Friday, August 30, 2013

Missional or Confessional?

Image Ref: 05-08-17 - Celtic Cross, Viewed 9468 timesSpiritual Gifts and Missiology in a Post-Christian Context
based on 1 Peter

Church-planting in a post-Christian context certainly has its challenges. Not only is the ground hard, there is also much confusion about missiology and where to start. The church-planter, often untrained in theology or missiology, is left scratching his head, wondering what it is that Jesus would have him do.Trial and error end up being the primary tools in the church-planter's toolbox. Unfortunately, the newest trends of theological fashion, with a one size fits all design, are not always helpful, leaving missionaries wondering what could possibly be wrong with them. If they were doing it right, they would surely see more fruit. And then there's that pesky little truth that the Spirit of God blows when and where He wills, not where methods are perfect. The church-planter is always re-evaluating methods, hoping to find one that will finally work. Some seem to have found a trendy, more sexy way to approach church, making it more accessible and cool for the un-churched. Others, bound by tradition and principle, continue in their rut, week after week, but don't have the time, energy or courage to take an honest look at their methods and why they might not be functional in their particular context. In the evangelical and reformed world, there is often a wedge driven between so called emerging missional churches that preach a "go and be" message and confessional ordinary means of grace churches that have a "come and see" philosophy. These two entrenched camps usually end up launching grenades at each other across the theological divide instead of seeing their common battle field in enemy territory and learning fighting strategies from one another. God has given his Church gifts that are to equip her to do Kingdom work. How we understand and apply these gifts will be reflected in how we go about church-planting and how we will shape those churches in the end.

Speaking and serving gifts

The three main passages describing the spiritual gifts are Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; and 1 Corinthians 12:28. There is a plethora of gifts mentioned by the apostle Paul in these passages, but the other apostle whose name starts with a P, namely Peter, also has something to say about the topic. His is the broadest and simplest categorization of all spiritual gifts in the New Testament and it is only two-fold.

Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen (1Pe 4:10-11 NIV).

Peter divides all the gifts into speaking and serving gifts: 
  • Speaking: teaching, preaching, prophesy, discernment, knowledge, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, evangelism, encouragement/exhortation, intercession. (For today's context, writing also belongs in this category, whether books or letters, journalism, and even blogs)
  • Serving: giving, hospitality, healing, mercy, administration, serving the needs of the body and the needs of the world in practical ways, as variegated as the possibilities are! Mercy and justice within and without, tailored to needs of individuals and communities. 
This simple categorization of the gifts into speaking and serving reveal to us how God's grace is administered and applied to people's lives both in- and outside the church. God's methods are timeless. The manner in which gifts are applied are the same today as they were in Peter's day. Grace can be either spoken into people's lives or applied to people's lives through tangible acts of service. Peter does not elevate one category over the other, nor does one exclude the other. They function in tandem. When it comes to individual believers, there are clearly people gifted in one or the other. This should not be cause for jealousy amongst us since they are equally weighted in Scripture and equally needed in all aspects of ministry. We need each other for effective ministry.
Not only is this true for individual Christians, the same categorization of the gifts is reflected in the authority structure of the church body. A biblical model of church will have both elders and deacons,  ministers of the word and diaconal ministers. A well functioning church will be like a tandem bike where the gifts of speaking and serving are coordinated for the most efficient way to serve the Church and advance the gospel in the world. 

Words that serve
Speaking is serving. It could be tempting to say that the one who speaks is not doing anything. This is not true according to the Bible. There is power in the Word when it is preached, spoken in counseling, used to encourage or witness. Of course, Peter is quick to say that we are to speak the very words of God, not our own. God's word, truth for all time, has the power to transform, to bring new life, to convict of sin, to speak wisdom, to guide and correct. God's word accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent out. When a minister faithfully preaches and applies God's word, he serves his congregation because he is the Holy Spirit's agent to minister truth to needy hearts. Many lay Christians mistakenly believe that the ministry of the Word is the preacher's job only. This couldn't be further from the truth. Peter exhorts all believers to speak the very words of God! And beyond using people to speak his word, God also gave us the sacraments. They are God's pictorial word given to us to remind us of God's great redemptive work and administer grace to us in a fresh way every time we partake of the sacraments. Speaking is serving a spiritual need.

