The pastoral leaders of GC Hickory (GCI’s congregation in Hickory, NC) recently sat down with Joe Brannen of GCI Media to discuss their congregation’s relaunch. As you will learn in the recording linked below, though GC Hickory has just begun the relaunch process, they already have experienced both success and challenge in following the Spirit on the road to becoming a healthy expression of church in their target community.
It’s our hope that GCI pastors and other congregational leaders will glean insights from this conversation concerning what a church relaunch entails, and how it can be a helpful step in a church fulfilling GCI’s healthy church vision. To learn more about GC Hickory, watch this video (published previously in GCI Update):
This article is from Santiago Lange, GCI elder in Germany.
When the word stewardship is mentioned, we likely think of our monetary donations to the church, including giving offerings in worship services. This form of stewardship is both valuable and necessary for the church to fulfill its calling. However, biblical stewardship entails much more than our regular donations to the church. As the old saying goes, “money isn’t everything.”
The basis of stewardship in the Bible is the understanding that God owns all the resources in the universe. In his grace, he allows us to manage some of these resources. We usually think of ourselves as the owners of our homes, our children, our talents, our money, etc. However, it would be more accurate to think of ourselves as “managers” of these things and that is what the idea of stewardship connotes. We are called by God to be stewards of things that belong to God.
What are some of the things God calls us to “manage” properly? In Ephesians 5:16 (ESV), God calls us to manage our time (and do so with wisdom). We are to make the most out of every opportunity. We live in a fast-paced society where keeping the right priorities is increasingly difficult. There are many things competing for our time these days: work, meals, studies, shopping, TV, sports, reading, the list goes on. It’s possible to allow the many cares of this world to get in the way of spiritual things. It’s not wrong to look after physical pursuits, but a Christian needs to seek first the kingdom of God, to orient their thinking, hopes, dreams and aspirations on the things that are above, thus putting God first in their life. When they do that, all the other things fall into place in proper order of priority.
God has called us to be a part of a community of believers. There is no such thing as an “independent Christian.” We need one another! Iron can sharpen iron only when rubbing together. God reveals himself to us in a number of ways. A primary way is through the fellowship of believers. We should eagerly look forward to our time together. Do we give God the appropriate portion in our lives? Or does God just get the leftovers?
Being good stewards of the time God has given us means thinking how we can best use our time, not only for ourselves, but to serve Christ and help other people. We know the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). We all have received gifts from God for the edification of the church and the world around us. Let’s encourage each other to be actively and productively involved in our congregations and communities while doing everything decently and in order.
Never underestimate God. No congregation and no person is so small that it cannot be reached and led by the Holy Spirit. We all are stewards of God’s truth. We have been entrusted with the gospel message! Christ is speaking to the world through his church. What an awesome privilege and a great responsibility! This is not the time to slow down or take a break.
Christians often refer to “becoming Christ-like.” While it is not wrong to use that expression, we must realize that we will never become exactly like Jesus in this lifetime. Rather than getting involved in a legalistic system of religion that measures success in terms of rules and regulations, we want our lives to be motivated and permeated by God’s love and grace. As faithful stewards of the resources that God has given us to manage, we want to give Jesus Christ our hearts, our minds and our lives.
Resources related to the topic of stewardship:
Click here for an RCL-synced sermon (for 11/11/18) on the topic of generosity
This article is by GCI-Germany Elder Santiago Lange.
Liturgy is an important aspect of worship in the Christian faith. It helps us mature in our relationship with Jesus. But to gain that benefit, we need to understand what liturgy is, and how it is used in various worship traditions. Unfortunately, some Christians condemn all “church traditions” and “liturgical practices” (whatever they may mean by those terms), seeing them as cloaked attempts to undermine and weaken the authority of the Bible. But, is that actually the case?
Are worship traditions permissible?
In England, at the Tower of London, every afternoon at exactly 4 PM there is an interesting ceremony. The Beefeaters, British royalty’s ceremonial guards, come out of the Tower and feed the ravens on the front lawn. There is a legend that as long as the ravens are fed, London would never fall to her enemies. During WWII and the Battle of Britain, when London was being bombed by the Nazis, many ravens were frightened away. Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the Beefeaters to secretly clip the wings of the remaining ravens, so they could not fly. Why? To provide a sense of stability and security to Londoners in a troubled time.
