost immediately found arguing with one another about which one of them is greatest (Mark 9:34). Their debate comes right on the heels of Jesus’ insistence that he will soon lose his life at the hands of his enemies (Mark 9:31). Two more different scenes can hardly be imagined, but Mark jams them together in an especially painful juxtaposition.

Maybe the most telling moment in Mark’s dark portrait of the disciples comes when they are with Jesus in a boat on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 8:14–21). Earlier that day, they had seen him provide an abundance of food for a hungry crowd (Mark 8:1–10, repeating a similar miracle from Mark 6:34–44). In other words, they had seen proof positive of Jesus’ compassion and care. But, as if that proof had never appeared, they scold one another for failing to remember to stash some bread on board. Overhearing them, Jesus asks, incredulous, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?” (Mark 8:17–18)….

It is not just Israel as a whole who has hardened hearts and blinded eyes: it is Jesus’ inner circle, his closest confidantes, his chosen few…. Mark goes out of his way to portray the disciples as clumsy, self-absorbed, and insensitive to the Spirit. They can’t see Jesus for who he really is. They may have eyes, but they’re no better than sightless glass. Their hearts are as lively as cold stone.

Odd as it may sound, as a frustrated young Christian, disappointed with my efforts at spiritual self-improvement, I found comfort in Mark’s dark view of the disciples. Looking back on my quest for the right formula for holy living, I remember being unsure what to make of Bible verses that promised, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin” (1 John 3:9), and, “[T]hough you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart” (Romans 6:17). I had no trouble, though, identifying with Mark’s disciples: sometimes eager, often failing, occasionally getting things right and demonstrating faithfulness, but more regularly getting things wrong and showing infidelity. The disciples in Mark’s gospel are not so much paragons of sainthood as they are examples of the full range of human fallibility. Mark shuts the door on the naïve notion that Jesus came simply—in the words of theologian Robert Farrar Capon—to teach the teachable or improve the improvable. And that meant I could stop trying to drum up teachability or improvability on my own….

Jesus didn’t come to improve the improvable, he came to do something better: to heal the sick and to raise the dead. That’s where Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ disciples ends—with a ray of light shining into the disciples’ darkness from the outside.

Immediately following Jesus’ blunt question, “Are your hearts hardened?” (Mark 8:17) comes a glimmer of hope. Having just finished castigating his disciples, Jesus meets a blind man (Mark 8:22). He gently leads the man away from the crowds, spits on his eyes, and touches him. “Do you see anything?” he asks. “I see people,” the man answers. “They look like trees walking around” (Mark 8:23–24). The man is healed, but not yet fully. So Jesus touches his eyes one more time, and Mark tells us that the man’s “eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly” (Mark 8:25).

It was a profound moment [when I understood]… that this was a parable of what Jesus planned to do with his disciples’ spiritual blindness. You can see this by noticing where Mark places this story. Immediately following the account of the blind man’s healing comes the story of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks pointedly, and Peter gives the right answer: “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). But it is an answer that apparently lacks full understanding because Jesus responds by urging Peter to keep it secret (Mark 8:30). Like the blind man who sees the blurry shapes of walking trees, Peter can see—but he can’t yet fully see.

Not content to leave Peter there, however, Jesus goes on to say that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). In the face of Peter’s misunderstanding, Jesus proclaims his true identity: “Yes, Peter,” he seems to say, “you’re part of the way there. I am indeed the Messiah. But you can’t see me fully and truly until you see me as the suffering, crucified Messiah.” By placing this cruciform message alongside Jesus healing the blind man, Mark intended to show his readers that Jesus would take his disciples by the hand, anoint the eyes of their hearts, and heal their spiritual sight—by dying for them (Mark 10:45).

Peter and the other disciples, with their misinterpretations of who Jesus really was, are like the partially healed blind man looking at blurry images and unable to see anything clearly. But Jesus would touch them again, and his death would restore their eyesight fully and finally. And with that, as the New Testament scholar Todd Brewer has put it, the Gospel of Mark “reframes discipleship not on the conditional basis of one’s personal faithfulness to Jesus’ commands but upon Jesus’ own unconditional promise.” What matters, in the end, is Jesus is determined to heal.

It’s no surprise that Mark’s gospel ends with a promise of sight. When three women show up on Easter morning to find Jesus’ tomb empty, a young man wearing a white robe says to them, “See the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6). Furthermore, he gives them a guarantee: “[Jesus] is going ahead of you into Galilee” (Mark 16:7). At the very end of the Gospel, the real nature of discipleship comes into clear focus for the first time. It doesn’t have to do with what Jesus’ followers will achieve for him but everything to do with what he has done and will do for them.

Following Jesus isn’t ultimately a matter of figuring out the right steps and straining my spiritual muscles until I can keep up with his demands. Nor is it about drumming up some extra spiritual powers to try to inoculate myself against hard-heartedness. Rather, discipleship means trusting in the one who can open blind eyes and soften hard hearts. It means trusting the one who went to the cross to do exactly that—the one who goes ahead of us still.

