Thursday, 6 May 2010

Becoming a Christian

I have been meditating on the text from John 3:1-15 and especially the passage - much used and abused - where Jesus talks about being "born-again". We all read that as Jesus' and John the apostles' shorthand for becoming a Christian. A Christian is someone who undergoes a spiritual re-birth that brings them out of darkness into light and up from death into a new resurrection life. Anyone who becomes a Christian therefore is, in Paul's words, "a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17). That much is clear. But HOW a person becomes a Christian is a mystery. This is what I believe Jesus is referring to and underlining when He tells Nicodemus about the action of the Holy Spirit being like the wind which is free and beyond our control. It "blows wherever it pleases." We cannot harness it, direct it, or predict where it will blow. We just know its effect - the waving of grass and trees or the sound whistling through the bushes.

In other words Jesus wants us to stop trying to take control of each and every situation or try and quicken up the process of conversion or try to coerce any individuals to "make a decision" for Christ. As productive as this has been in some instances over the years - and thank God for the likes of Billy Graham et al - there is a tendency among us weak and sinful creatures to want to boast or show off how good or effective we are or else build our own particular kingdoms by making a name for ourselves. We need to remind ourselves that it is a divine work - born again can also be translated "born from above" my personal preference - in which the Spirit blows into an individual's life and changes them forever. Just as flesh gives birth to flesh (and sometimes that can mean that some conversions end up being fleshly rather than spiritual) so the "Spirit gives birth to spirit".

None of this of course says that we have no part to play or cannot learn to read situations where the wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing a gale. There are, I am sure, certain 'signs' that may give away the fact that something is happening in the heart and life of the person we are engaged with. For example - may be not the best example I know - in John 4 Jesus is engaged in conversation with a Samaritan woman and she is very receptive to His message, so receptive that she has gone back to her village to bring her relatives etc for further talks. Meanwhile the disciples have turned up and are alarmed that Jesus should be talking 1) to a woman and 2) a Samaritan. Far more important than hanging around with these dubious characters is their concern for Jesus to eat. He however has more important and urgent business to attend to and proceeds to tell them about harvests and how important it is to get in the crop while the season is upon them: "I tell you open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest." (John 4:35) In other words: "Don't you see what is happening here? People are responding to my message and are ready to come to new birth and enter the Kingdom." The disciples didn't see, and weren't looking, for the Holy Spirit's work and so failed to notice the blowing of the wind among the Samaritans. Jesus knew and later we are told that such a gale of the Spirit had been blowing that he needed two days to gather in the harvest there (John 4:40).

Two things emerge from this:
1. If Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit was at work then so can we and instead of allowing our prejudices or personal needs to deflect us away, we can "keep in step" with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:25) and help bring in the harvest as it ripens.
2. We must not try and manufacture conversions but treat the work of God as primarily His work not ours. This way He gets the glory and we will not be tempted to boast of our own evangelistic deeds.

Oh and one more thing. Just as it is a mystery how a person becomes a Christian, it is also a mystery how people who have been to church for years and hear about the love of God and see it enacted in the Holy Communion, repeatedly fail to become one.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Church is God's idea

In one of John Stott's last books "The Living Church" he underlines the central importance of God's Church to the work of the Kingdom. In chapter one entitled 'Essentials' he begins:

"I am assuming that we are all committed to the church. We are not only Christian people; we are also church people. We are not only committed to Christ, we are also committed to the body of Christ. At least I hope so. I trust that none of my readers is that grotesque anomaly, an unchurched Christian. The New Testament knows nothing of such a person. For the Church lies at the very centre of the eternal purpose of God. It is not a divine afterthought. It is not an accident of history. On the contrary, the church is God's new community."

This is a message that cannot be over-emphasized at this time and in these 'last' days. In the individualization of society, more and more people are leaving our churches and yet still holding tenuously onto their faith all the time convincing themselves that they are still Christian and still committed to God. Sadly nothing is further from the truth, for to be committed to God is to be committed to the Body of Christ, the church. The work of God is far too important and challenging for God to leave it to individuals. We must resist the pull to cut loose and try and swim outside of the ship which is the church.

This is no new temptation. In the early Church the writer to the Hebrews felt it necessary to write:
"And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. " (Hebrews 10:24-25)

And still earlier in the Old Testament the wise words fo Ecclesiastes undergird this important truth:
"Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work:If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!" (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)

Those who 'go it alone' will find themselves picked off by the evil one whose tactic is to isolate individuals from the main body of the church. No wonder Augustine once said: "No one can have God as his Father unless he has the Church as his mother".

So be warned. The whole of the teaching of Jesus is predicated on the assumption that Christians will meet together, learn from and encourage one another, and together embark on His mission to "Go, make disciples of all nations.." (Matthew 28:19ff)

How do you grow a church?

How can you take a dying church and make it grow again? That is a $64,000 question hundreds of struggling ministers would love to know the...