We know that Jesus is our strong anchor and that our primary identity must be in him. We don’t have to worry about “our ravens flying away.” We are secure in our Savior’s hands. And yet, there is a proper place in the Christian church for God-honoring traditions. Simply defined, a tradition is “that which is handed down from generation to generation.” Of and by themselves, traditions are neither “good” or “bad.” The content and reason for our traditions determine their potential value.
The New Testament speaks of tradition in a positive light. The apostle Paul wrote this: “…Stand firm and hold on to the traditions that we taught you, whether by speech or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15, NET). Jesus did many things for which the only authority is tradition. For example, attendance in a synagogue (Luke 4:16) is not mentioned once in the Old Testament. Giving thanks before eating (Matt. 14:19) was not part of the Law. It was purely a Jewish tradition. The singing of a hymn at the end of the Passover meal (Matt. 26:30) was not part of the Law regarding Passover observance. The Feast of Dedication that Christ attended (John 10:22) was a Jewish celebration. Do these facts have any implications for a liturgy that is not directly commanded for Christians under the new covenant?
There are two extremes regarding traditions. The Pharisees were guilty of making tradition equal with the authority of Scripture. They believed in the Oral Law, a set of traditions reaching all the way back to Moses. The Pharisees taught that the Law in both its oral and written forms was binding. Unfortunately, they introduced various traditions that were designed more to protect and enrich themselves than to honor God.
What is liturgy?
An explanation of terms is needed at this point. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church gives this definition of liturgy:
Liturgy (Gk. λειτουργία from λεώς ‘people’ and ἔργον ‘work’). The original Greek word was used of a public work of any kind, not only religious, but in the Septuagint, it is applied particularly to the services of the Temple. The word in English is used in two senses: (1) of all the prescribed services of the Church…and (2) specifically as a title of the Eucharist (as the chief act of public worship).
Over the centuries, some Christians have defended worship traditions or certain “liturgical practices” as having an equal footing with Scripture. As Evangelicals, we believe and assert that God’s Word is our final authority in all matters of faith and practice. The most notable “liturgical celebration” directly instructed by our Lord to his disciples is the “Lord’s Supper” (also called Communion and the Eucharist). But, that fact does not prohibit Christians from framing, expanding, teaching and cherishing a God-honoring liturgy for worship that focuses on God, who he is and what he had done. The above-mentioned examples and the New Testament witness underscore this claim.
Liturgical practices can help us focus on the story of Jesus, with the great events of his incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension at its core and center. The RCL (Revised Common Lectionary) offers Christians a widely-accepted and meaningful liturgical pattern of worship that is strongly Christ-centered and gospel-shaped.
This article from Ted Johnston looks at the transformative power that a gospel-shaped liturgy has in converting a person’s worldview to Christ.
Though, in the minds of many, the word liturgy conjures up images of rigid, formulaic worship, when rightly shaped and followed, liturgy is a powerful tool for converting a person’s worldview to Christ.
Liturgy is a biblical word. The New Testament uses the verb leitourgia to speak of service (ministry-worship) within the church. It then uses the noun leitourgos to speak of those who lead worship, with Jesus being the supreme leitourgos. From these Greek words comes the English word liturgy, which means “the service (work) of the people” with the word used informally to refer to the order of service by which the people of God structure worship. Given this informal definition, all churches (whether they know it or not) have a liturgy. In some cases, it’s formal and highly structured (typically referred to as “high church liturgy”), in others it’s less structured (called “low church liturgy”), and in still others it’s so informal that these churches are said to be “non-liturgical.”
Use a Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy
Though it is not my purpose in this article to lobby for any one form of liturgy, I do want to urge our pastors and others who plan worship in GCI congregations to think through answers to three related questions:
Is your congregation’s liturgy (your order of service each week, and the way you structure your worship throughout the year) fully Christ-centered?
Is that centering on Christ abundantly clear to all the worshippers?
Does this centering involve all aspects of all of your worship services?
If you can answer “yes” to all three questions, it is likely that your liturgy is effective in discipling your members in the way of Jesus, which includes leading them to embrace a fully Christ-centered worldview.