Service that speaks
Serving, on the other hand, is speaking about a practical need. It's the language the Spirit uses to assess and address a need. Service skillfully applies grace where need is most felt and where its administration will produce the most gratitude on the part of the recipient and ascribe most glory to the God who provided. Grace-filled service is a balm to the soul and a faith-builder. This sort of sacrificial action speaks louder than words. It is clear from Scripture that we are to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ in this manner, but also those outside the household of faith and that such service, if done in God's strength, also has the power to move hearts toward Christ, who came to serve and not to be served and give his life as a ransom for many. When Jesus fed the 5,000, he did not give bread only to the one ones he knew would believe. But he did couple feeding the crowd with giving them manna for their souls. Service is not just the job of the deacons in a church. No, every believer is called to serve. Peter points out that true Christian service is winsome for the cause of Christ and exhorts to do so with the example of believing wives lovingly submitting to their unbelieving husbands. It is the wives' loving service that has the power to woo, not their sermons, and this is true of all of us.
Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives (1Pe 3:1-2 NIV).

Pitfalls of only speaking
Being naturally gifted by God in one area does not mean we should not practice using the other. Cultivating the gifts and stretching ourselves to do what doesn't come as naturally to us is part of our growth in sanctification. A pastor who never comes out of his study to participate in acts of service to his congregants, with the pretext that his calling is only to preach, will not only lose credibility with his flock, he will distance himself more and more from what God might want to teach him through service. He will become atrophied and lopsided in his ability to love well. Peter has a special admonition to pastors here:
 Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
 (1Pe 5:2-3 NIV)
Some pitfalls of only speaking are: 
  • Pride. It is easy to slide into the teacher mode and speak as an expert, slowly growing in disdain of one's fellow man, instead of speaking out of brokenness and humility and personally learned Gospel lessons.
  • Hypocrisy. Not putting our money where our mouth is. Our speaking will be perceived as hypocrisy if we don't  first apply to ourselves what we say and expect of others.
  • Self-reliance. Speaking or preparing sermons from ourselves instead of spending the required time in prayer to hear from God. We should not be wondering what we ought to say, rather, what does God want said?
Pitfalls of only serving
Those gifted in serving may also be tempted to become one-sided if they do not push themselves past their comfort level and also open their mouths with confidence. Peter has something to say to this group as well: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience" (1Pe 3:15-16 NIV). 
  •  Fear of speaking is really a symptom of fear of man, whereas we are to speak the truth in love.
  • Serving can turn into a need for affirmation. We are to serve others as unto the Lord, not for the pats on the back we receive. Self-pity when we are not recognized is a sure symptom of a wrong motive for serving.
  • Serving in our own strength instead of in God's power. We should not be asking where we should like to serve, rather, where does God see need?
The pitfalls listed for both categories of gifts are true for individuals as well as for church bodies. Some churches lay a heavy emphasis on the speaking gifts or Word ministries, and others on the serving gifts or diaconal ministries. Churches need to stretch themselves in their areas of weakness as well. All of our gifts, whether speaking or serving are to be held in check by our motive: to glorify God, not ourselves. Jack Miller in his book, The Heart of a Servant leader, asks himself some good diagnostic questions and these can be used just as well for a church body:

“What is my concern for the glory of God in my life? How much am I led by concern for my own comfort and well-being? Do I witness out of enjoyment of God? Do I love people, not just on the mission field, but people? Am I willing to imitate the good shepherd and die for them? Do I really know the power of the Holy Spirit as I daringly witness? Do I really confront the lost with heaven and hell? Am I repenting regularly?”(p.28)

These questions are harrowing because we cannot always answer them in the affirmative. We seek glory for ourselves instead of seeing the goal of all use of the gifts as "that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ." Jesus himself, in his perfection, demonstrated how to work these two categories of gifts in tandem.

Jesus, the perfectly gifted man
The motivation Peter gives for speaking and serving is God's glory and the pattern for doing so is Christ himself in the form of the Isaianic suffering servant. Our words and service, even to ungodly rulers, cruel masters or oppressive spouses is to be patterned after the way Christ served and delivered us, his people, through his suffering.

But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls(1Pe 2:20-25 NIV).

When Jesus spoke, it served. He could speak two or three words and a person was served at the deepest core of his or her being ("be healed," "your sins are forgiven"). When he suffered and served quietly, his actions spoke louder than words, such as the humility displayed when Jesus washed his disciples feet, his silence before Pilate or at the apex of his love, namely his crucifixion. The eternal Word became silent to serve and give up his life for the healing of the nations.

