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Recently I've been reading The Trellis and the Vine, an old classic by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. It may be old, but for me, reading it for the first time, it was a breath of fresh air in the clarity with which it expressed many of the experiences and observations I had from my personal experience of serving in a church for many years.
Many of us start our Christian life with a Biblical, but admittedly vague, desire to "serve in church". Despite the good desires and motivations we have, we tend to oversimplify it into the concrete actions of helping to move chairs, turning up at events, tithing, and volunteering. But to take these actions as the sum-all of our duties, as an end in itself, is inadequate. All too often it fizzles away into burn-out, discouragement, or a dangerous complacency that hides a deep lack of spiritual growth in our part, which the hum of activity and the feel-good satisfaction of being useful lulls us into not recognizing.
I've had my own fair share of all these, and yet I never really could articulate why, or what was wrong.
It was with great thankfulness that I read the exact same description of what I'd experienced, with an explanation! Feeling like a patient who had finally gotten diagnosed, I pulled out my posted notes (to this day I still can't bring myself to write on books; maybe those awful Hawpar Villa scenes warning about the fate of those who deface books had some subconscious imprint on my pysche) and knew that there would be gems to collect from this book.
The book begins with an introduction of its central analogy: the vine--the actual work of the Gospel growing and changing people; and the trellis--the structures and activities that support it--which are present in a church.
"We will be arguing that structures don't grow ministry any more than trellises grow vines, and that most churches need to make a conscious shift--away from erecting and maintaining structures, and towards growing people who are disciple-making disciples of Christ."
As such, a church's primary focus is always its people. Its ministries should be built around them--to meet their needs and utilize their strengths.
This thought, simple and obvious though it may be, should immediately make us re-examine our motivations and reasons for running each of the programs in our church. Are we having them simply because it feels right, because we have a hazy idea that the more "happening" and lively our church bulletin is, the more fruitful and impressive it seems?
"The growth of the gospel happens in the lives of people, not in the structures of my church."
This sentence stated it very clearly. For me, it was a huge encouragement, because we tend to measure growth and success by concrete, external improvement in our structures--more programs, more people turning up, a big congregation, a church building etc. Coming from a small church that has struggled with ups and downs, fluctuating congregation size, the only constant being the same persistent problems of manpower shortage, it's easy to compare ourselves to where we were five years ago and feel as if we haven't made any "real" progress.
Yet that's not true. There is quiet proof all around me of the lives that have been changed, the individuals that have grown spiritually, the people whose hearts have been transformed. Even in myself, having been nurtured and shepherded in this church all these years. And that is the important part, the real progress, the vine work.
As such, our attitude to people should be "not as cogs in our wheels, resources for our projects, but as individuals each at their own stage of spiritual growth." The church's role, then, is to be the trellis supporting their spiritual growth, training them to become stronger, more fruitful, to branch out.
What does training mean? In contrast to the Bible-college-seminary academic connotations we have of that word, training is something that every Christian needs. Not just the pastor. Not just the elders and deacons and Bible study group teachers and youth leaders. Every Christian needs training; to produce a "quality of character and behaviour based on the sound doctrine of the Scriptures." This is a brief explanation of what Jesus meant when He called us the 'salt of the world,' the 'light.' Salt and light, by their very essence, by their very presence. Who we are, and how that influences how we live our everyday.
Not just the few hours we spend in church on Sunday; in contrast, those few hours are supposed to help guide and teach us how to live our lives the rest of the week.
This kind of training, though it certainly requires focused study of the Word, is also "inescapably relational." We can take all the Bible study courses and programs, but never apply the head knowledge to our lives, if we don't have it modelled for us, if we don't see and struggle through the messy process of applying it.
Just these two foundational concepts already put into motion a whole train of thought on my part. Reexamining how I see my own service in church. My goals for my spiritual life. My purpose for being in church, "participating." The mindset with which I approach ministry, especially to others. When I'm tempted to complain, get discouraged, or get frustrated with others.
What really should be happening in me, and to those around me? And how am I contributing consciously to that growth?
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"The church might need to relearn what it means to BE church rather than simply to DO church."