In the Practice of Ministry course I teach at Grace Communion Seminary, I urge my students to make their congregation’s liturgy both Christ-centered and gospel-shaped. The two go together because the gospel is Christ’s “story.” Why then mention both? Because a life-transforming liturgy points to and exalts Jesus by re-telling (re-presenting) the gospel, which as the apostle Paul notes, is “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes….” (Rom. 1:16). Following a Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy week-to-week is a powerful way to help people think more like Jesus and so, by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, become more like Jesus.
Reenacting/inhabiting the gospel story
I urge you to approach the liturgy you use in your congregation as not merely an “order of services” (with certain elements to be checked off a list), but as the script for a life-transforming dramatic reenactment of the gospel—Jesus’ story. Effective liturgy helps worshipers to not merely hear the story, but inhabit the story in a way that Jesus’ story becomes their own. As that happens, by the power of the Spirit, their whole being—heart, mind and body (including their worldview)—is converted more and more to Jesus Christ.
Liturgy as gospel reenactment is not about a single Sunday worship service in isolation from the others. Instead, through a Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy, the gospel story is retold as a drama that spans the course of the full year—what we call the liturgical year (or Christian year). With this integrated approach, the liturgy followed each Sunday will be located within the flow of the full gospel story, unfolding over the course of the entire year.
In the Western Christian tradition, the liturgical (worship) year begins in late November or early December with Advent Season, then proceeds to Christmas Season, followed by Epiphany Season, the Season of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter Season, which stretches from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. The season that follows is called Ordinary Time, not because it’s unimportant, but because it addresses our day-in-and-day-out responses to the great gospel events celebrated throughout the other seasons. Those responses involve our participation in Jesus’ life-transforming, disciple-making mission. Because this participation is led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the long stretch of ordinary time that follows Pentecost Sunday is sometimes called the season after Pentecost (or the Pentecost Season).
When this year-long liturgy is followed, each worship service is deeply connected to Jesus through the retelling/reenacting of his story (the gospel). Optimizing that connection takes planning, creativity and time—but it’s energy and time well-spent because an effective, creative liturgy engages the worshipper at multiple levels: heart, head and hands, helping them to be active participants rather than merely passive spectators. The liturgy places our individual lives and particular stories in the context of God’s overall, history-long story of redemption. The flyleaf of Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross, has this to say concerning the power of liturgy to help people inhabit God’s story:
Remembering God’s work, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the Spirit’s coming will change you, drawing you into deeper intimacy with God and pointing your attention to the work of the Father, Son and Spirit right now, in and around you. You’ll be reminded daily that your life is bigger than just you, that you are part of God’s huge plan that started before time and will continue into eternity. Keeping liturgical time, making it sacred, opens us further to this power as, year after year, we rehearse the Story of God—remembering with gratitude, anticipating with hope—and over time live more deeply the Story of our lives.
Creating the Hope Venue
A Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy helps turn the worship service into what we in GCI call the Hope Venue—a ministry environment that engenders hope, thus enhancing the conversion toward Christ of the worshipper’s worldview and the transformation of their sense of identity along with the patterns of their living in the world.
As a transformative environment, the Hope Venue is enhanced when the worship liturgy used is multi-sensory—designed to engage all five senses. This helps worshippers inhabit the story of God in deep, transforming ways as they transition from being spectators to active participants (actors) in the divine drama. Here are examples of ways to engage all five senses (and I encourage you to think of other creative ways to do so):
Post banners, pictures, etc. in the worship space that point to/illustrate key gospel messages/events.
Burn candles or have ways to set the mood through other uses of lighting.
While the service is being conducted, in full view of the congregation, have a gifted artist in your congregation paint or draw a picture that illustrates the gospel-shaped theme of that service.
Utilize dance and drama to reenact aspects of the gospel story being addressed in the readings and sermon.
As the worshippers enter, provide music that sets a worshipful mood/tone, thus inclining their hearts toward God.
Have the worshippers sing together (which means selecting music that they know and can easily sing, adjusting the volume of accompaniment so the worshippers can hear themselves and others).
Have the worshippers recite one of the ancient creeds (such as the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed).
Have the worshippers recite together the Lord’s Prayer.
Have the worshippers pray for each other (some churches call this the “prayers of the people”).
Engage the congregation in the sermon by having them respond verbally, perhaps by answering questions posed by the preacher.
Have a time in which the worshippers get up and greet one another, offering a word of blessing (some churches call this “passing the peace”).