Understanding this division of gifts applied to missiology in a post-Christian context

The emerging missional approach

The term missional was coined as a result of the challenge the post-Christian environment represents for the church its mission. The tried and true methods of evangelism no longer work and the "if you build it, they will come" mentality has been extremely unsuccessful at drawing people into the church to hear the message of grace. Atheists and post-moderns are now completely un-churched. The saying that in the South of the United States, even the atheists are Baptists couldn't be further from the truth today! The connecting points between church and culture are so few and far between that the unbeliever cannot connect the dots anymore. It doesn't even cross their minds anymore to look to the church for answers in questions of morality or spirituality. To them, it is an antiquated, bigoted and stifling institution that has nothing meaningful to offer them other than arguments that confirm why all Christians are hypocrites. The starting point for a missional approach is to leave the church building behind, go out into the community, live out Christian faith and fellowship in such a way that unbelievers can observe what it means to have a vibrant faith in God and interact on their turf. The missional focus is on incarnational Christ-like ministry and community transformation. Oftentimes, unbelievers experience "belonging before believing," meaning they may be a part of the Christian community as an observer for quite some time before accepting and believing the claims of Christianity. They get to experience how the Gospel can change a community. Missional church-planting places a high value on the serving gifts: mercy ministries that serve the community in order to bless, regardless of response. Missional ministries call themselves transformational, since they seek to take community venues and win people for Christ who will, in turn, transform their various fields, reclaiming them for Christ. 

The emerging missional approach, though often heralded as the way forward in church-planting, often drags out the unaffiliated, leaderless, member-less and non-committal phases of becoming a church. Converts are made, but not disciples. Many of these end up falling away because of a lack of discipleship and biblical teaching that would root them in their newfound faith. Missional churches can tend to have a low view of church and limited ecclesiology. The "go and be" sometimes gets stuck right there and there is no movement back toward an established church, with a clear statement of faith, structure of authority, confession, creeds and vision. Even when the church gets established, it is often missing some key marks such as membership and church discipline. This is done purposefully in an attempt to keep people coming and not drive them away by being too heavy-handed. Biblical exegetical preaching is not always central, and tends to stay clear of controversial topics. Being creative, cool, and hip sometimes seems more central than being orthodox, though contrary to the emergent church movement, it desires to remain true to historical Christianity. Sometimes mercy ministries are devoid of meaning other than the implied meaning they are supposed to convey. The problem with that is that there are many do-gooders out there and without an explicit Christian message, the service becomes an end in itself. The main weakness is a lack of Word-based, truth-proclaiming ministries that would give depth and doctrine to an otherwise tossed in the wind approach. The missional approach often undervalues the power of speaking gifts.

The confessional approach
The confessional, ordinary means approach to church-planting stresses that the word and the sacraments are the method that God gave his church to best proclaim Him. Preaching is how the Spirit speaks to believers and unbelievers and the sacraments nourish the souls of the believers. Church-planting, according to this approach, needs to be moved to a Sunday service as quickly as possible, since that is the place where the ordinary means of grace are most powerfully administered, and can be ministered at all, for that matter. Historical creeds, summing up Biblical truth are used and taught.

Positively, there is a focus on apostolic and credal teaching ministries. The church is Word/sacrament centered and prophetic in its gospel proclamation. Good discipleship and elder training are some of the first things in place. There is a strong sense of ecclesiology and God-centered worship, typically more liturgical/traditional. God's truth and preaching the whole counsel of God are at the core of all the church's ministries, building theologically robust churches with believers who know what they believe.

However, that is where it sometimes stops. There is a failure to bring this good truth out of the church to the surrounding communities. Often, there is little to no practical community involvement. Sunday morning worship is the immediate goal of church-planting and evangelism is often limited to preaching from the pulpit by an ordained minister. The "Come and See" slogan unfortunately no longer works in a post-Christian environment, forcing the believers to become inviting experts instead of evangelists themselves. "Believing before belonging" rarely happens anymore in a post-modern environment. Sometimes, controversial topics are intentionally held out as beacons of orthodoxy as if Christ's claims must be offensive to be true. The main weakness is a lack of serving the community to win trust, fill real needs, and bring the Gospel to where people are instead of waiting for them to darken the doors of the church. The ordinary means of grace approach often undervalues the serving gifts.