This quote from the "Pandemic Reflections" editorial by Shiao Choong embodied the mixed feelings I've been having recently in response to the changes that the pandemic has made to our lives. We haven't been able to meet for church, for months now. Online Zoom meetings are the norm, we fumble to mute/unmute ourselves and discuss what's the proper etiquette--to turn on video camera, or not? All of a sudden routines that stood fast for years disappeared and a sense of disorientation took place. Sundays had always been frantically busy for me, with all the things that needed to be done. Suddenly all that was replaced with this unfamiliar lull.
What does it mean to be a Christian, to be part of a church, once we take away all the activities we associate (and often, equate) with it?
This reminds me of Luke 10: 38-42, where Jesus rebukes Martha for her blindness in pursuing the wrong priorities. Like Martha, we are so often "distracted with much serving," so much so that we even neglect Him, the reason for all our activity in the first place.
It is tempting to rely on activity as a concrete way of assuring ourselves that we've done our part, that we're growing spiritually.We have a sense of satisfaction when we see the results of our labour. We have the approval of others who watch us. We feel like we've achieved something. Progress packaged in a nice concrete way; the more activities, the better.
In contrast, Christ reminds us that "one thing is needed."
Do we as a church, as an individual Christian, only know how to be a Christian in terms of what to do and what to attend? It's much easier to busy ourselves with the concrete actions--nice, tidy little jobs that can be finished and put aside like housework or assignments--instead of dealing with the messier, abstract, and often more uncomfortable nature of spiritual growth/health. Dealing with that habitual sin or trial you're struggling with. Acknowledging and repenting of sins which distance you from God or bad habits which prevent you from growing. Going to God each day for forgiveness and strength. Seeking to live out faith and humility, and love. These are the things that we can neglect without anyone realizing even when we attend church faithfully and serve in multiple ministries, but these are the things which are of utmost importance in Christ's eyes.
If we neglect this, not only are we neglecting the "one thing needed," we will also eventually burn out in our serving.
It's only natural to feel disoriented with all the changes from this pandemic. But I will take this period as a chance to examine myself for any wrong attitudes towards serving, to remind myself that being a Christian is foremost my individual everyday walk with God, and to seek Christ's presence as the most important thing, as Mary did, and find my refreshing there.
In the absence of activity, are we lost? Even when we can't do, can we still be?
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Recently I attended the annual combined youth camp that my church participates in with other Reformed churches from different countries. It is always a good chance to step outside of your comfort zone, broaden your horizons, be encouraged when sharing and hearing about the wider work of God across various churches, countries, and cultures.
This year, one of the speakers did a short series on Elijah--which just happened to be the same passage I had chosen to do with my Sunday School kids. Ah, I thought. I'm very familiar with this.
However, as we studied the passages in 1 Kings chp 17-19, I felt for the first time a personal connection with Elijah and what he went through. Elijah has one of the most exciting narratives in the Bible. It's the stuff of any epic action movie. A national crisis. An evil king egged on by a bloodthirsty evil queen. The one man fighting for what is right despite being the underdog, being hunted for his life. Multiple life-and-death situations. Incredible supernatural miracles in every chapter, and equally incredible courage that enabled Elijah to defy the king and queen, the entire idolatrous nation, and basically everything against him. Heck, Netflix be calling to make a series of this soon.
Naturally, though it made for a cool story, I never really connected with Elijah's character. His bravery-to-the-point-of-recklessness, incredible faith in God, macho toughness in the face of impossible odds, and general badassery (is that even a term?) made him seem like some swashbuckling superhero who had very little in common with someone ordinary like me. Come on, I struggled to have faith for my exam grades. Elijah had faith that God would rescue him from Jezebel when he was standing before her and surrounded by her guards.
So studying this passage again made me suddenly sensitive to the chronology of events, and the peculiar insight into Elijah's character which transformed him, hero though he be in so many aspects, into a human no different from us, who struggled with fears, lack of faith, and self-pity.
At the dramatic contest of Mt Carmel, Elijah was at his peak. God used him in the most fantastic and epic way imaginable, with all the spotlight on him, to prove that the God of Israel was real. He was outnumbered by the prophets of Baal, his life was in danger at every moment, and yet God's power coursed through him, in the miracle that he performed, and the fearlessness he displayed. This is the Elijah we remember, the tough guy who sneers at the prophets of Baal, the guy who isn't scared of Jezebel, the guy who calls down fire from Heaven.