Have the worshippers come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper—some congregations provide a place to kneel while the elements are received (see more about the Lord’s Supper below).
For bread at the Lord’s Supper, use a freshly baked loaf, still warm, which when broken provides a wonderful smell throughout the sanctuary.
Burn incense or scented candles—doing so may help eliminate unpleasant odors in the meeting hall (caution: some members may be allergic to certain smells).
The Lord’s Supper offers this in a powerful way (which is one reason I recommend serving warm, leavened bread and good-quality wine and/or grape juice).
In evaluating which of these elements of worship to use and how to do so, remember that the overall goal is to create a transformative, hope-engendering environment (what we refer to in GCI as the Hope Venue). In that regard, remember that Jesus is both the source and object of our hope, not someone or something else. The purpose of these elements is thus always to facilitate the reenating-dramatizing of Jesus’ story, the gospel, not some other story.
I encourage you to think of the worship service as a play with multiple scenes, or a symphony with multiple movements. Think in terms of choreographing the liturgy accordingly—with movement, pace, building to a crescendo, then benediction/dismissal. All parts of the liturgy should interrelate in telling the gospel story in the most memorable way possible, thus engaging the worshippers in the drama. It is through this engagement—their participation in the drama—that the worshippers’ worldviews (and thus their personal identities) are more and more converted to Christ.
A word of caution: worldview and identity conversion often occur rather slowly (more slow-cooker than microwave stuff). However, there are times when sudden and significant leaps occur. Ultimately, it’s the Holy Spirit who does the converting, but as his servants we are participants in his often-mysterious converting/transforming work. Let us participate well!
Concerning the sermon
In GCI, we strongly recommend that our congregations use a liturgy that syncs with the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). A primary aspect of the RCL is its weekly Scripture readings (called “lections” or “lessons”) that track with the order/themes of the liturgical year (the Christian calendar). The RCL arranges these readings so that if all four passages are read each week (as recommended), over a three-year period the congregation will hear the entire biblical story: creation, fall, Israel’s exodus, captivity and return, the promise and advent of the Messiah, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of the coming kingdom. Each week, one (and sometimes more) of the lections will be addressed in the sermon, and, where possible, the songs and hymns and even the prayers and announcements (in other words, all elements in the service), will reinforce and expound this single theme. In that way the service will be fully Christ-centered and gospel-shaped, and so contribute to the formation of an atmosphere of hope. The result? Transformed lives.
Concerning the Lord’s Supper
Though it’s common for many churches to view the sermon as the high point of the liturgy, historically (and in many churches today) the high point, or call it the focus of the service, is Communion (the Lord’s Supper). Some congregations follow this emphasis by serving Communion weekly. They also portray this focus visually by placing the Communion table front and center in the worship space. Though GCI does not require its congregations to serve Communion weekly, many congregations are finding that doing so is a great blessing.
Some worry that if they serve Communion weekly, it will become too common, or that it will take too much time away from the sermon or other worship elements. While these concerns are understandable, consider what Thomas F. Torrance in Gospel, Church and Ministry says concerning how Holy Communion proclaims the gospel in unparalleled ways:
It is at Holy Communion above all that we see Christ face to face and handle things unseen and feed upon his body and blood by faith. It is there in the real presence of Christ that we grasp something of the wonder of the Savior’s love and redeeming sacrifice, and understand that it is not our faith in Christ that counts but his vicarious life and sacrifice, his redeeming life and death that count. It is at Holy Communion when the bread and wine are put into our hands, that we know it is not our believing that counts but he in whom we believe, not what we do but what the Savior has done for us and what he means to us. It is at Holy Communion, in short, that we really understand best the gospel of salvation by grace alone. Thus it was at Holy Communion that [as a pastor] I found it easiest to proclaim and make clear to people what the unconditional grace of God’s saving love really is….
I have found in my own ministry that it is easiest to preach the unconditional nature of grace, and the vicarious humanity and substitutionary role of Christ in faith, at the celebration of the Eucharist, where the call for repentance and faith is followed by Communion in the body and blood of Christ in which we stretch out empty hands to receive the bread and wine: “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy Cross I cling.” There at the Holy Table or the altar I know that I cannot rely on my own faith but only on the vicarious faith of the Lord Jesus in total substitution of his atoning sacrifice on the Cross….