A renewed understanding of evangelism

What difference does GCI’s Incarnational, Trinitarian vision make in everyday ministry? Josh McDonald, associate pastor of GCI’s congregation in Indianapolis, Indiana, tells how it renewed his understanding of evangelism.

josh-and-heather-mcdonald
Josh and Heather McDonald

In the mid ’90s, I did two years’ time at a fundamentalist Christian college. Among my studies (along with a parade of Christian rock concerts), was a class on evangelism (“witnessing to the lost”). The professor taught us to read the sports page so we could lure people into casual conversations, then pin them with the gospel. One of his favorite refrains was, “If you don’t know-that-ya-know-that-ya-know the exact date and time you ‘said the prayer’ then you can never be sure of your salvation.” For the more obsessive among us, his statement sent us scouring through our memories or running up to the rail at every chapel service, re-confessing and hoping for some kind of receipt.

Fast forward 20 years. I’m married to Heather, we have three kids, and I just turned 40. My “fundy days” are far behind—separate enough now that I can be thankful for what I learned as well as spit out the proverbial bones. This season of my life has also brought me into close fellowship with the ideas of Barth, the Torrances, Deddo and other Trinitarian theologians. These thinkers have helped me understand the uneasy feeling I would get every time I heard that “you have to know that ya know that ya know….,” etc.

One of T.F. Torrance’s helpful ideas in his book, The Mediation of Christ, is of Christ being the “personalizing person.” Just as Adam acted in disobedience on behalf of humanity, so Christ acted in perfect obedience on our behalf. He responded for us perfectly, because we are unable to even think a godly thought in and of ourselves. Our “participation” is to trust in the finished work of Christ and allow Him to respond to God through us. As the sacrifices of Israel looked forward to the finished work of Christ, so the sacraments celebrate back to it.

Despite my fundamentalist professor’s insistence on certainty, the moment of salvation seems a lot messier. I’ve met few people who said the formulaic “sinner’s prayer” and experienced instant change in their lives. The norm seems more to be “a long obedience in the same direction” (to quote Eugene Peterson)—an organic process of stops and starts that would be difficult to sketch let alone place on some sort of formulaic matrix.

I grew up in the south where almost everyone “said the prayer” at one time or another, whether their lives reflected conscious fellowship with Christ or not. I’ve also lived in the Pacific Northwest where people are largely unchurched (and have been for generations). Yet among these non-religious people, I often observed Christ-like behavior. I’ve also met people with vibrant Christian lives who, unable to point to the nano-second of their conversion, have experienced a gradual process of growth in Christ-likeness. So it seems that a forumulaic know-that-ya-know matrix is too airtight to let reality breathe. It’s here that our Incarnational Trinitarian understanding of mediation, salvation and conversion helps us to understand. Instead of experiencing an instant reversal of total depravity at a particular moment of conversion, we begin embracing a reality that already is there before we begin to believe. Then, as believers, we grow into that reality. We can think of this reality as a “current of salvation” that always is running for all people. The evangelistic invitation then is to “let go and swim.” Then, as Jeff McSwain in one of GCI’s You’re Included interviews explains, as believers we then knowingly seek to “live into” the life that already was ours in Christ before we believed:

The Holy Spirit… lifts us up to live into our life with Christ and allows us to manifest the fruit of the Spirit in a more overt, or in a more manifest way than an unbeliever most of the time.… The Holy Spirit allows us to grow into the person that we already are.

This explanation of the nature of evangelism and the Christian life, has saved this “OCD evangelical undergrad” a lot of anxiety. When we look at non-believers in oversimplified, unreflective ways, seeking to find deficiencies in their lives, we enter into an intractable swamp that is characterized by prejudice, judgmentalism and doubt. But the truth of the gospel gets us out of that swamp by opening our minds and hearts to embrace the prize that Christ already has won for all people.

By the Spirit, our Lord is reaching out to all, wooing them with glimpses of his goodness and love. Our job as Christ-followers is not to decide who is unsaved, pre-saved, almost-saved, or saved. No, our job—our privilege in ministry—is to woo alongside the Lord as he reaches out, in relationship, to all people, who, in the end, are simply that—people, God’s children all.

______________

Note from the editor: click here to read a related GCI article, “Here’s Good News for Everyone!” It gives an Incarnational, Trinitarian presentation of the gospel along with an invitation to respond.

GCI’s educational strategy for renewal

This article is from Dr. Greg Williams, director of GCI-USA Church Administration and Development and a faculty member at Grace Communion Seminary. For a related article in GCI Weekly Update, click here.

Greg Williams
Greg Williams

When it comes to the church and its ministry, GCI is firmly committed to having strategies, plans and actions that flow within the stream of renewal that the Holy Spirit has generated within our fellowship. We prayerfully desire that all our ministry efforts be authentic, focused participation in the ongoing ministry of Jesus. We know well that Jesus, revealed in the apostolic witness of Scripture, is the head, foundation and cornerstone of his church, and (thankfully) that includes our fellowship, Grace Communion International.

