What is the central message of the church (and your class)? Part 4
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I work full time promoting church growth in a world where church growth is a multi-million dollar industry and the church is not growing.
I can't help but contrast this world with the world of the early church where, best I can tell, there was no church growth industry. They didn't have any church growth seminars or church growth books or church growth consultants, and the church was growing and growing rapidly. Not just one church. Not just a few churches. Overall, there was a movement of church growth that was rapidly advancing. (As it is in much of the world today.)
I believe the reason this is true is that the central message of the church as we preach it is different from the central message that the early church preached. It is not that the things we are saying are not true; it is just not what occupied the constant agenda of Christ and His early followers. We talk about, "How to go to heaven when you die." They talked about the kingdom of God.
What is the kingdom of God? It is everywhere where God is acknowledged as king. What is it like when God is in charge? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Does anyone want a life like that, or am I the only one?
Imagine you could take a pill that made you feel thoroughly loved. It made you significantly more loving. It made you joyful. It put your soul at peace. What would you pay for that pill?
The kingdom and commitment
It is this perspective that helps to explain a few more passages.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Matthew 13:44 (NIV)
As a young minister I used these kind of verses to beat people up from the pulpit: "He sold all he had; he paid the price. You need to pay the price. You need to be committed. The problem today is that church members are not committed." Maybe not, but I doubt that kind of preaching helps much.
And that kind of preaching is antithetical to the passage and to life in the kingdom. I draw your attention to three words: "in his joy." Of course he sold everything. He was being offered something infinitely more valuable: life in the kingdom-a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. What more do you want?
The kingdom and church growth
IHe told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches." He told them still another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough." Matthew 13:31-33 (NIV)
The kingdom naturally and always grows. If the faith we are living is not growing it may be we are not living life in the kingdom. We are living a different gospel. Perhaps it is the gospel of rightly answering this question: What is the least, minimum requirement for being assured that I can go to heaven when you die? When you have answered that question in great theological accuracy, you are still far from the kingdom. You have to ask the right questions to get the right answers. We have brilliantly formulated answers to questions no one is asking.
When people taste love, joy, peace, patience and so forth, they naturally want to tell. Good news always travels fast. The problem with the church today is not that we are not willing or able to tell the good news; we have the wrong news. It is not an advertising problem; it is a product problem.
He also said, "This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain--first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. Mark 4:26-28 (NIV)
I draw your attention to three words: all by itself. He does not know how it grows. He has no idea how it grows. It is not because of this program or that. It is because that is how life is in the kingdom.
There is joy and people want to come to where the joy is.
There is peace there and people want to come to where the peace is.
There is love there and people want to come to where the love is.
Let me misquote a verse. You see if you can catch me. The verse is John 10.10, or part of it:
I have come so that you can know you will go to heaven when you die.
Do you remember John 10.10?
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John 10:10 (NIV)
That was the kerygma, the offer, the central message of the early church: we offer you life! Abundant life! Life you can't get anywhere else! A life of love, and joy and peace! It is great! You will love this life!
You can't keep a church like that from growing.
The offer of the early church was an offer to find life. This was Jesus offer--"I have come that you might have life!"
This is not biological life in the sense of your heart beating up and down. This is life! The good life! This is life that is better. . . well, its better than life in the beer commercials! We sometimes say, "This is really living!" That is what the Christian faith offers--really living. Life that is full of love. Life that is marked by peace. Life that is full of joy.
Not merely the deep undercurrent of joy that no one can be sure if it exists or not. The early church was so full of joy that when outsiders came in people thought they were drunk. I long to be a part of a church like that, don't you?
We see this same dynamic in Paul's preaching. Consider Acts 26.29, "Paul replied, 'Short time or long--I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.'" (NIV)
Paul did not say, "Short time or long, I pray that you would have the assurance that if you died tonight you would go to be with God in heaven." No he said he was living a life. A life so full of love, so full of joy, so full of hope, so free of worry, anger, resentment, bitterness, a life so rich and abundant and John 10.10 he just wants everyone to have that life?
Is it true of you? Do you live a life that is so John 10.10 that you would want everyone to live your life? I have days that I do, but I have not fully taken hold of that life. Neither had Paul. "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Phil 3:12-14 (NIV)
Paul had not fully taken hold of the life that is possible in Christ, but he was far enough up the mountain of spiritual maturity to be able to say to everyone in the valley, "Follow me as I follow Christ." It was a good life he was living and his offer to Felix and anyone who would listen was to come and taste and see that God is good.
Pastor, that is your job: to stand before your people every week and offer them life--life abundant
Teachers, that is your job: to show your group week by week how they can lay hold of that life. Jesus spent three years with his disciples talking about the kingdom and you sense they still didn't get it. It will take a while for you. You won't be able to say it just once. Say it over and over and over again.
Christian, this is your job: to tell whoever will listen to you--Jesus offers you an incredible life! Come get that life! Come to Jesus!
Here is my final question for you--are you living life in the kingdom? Are you becoming a little more loving, a little more joyful, a little more at peace, a little less angry, a little less worried, a little more kind?
You might be tempted to say, "I was saved when I was ten. I walked the isle. I prayed the prayer. I did the deed."
That is not the question. This is the question: is life getting a little more loving, a little more joyful, a little more peaceful? Are you getting less worried and less angry and more passionate about life. That is how life is when you are living in the kingdom.
How do you live life in the kingdom? You can spend your whole life studying that. Read the teaching of Jesus. Pay special attention to the 161 references in the New Testament to the word kingdom. Listen to the sermons of John Ortberg. http://www.mppcfamily.org
You will spend your whole life understanding the kingdom, but it only takes a moment to enter: surrender to Him as king. Tell Him you want to live in His kingdom. Tell Him you would gladly give up everything to get that life. Tell Him you want the John 10.10 life.
Teach that life. Teach people to life the John 10.10 life, and see if your group does not grow, "all by itself."
I write four new Sunday School lessons a week that are written from the perspective of, "How to live the John 10.10 life." Check them out atwww.joshhunt.com/lessons.htm