That is what the covenant in his body and blood, which the Savior has forged for us, actually, practically, and really means. It is the very essence of the gospel that salvation and justification are by the grace of Christ alone, in which he takes our place, that you may take his place. (pp. 47, 88, 251-252)
Some congregations put a lot of emphasis on music. Worship music (when rightly presented) is a powerful tool for conveying the gospel message in a highly participatory way. However, music can also be a distraction when used to merely entertain rather than to engage the congregation in the worship of our triune God. When we sing, let us sing the liturgy, not merely “sing at” the liturgy. In that regard, the words to worship songs are of particular importance.
Concerning church service liturgy
In the historic liturgy of the church (still used by many churches today, including many GCI congregations), the liturgy first proclaims Christ in spoken word (through Scripture readings, recitations, hymns and sermon), then in enacted word (through Communion). In that way, what is spoken in addressing the gospel and in praise of the Lord, leads the worshippers to the Lord’s Table where the gospel is enacted and the Lord is encountered in a unique, powerful way. Preceding the Lord’s Supper there typically will be a prayer of confession—not to “earn” or somehow “qualify” for the blessing that comes with Communion—but to acknowledge the need we all have for the grace that Communion represents to people who have placed their trust in Christ.
To assist congregations in following the annual worship calendar of the Western church, GCI (here in Equipper) provides sermons synced with The Revised Common Lectionary. GCI then provides a recommended order of service adapted from The Book of Common Prayer. For additional related information and resources, click here.
In offering these resources, we’re not saying that it is a GCI requirement to follow this order of service. However, we are suggesting that, rightly used, this liturgy is highly effective in giving prominence to the proclamation of Christ in Word (readings and sermon) and Sacrament (Communion). This order of service is strongly Christ-centered and gospel-shaped, where the response of the congregation at each point flows from a presentation of Christ and his gracious benefits.
If you are a pastor, I highly recommend that you try this liturgy in your congregation if you’re not using it already. Note, however, that any significant changes in liturgy must be handled with utmost care. Some members, having grown up in churches that use a liturgy similar to the one GCI recommends, may have negative perceptions about the liturgy. Thus you’d need to carefully explain the liturgy (including the meaning of its flow and each of its elements) and the benefits it offers in worshipping the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I recommend the following:
Kid’s Korner this month is from GCI Equipper Editor Ted Johnston.
We’ll soon begin a new cycle in the Western Christian worship year, which begins with Advent Season (the period that includes the four Sundays prior to Christmas day). This year, December 2 is the first Sunday in Advent, so now is the time to prepare.
GCI strongly encourages its congregations to structure worship in accordance with the Christian worship calendar, following the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). To help congregations do that, we publish here in GCI Equipper RCL-synced sermons for each Sunday and a few other special worship days (such as those during Holy Week in the Spring).
Those of you who teach children’s church and teen church and classes can capitalize on this tie-in to the Christian worship calendar by syncing what you teach with the RCL. There are many ways to do that, and I encourage you to use your creativity. To help you, I’ve listed below some RCL-synced curricula available online. None of these are produced by GCI and thus we don’t necessarily endorse all their content, though we see these as some of the best resources available (if you know of others, let us know by posting the information in the comment box, below).
Resources for RCL-synced children and teen studies/classes:
Spark House curricula (various options for children and teen teaching curricula, including ones synced with the RCL)
With Advent and the start of a new year of ministry (worship and witness) at hand, this issue helps us think about three key aspects of healthy church— worship liturgy, church leadership and worldview conversion.
From Greg: Adjust Your Posture
Greg Williams urges church leaders to embrace a vital aspect of Healthy Church—having a posture that is open to receiving new, younger leaders.
This article from Charles Fleming continues our series exploring Worldview Conversion and the related topic of Whole-Life Discipleship.
For some people, a discussion about worldview seems rather academic and abstract—far removed from day-to-day life. But for those wanting to live a life that is transformed in Christ by the Spirit, few things are more central, with profound real-life implications. As Ted Johnston notes in his earlier article, our worldview determines how we
…view all sorts of issues: God, politics, truth, education, abortion, marriage, the environment, race, gender, economics, what it means to be human, the origins of the universe… to name a few.