The book of Ephesians gives a clear description of the nature and purpose of the church along with instruction concerning how the church is to conduct its life and administer its various leadership offices with the overall goal being to equip the saints to participate in the mission of God. Though we conduct that ministry in a fallen world, we do so with hope knowing that the kingdom, which already has broken into the world, is coming in fullness when Christ returns in glory. (Come Lord Jesus!)

Given this biblical perspective on the church and its mission, it’s vital that we establish and maintain clarity concerning the headship of Jesus and the renewing work of the Spirit among us as members of the body of Christ. Doing so is vital to our health and focus, both now and into the future as we pass along to the next generation what we have been given by the Father according to his Word and Spirit.

Toward that end, GCI President Joseph Tkach called for the establishment of an Educational Strategy Task Force (ESTF) several months ago. Its assignment was to evaluate GCI’s educational programs and resources to ascertain whether or not they are adequate to the task of equipping us to live into the renewal that the Spirit has granted us.

As the ESTF met, it agreed that a key to GCI continuing its God-given renewal will be to help emerging pastors and other leaders understand what the Spirit has done, and will yet do, to renew us as his church. The task force feels that it’s vital that we be proactive in providing our congregational and denominational leaders with support, teaching, training and equipping related to the following seven biblically-based understandings that have been fundamental to our renewal:

  1. Understanding the centrality of Jesus Christ, who reveals to us the essential and eternal character, nature, purpose, mind, heart and work of the reconciling, justifying, sanctifying and glorifying triune God. Jesus is the resurrected, living cornerstone of the church and so of its worship and mission.
  2. Understanding Jesus’ role as the one Mediator between God and humanity, and how he is the living, speaking, acting, interpretive key to the apostolic and prophetic witness of Scripture.
  3. Understanding the priority of God’s covenant of grace as fulfilled in Jesus, who is one with the Father and Holy Spirit.
  4. Understanding the nature of the worship of the triune God, who, in himself, is holy love, fellowship and communion. The first ministry of the church is to worship our Triune God with all we are and all we have.
  5. Understanding the fullness of Christ’s justifying, sanctifying and glorifying gracious work, which comprises the whole completed saving work of the Triune God who created all humanity for fellowship and communion with himself.
  6. Understanding what it means to grow up into Christ, who through his vicarious humanity reveals the true nature and destiny of humanity created in the image of God, so that we may, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, share more and more in our Lord’s transforming sanctification and, beyond our death, his glorification. To grow up into Christ means to share in Christ’s own faith, hope and love for God, and in his love for our neighbors. It means having our entire identity defined by our relationship to Christ, established by grace and lived out of that center through all other relationships.
  7. Understanding how our life in union with Christ frees and enables every member of the the Body of Christ for their participation in the church’s ministry of bearing witness to the self-revelation and saving, self-giving of God in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. That ministry is accomplished through proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ in preaching, teaching and testimony and confirmed by deeds of service accomplished in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Those who the Holy Spirit has drawn into the stream of the Lord’s renewing work in our midst are the ones we wish to equip for the sake of their participation in Christ’s continuing ministry in and through our fellowship. All of our educational resources and strategies (involving persons, materials and funding) must direct attention to these features of Christ and his continuing ministry through his Body (the church) by the Spirit, since these features are central both to our ministry, and to the gospel of Jesus Christ and life in the Spirit, all to the glory of the Father.

Another matter that came into focus during ESTF meetings and related conversations (like the ones with our international mission developers in Bogota, Colombia) was the need for a more complete explication of our doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) and its ministry practices (missiology). Over the last couple of decades, our focus has largely been on clarifying our doctrines of the person and work of Christ, the covenant of grace fulfilled in Christ, the nature of God’s grace, and our justification and sanctification and union with Christ. Considerable attention has also been given to the doctrines of the Trinity and the kingdom of God.

It seems that as we seek to find, train and appoint new congregational leaders—pastors and church planters, in particular—renewed focus is called for in filling out our doctrine of the church. This is especially needed for those who will be joining us with little or no GCI history. It’s vital that our explication of the doctrine of the church with its ministry be consistent with our Incarnational Trinitarian theological center and the spiritual renewal that is behind that theology—a renewal granted us by the Word and Spirit of God.

In response to this need, a series of articles will be produced by a team of ESTF members (and others) who will explore and set forth a more comprehensive understanding of the church and its ministry practices. We will be rolling out some of those articles between now and the Denominational Conference coming to Orlando in August 2017. The first of these articles was recently published in the November 23 issue of GCI Weekly Update (click here to read it). Please read these articles carefully, and I invite you to comment on them as we go (using the comment feature in both Update and Equipper). We’ll then continue the conversation in Orlando. Please be in prayer about this journey as our renewal continues.