The big divide
There is often a wedge driven between emerging missional churches that preach a "go and be" message and ordinary means of grace churches that have a "come and see" philosophy, as if one is needed and not the other. This disagreement often arises because missional churches stress the serving gifts (mercy ministry/community involvement), and ordinary means of grace churches stress the speaking gifts (word/sacrament). The word vs. deed debate, however, is not new. Emerging liberal churches of the past century put all of their energies into deeds of mercy, neglecting the preaching of the gospel, whereas evangelical churches preached the heart of the gospel and almost refused to reach out in mercy ministries for fear of being viewed as on the slippery slope toward becoming "liberal." The debate, along with its pitfalls, has slid into evangelicalism and the same fears remain on both sides. An unhealthy stress on one set of gifts over the other will always lead to an imbalanced approach to church-planting and church life. It is clear from these verses in Peter that they go hand in hand. Why we can't see a "both/and" instead of an "either/or?" A vibrant church pursuing Jesus' mission will be serving the needs of its members and its community while transferring people from darkness to light and growing them through word ministry. One arm of the church is powered by speaking gifts, the other by serving gifts. The body is severely disabled if it only has one functional arm and the other is atrophied or non-existent. The body needs both arms to be healthy and equally strong to lift its weight in this world and  administer grace powerfully and effectively both to the lost and to saints. We who are involved in church-planting in a post-Christian context need to keep both arms healthy and balanced if we want to see Christ's church established, grow and be pleasing to him.

The perfectly gifted church
The world's need for word/speaking and mercy/serving ministries is determined not by the church but by God's estimate of the depth of our sin and extent of our lostness. There is no wedge driven between word and deed in the Bible or in Jesus' incarnational purpose. The Word became flesh so it could be turned into action. Jesus' life, death and resurrection, are a powerful demonstration and perfect combination of speaking and serving gifts, in applying grace to the sinner. We needed to hear Jesus' words, as the Word, but we also needed his salvific act of service in which he bore our sins, healed our wounds, sealed our pardon and returned us to our Shepherd. The uniting of word and deed in ministry is the only way the church's mission can be fulfilled in this world because it was the only way Christ used in procuring our salvation. We have no other method. If Peter the apostle could stand in front us and describe the ideal church, the current debates as to what type of church is the most effective would, in fact, be moot. An effective church, according to Peter, would be a missional, reforming, confessional, and an ordinary means of grace church. That church would hold in perfect balance both incarnational mercy ministries and heralding the word of God as central in all aspects of the church's life and ministry. This powerful combination would lead to a dynamic, forward-marching, irresistible, transformational, truth-upholding movement of God's grace in the world. This very thing happened in the early church when preaching, evangelism, yes, even martyrdom were combined with social justice: feeding the poor, rescuing exposed babies and caring for the sick. The church, though opposed by the Pagan majority, grew exponentially and spread throughout the world. However, the church was neither transformationalist, meaning, believers did not set out with the goal of transforming their culture, nor was it triumphalistic, meaning they believed the world would become a better and better place until Jesus came back, in fact, it is sobering when we remember that Christianity spread mostly through the testimony of martyrdom! Rather, cultural change was a by-product of transformed lives: hearts, minds, priorities, and values realigned with Kingdom values. The more people embrace Kingdom values, the more broad of an influence the Church can have on society.

While the persecuted church in many parts of the world is working on clinging fast to Jesus and his teachings, and creativity in ministry consists solely of how to share the gospel without being caught and jailed, it is a luxury for believers in the Western world to be thinking about how they can reach their communities for Christ through new and creative ways. That having been said, it is important for today's Western debate that orthodoxy be upheld, but not pitted against creativity in how we seek to reach unbelieving communities around us. Orthodoxy, infused with creativity cuts through to the marrow of the soul in brand new ways. Creativity infused with orthodoxy lays bare the skeptic's stereotypical objections to truth because the form surprises and opens up new venues for the Gospel. The church needs Christians of both types of giftings, speaking and service,  and each church needs to be willing to flex and work out its weaker arm to gain a balanced ministry so it can truly be an effective witnesses for Christ in this broken world. An in the end, it is a huge comfort to know that the suffering yet risen servant, Christ, is the head of His church, building His kingdom and that he can use us even in spite of our great failures and limitations. To Him be the glory!


My observations are just that: personally perceived trends on the mission field in the area of church-planting and are just one perspective on the topic The categories are purposefully simplified to make a point. There are many complex theological issues that highly impact how various groups view church, including the current debate of the one versus two kingdoms theology, eschatology, gifts of the Spirit, ecclesiology etc...What I am not trying to say is that no missional churches are word-based nor that no confessional churches are engaged in transforming their communities for Jesus.