Worldviews are the basic stuff of human existence, the lens through which the world is seen, the blueprint for how one should live in it, and above all the sense of identity and place which enables human beings to be what they are. To ignore worldviews, either our own or those of the culture we are studying, would result in extraordinary shallowness. (p. 124)
When our worldview, with our related sense of identity, is more secular than Christ-centered, we end up, to one degree or another, departing from the mind of Christ. For that reason, it’s vital that we recognize and deal with any aspects of our worldview that are not yielded to the lordship of Christ. Thus this series emphasizes what we refer to as worldview conversion.
Having our worldview converted more fully to Christ is a challenge, for by the time we are mature enough to take God seriously, we typically already have a fully-formed worldview—one shaped as much by osmosis as by intentional thought. Worldview formation is similar to the way an infant learns language. It’s both a formal, intentional activity on the part of the child and the parents, and a process with a life all its own. Much of it just happens with certain values and assumptions just feeling right to us as they become the baseline from which we (both consciously and unconsciously) evaluate what goes on in and around us. It’s the unconscious reacting that often becomes the primary sticking point to our growth and witness as followers of Jesus.
Our relationship with human culture
Scripture warns us that, to one degree or another, all human cultures are out of step with God’s kingdom values and ways. As Christians, we are called to repudiate such values and ways to live as ambassadors of God’s kingdom. Scripture often uses the word Babylon to describe cultures that are hostile to God, calling them “the mother of… the abominations of the earth” (Rev. 17: 5) and admonishing us to reject any ungodly values and ways in the culture (world) around us. Note what the apostle Paul says about this:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom. 12:2)
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. (Col. 2:8)
Fundamental to our calling as followers of Jesus is the imperative to live counter-culturally—counter to the sinful characteristics of the culture that surrounds us. It has been said that Jesus lived with one foot in the culture and one foot planted firmly in kingdom values. He often repudiated the culture to avoid becoming captive to the ideologies and practices that were an offense to God. However, in doing so, Jesus did not repudiate the people within the culture. Instead, he loved them and had compassion toward them. Moreover, while highlighting aspects of the culture contrary to God’s ways, he also emphasized aspects that were good—indeed, all cultures are a mixture of both.
We are called to follow Jesus’ example. Our resurrected and ascended Lord expects us to be subject to the leading of his word and Spirit, so that we live as faithful ambassadors of his kingdom of love, shining the light of his glory in an often-dark world.
To live as Christ’s ambassadors in the world with its various cultures, we must follow Jesus’ example of being constantly aware of the deepest sin of human culture—the one that is the problem behind the problem of a secular worldview. That problem, that sin, is idolatry.The sad reality is that idolatry is widespread in our modern, me-centered Western culture. We need eyes to see this reality—both in the world around us, and in our own worldview. Doing so is a challenge, for idolatry is not always easy to spot.
Idolatry is the worship of anything other than God. It involves loving, trusting, and serving something or someone above God. Throughout Scripture we find God and godly leaders helping people recognize and then abandon idolatry. For example, the Ten Commandments begins by prohibiting idolatry. The book of Judges and the books of the Prophets chronicle the ways that social, political and economic problems result from people trusting in someone or something other than the true God.
The great sin behind all other sins is idolatry—the failure to love, obey and serve God. As noted by the apostle Paul, the results are devastating:
Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…. [they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images…. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. (Rom. 1:21, 23-24)
Paul shows that an unwillingness to accept God as God leads to immorality, the corruption of minds, and the darkening of hearts.
Anyone interested in bringing about the conversion of their worldview would do well to spend time reflecting deeply on Romans 1:16–32 where the apostle Paul makes it clear that idolatry (the problem behind the problem) must be addressed if we are to produce consistently good fruit (wise decision-making and moral behavior). Paul is consistent with this point throughout his ministry (see, for example, 1 Cor. 10:14 where Paul exhorts Christians to flee from idolatry).
Educating our members
Given that idolatry thrives in modern Western cultures, it is crucial that we help our members understand the threat it presents. We need to reintroduce this understanding to a generation that tends to view idolatry as only a matter of bowing down to physical objects (as pictured below). Idolatry is much more than that!
