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Strengthening church

rural church

Below is an article that was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Village Link, itself based on my opening address at our 2018 Annual Conference.

‘Strengthen’ occurs about twenty times in the NT, translating Greek words, with meanings of ‘supporting’, ‘upholding’, ‘making more firm’, ‘straightening out’ and ‘fixing in place’.

In Hebrews (12:12), the writer exhorts us to ‘strengthen our weak knees’. Anyone who has had a knee injury knows that strengthening the knee means strengthening the muscles around it so that the joint is supported. This calls for time, perseverance, and, ideally, the help of a physiotherapist. Strengthening is not just about words of encouragement; it takes knowledge, skill, discipline and effort.

The main verses of interest to us, however, are in Acts 15 & 16. Here, we see Paul and his co-workers first planting churches and then returning to strengthen them, so that they both deepen in faith and increase in numbers.

‘Strengthening the churches’ is at the heart of Village Hope’s purpose. But a commitment to strengthening churches poses something of a dilemma, particularly for a rural ministry. There need to be churches to strengthen and they need be capable of being strengthened. Rural areas have more churches (in the institutional sense) per caput, but there are often few people in them; some may be resistant to anything other than ‘business as usual’, and some may not bear a great deal of resemblance to churches in the NT sense.

So, what is ‘church’ and how do we strengthen it?

Church matters, because the (local) church is a “sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society” (Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 1989, SPCK, p 233) . And, for us here now, it is an essential locus of fellowship and the agent of mission. But what is church?

Centuries of Christendom makes applying NT ecclesiology difficult. Yet now, our post-Christian world looks more like the world of the NT than it has for most of Christian history and maybe this makes reconfiguring church a little easier.

For churches to be truly prophetic and effectively missional in our present context, some argue that churches must rediscover and reaffirm their heritages (“hold to the traditions”, 2 Thessalonians 2:15), while others urge us to abandon the old and start afresh with one or other understanding of the NT pattern (‘new wine needs new wineskins’, Matthew 9:17). (Others offer new paradigms altogether – seemingly informed more by the spirit of the age than the words of Scripture).

Thinking about this prompted me to revisit my own experience of ‘house church’. Following the common pattern, my group left a denominational church and met informally in homes. We were influenced by the then ‘restoration’ movement, with its compelling vision that under the leadership of a new breed of apostles and prophets, the Lord was restoring His Church, freeing it from the shackles of the old, worn-out institutions, and bringing it back to its NT roots. Yet, it was not long before these groupings began to look somewhat like the institutions they had left, moving from ‘back-to-basics’ house church to hiring halls, buying buildings, and setting up hierarchies.  Today, some have become successful new denominations in their own right.

My own group, however, did not go down that road. Rather we made a decision to reconnect with various denominational churches (although not always the ones we left), while still retaining close fellowship and community. At the time, I think the argument was: the denominations are here to stay, most of our Christian brothers and sisters are in them, they have the resources and visibility, so why try to reproduce them? Simply relocating church achieves little, or just produces more institutions. And the traditional churches had much that we were still drawing on or even discovering for first time.

But, at the same time, the traditional churches did not provide the fellowship and community possible in and around households (and that seemed for us more in line with the NT pattern). The answer was to combine church affiliation with home-centred fellowship and community.

Things have moved on since then. Some denominational churches have experienced something of a renaissance, with successful outreach programmes, growing congregations, social-care initiatives, etc. But the ‘alternative’ church movement (in the broadest sense), configured around ‘back-to-NT basics’ and/or ‘cultural relevance’, has also burgeoned  – into an array of house churches, ‘simple church’, ‘emergent church’, ‘fresh expressions’, ‘new forms’, ‘missional communities’, cell groups, prayer networks, ’24-7 prayer’, ‘new monasticism’, houses of prayer, ‘church on the streets’, walking church, ‘Celtic communities’ and so on. There is also an increasing number of people who believe, but do not belong –  an unchurched, de-churched or post-church community!

So things have become decidedly more complex, perplexing, confusing! Nevertheless, I still believe there is such as thing as authentic church and there are marks of maturity in a church, and that we are to press on to maturity (Hebrews 6:1) and strengthen churches so they become more authentic.

Strengthening church
So, how do we strengthen church? My concern here is to answer this question in NT terms rather than in terms of the latest church-growth ‘fix’. I suggest five strategies, which reflect the key characteristics of authentic, mature church. There are, of course, more.

Strengthening a church means setting “in order the things that are lacking” (Titus 1:5), in terms of leadership and ministry. Paul urged Titus to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5) and explained to the Ephesians that the church grows to maturity and is equipped for service through the ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors-teachers (Ephesians 4:7-16). The NT also has much to say about church discipline, an aspect of church life that runs right against our current culture!

The NT also has a great deal to say about how we should live and especially how we should conduct ourselves in the “household of faith” (Galatians 6:10) and as “God’s chosen ones” (Colossians 3:12-14). The distinguishing mark of Jesus’s disciples, after all, that we love one another (John 13:35).

A third mark of authentic and mature church is a concern for “sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). The new church of Acts 2, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Paul urged the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

This is, I believe, an absolutely critical issue now, but not necessarily a popular one. In the not so distant past, there was perhaps a fairly simple division between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ understandings of Scripture. But now, the whole church scene is much more complex and fragmented, reflecting the wider culture.

Deception has always been a possibility, and we are warned that it will become more so in the “latter times” (1 Timothy 4:1). In such times, it is essential to ‘underpin’ our (biblical) foundations..

The early church also “devoted themselves to fellowship” (Acts 2:42), to sharing meals with one another “from house to house” (Acts 2:46) and even to a shared economy (Acts 4:32).

My critical point here is that deepening fellowship is not just our calling at all times, but also a specific response to our present times. The pattern I described above from my own experience of house church, of affiliation to an institutional church combined with home-based fellowship, mirrored the practice of believers in the then Communist world, where believers attended both registered and underground churches. Of course, for us then, there was little danger of in either. But the pattern may be apposite for now and the times to come.

Deepening fellowship is not just an imperative at all times, but also a specific response to our present times (Hebrews 10:25). And this may be worked out within, alongside or even outside institutional affiliation.

Fellowship is not a cup of tea after a church service, nor a club or common interest group, but a shared life of prayer, loving relationships, and service of others. Ultimately fellowship is ‘of the Holy Spirit’ (2 Corinthians 13:14) as we affirm every time we share in the Grace. The church is the community of the Spirit and our fellowship is with the Lord and with believers present and with the great cloud of witnesses of those who have gone before.

Finally, strengthening church means strengthening mission. Authentic church preaches the Gospel and makes disciples.

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