A word of caution, however: Our calling as church leaders is not to be constantly pointing out to people exactly where the idolatry is in their behavior and thinking. It is their responsibility to figure that out. Instead, as “helpers of their joy,” we are called to help them recognize the attitudes and behaviors that are symptomatic of idolatrous attachments. We need to alert them to the dangers of idolatry, and give them biblical criteria to help them examine the assumptions and values that make up their worldview to see if they are consistent with the Christian faith they profess. Doing so involves the whole-life discipleship process Gary Deddo addressed in an earlier article in this series.
Paul provided this sort of instruction in his letter to the church in Colossae. He wrote about the link between idolatry and covetousness (Col. 3:5). When we want something so much that we covet it, that thing has taken over our hearts—it has become an idol that we seek after at the expense of giving God his due. In our age of rampant materialism and consumerism, we all need help in combating the covetousness that leads to idolatry. The entire world of advertising is built on cultivating in us a dissatisfaction with life unless we have the product or lifestyle being promoted. It’s as if someone decided to create a culture designed to undermine what Paul told Timothy:
Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Tim. 6:6-10)
Each month, the average person in the U.S. is exposed to about 150,000 messages that promote a product or idea. Part of our calling as church leaders is to help our members understand how the culture appeals to our hearts, creating not just strong desires, but also a sense of entitlement, and even the notion that we are less of a person if denied the product or lifestyle being promoted. What makes this educational task especially challenging is that most of the things we make into idols are good things. In and of themselves, having a better home or a better job are good things. But if they become things that define our identity, significance, security and/or our dignity, we have invited an idol into our lives. It’s important that we help our members recognize when their relationship with a good thing has become idolatry.
Explaining idolatry as the problem behind the problem helps people set up guardrails in their lives to help them sense when they are taking a good thing and turning it into an idol—something they depend on for peace, joy, personal significance and safety (things only God can truly provide). Some of the good things that people are tempted to turn into “ultimate things” include relationships, money, fame, ideologies, patriotism, and even personal piety. The Bible is filled with stories of people doing this. Let’s explore these stories with our members in sermons, Bible studies, discipleship classes, etc. (For a helpful resource, click here for videos of “Uncover,” a series of lectures given by Tim Keller).
Idolatry in the Knowledge Age
We live in what historians call the Knowledge Age (as distinct from the Industrial Age of the past). In our era, idolatry is less about the worship of physical objects and more about the worship of ideas and knowledge. The forms of knowledge that most aggressively seek to win our hearts are ideologies—economic models, psychological theories, political philosophies, etc. As church leaders, we leave God’s people vulnerable if we fail to help them develop the ability to evaluate for themselves when a good idea or philosophy is becoming an idol in their hearts and minds.
We can help them by teaching them to identify their deepest values and assumptions—their worldview. We can teach them how, in prayer, to discern why they react so strongly to something in the news or on social media. We can help them ask questions like these: Why did I get so angry? Why do I feel this strongly? What value does this come from and when and how did this become a value to me? Does my reaction bring glory to God and express Jesus’ love and compassion for people?
Note also that we need to be self-aware—we need to recognize the “sacred cows” in our hearts and minds—the ideas, attitudes and things that we don’t want God to touch, the things that are “off-limits.” As church leaders, we need to ask God to convert our own worldview so that what we say and do bears kingdom fruit.
Many of our missteps as Christians come from the often-unrecognized influence of our personal worldview. One of the most damaging effects is seen in the diminished quality of our Christian witness to a hurting world. Too often we take on pressing problems in ways that reflect the partisan views of the secular culture around us. As a result, many of us stay away from addressing the problems presented by the culture and thus leave our members vulnerable. We owe it to Christ to help his people discern the ways their worldview may be the seedbed of Christ-dishonoring ideas and behaviors. We need to help our members evaluate the posture of their hearts in light of Christ’s command to love God above all else. This means learning to recognize any idolatrous attachments they might have.
It’s our prayer that this article provides helpful insights to reflect upon. May the God of all wisdom inspire you as you seek to equip his people to be that light on the hill he wants us all to be.
Last month we defined a healthy leadership team as a R.E.A.L. team—one that is relationally connected (R), enthusiastically engaged (E), affirming (A), and involving liberating leaders (L). The resources below are designed to help congregations develop R.E.A.L. teams in alignment with GCI’s healthy church vision.
REAL Teams videos. The videos linked below address four defining and essential characteristics of a R.E.A.L. team. We encourage you to show, then discuss these videos over the course of several team meetings (click on the links to watch online or to download).