One would have thought that after this amazing display of God's power over Baal, over man, Elijah's faith would be even stronger than before. However, after the contest at Mt Carmel concludes, we see Elijah fold to pieces almost instantly, after receiving Jezebel's death threat in chp 19. Like any of us, despite the obvious proof of God's power which he had just witnessed--just conducted--he fell to the fear of man. Terror gripped him. All of a sudden, he did not believe that God could protect him now, when God had protected him all along. He turned to his own devices and fled, following what his scared human reasoning told him was the smart thing to do: "Elijah was afraid and ran for his life." He ran from his fears, trying to deal with them as he thought best, overwhelmed by the humanly impossible odds against him.
So often we too, after God answers our prayers, or demonstrates His power in our lives, fail to grow in faith, and instead fall again so easily into the pit of our fears--fear of what we can't control; fear of man; but ultimately, fear that God is not good, that we cannot rely on God to protect and provide for us. He was clearly disappointed that even after the miracle they had witnessed at Carmel, the Israelites were still too cowardly to come to his support, and that the victory God had given him at Carmel was not going to work out as he had expected, the turning point for Israel to recognize their sin and repent immediately. Elijah had put his hope in man instead of God. Now he was overwhelmed--with fear of Jezebel, and disappointment in the Israelites. A crushing sense of failure and disillusionment, probably bitterness as well, added to the fear of being killed.
It seems so obvious in Elijah's case, that the God Who sent ravens to feed him, Who raised the widow's son from the dead, Who kept him safe from Jezebel all these years, Who sent blazing fire down from heaven, would definitely be able to protect him. But it doesn't seem so obvious to us, blinded by our fears, in our own situations we face today.
When Elijah collapsed in the wilderness, unable to go any further on his own, at his wit's end, at the limit of his own human devices, he fell into despair and depression. Wallowing in self-pity and hopelessness, he turned suicidal, questioned the meaning of his life, and told God he couldn't take any more. "He came to a broom tree, sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. 'I have had enough, Lord,' he said, 'Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.' "
When was the last time we felt this way?
Suddenly I saw myself in Elijah.
What I love most is how God responded at this point. God had let him try his own solutions, God had waited till Elijah realized it was no use, and when Elijah gave up in despair and wished to die, God stepped in.
Without rebuking him for his lack of faith. Without scolding him for his ungratefulness or short-sightedness. "I just used you so powerfully at Mt Carmel, did you get amnesia already? Do you think, if I sent fire down from heaven at your request, I can't rescue you from Jezebel? As ifffffff"
God knew Elijah's fears and struggles, and He had compassion on him. He first of all cared for his physical needs, letting him sleep soundly, sending him food and water, all of which Elijah had neglected in his fear-crazed escape plan (and which clearly also contributed to his emotional and psychological collapse.)
After Elijah had rested, been fed, hydrated, God spoke to him. Gently. God asked him simply, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" One question, to make him stop in his tracks, to think and examine his motivations.
Elijah hadn't gotten over his self-pity yet. He ranted to God about his loneliness and suffering and generally had a good bawl that also managed to be as paegro as he dared.
And still, God didn't scold him, God didn't tell him off for being needy or weak or faithless.
God simply told him, feel My presence.
After the dramatic demonstrations of power and strength, Elijah was shaken, yet reminded that God, Who could do all this, was nevertheless was not just the fire on Mt Carmel, some impersonal supernatural power like The Force.
God was in the gentle whisper after all that, the still small voice. Personal. Compassionate. And once again, without telling him off, God asked him again to examine himself. "What are you dong here, Elijah?"
Still clinging defensively to his rant, Elijah delivered it again, weakly.
And God's response was to give him clear directions which reinforced the meaning for his life which he had been looking for. You are important to Me. I have important work for you to do, which will affect not only the nation of Israel but even the neighbouring pagan nations as well. You will anoint kings, directly subverting the power of Ahab and Jezebel from within and without.
In addition to that, God acknowledged his weariness, and comforted him--God told him He had already chosen and prepared a successor. Retirement was in sight, when Elijah had thought that it would never end. And finally, God reminded him-so gently!--that he was not alone. He might have suffered, but all God's true people were making the same, often difficult decisions, to stay faithful in each day when surrounded by an ungodly and idolatrous culture. In Elijah's (very) limited perspective, everything seemed hopeless, his efforts seemed pointless, and his life meaningless. But in God's plan, as we can clearly see when we read these chapters, it was anything but so. In fact, at the point when Elijah felt he couldn't go on anymore, God had already prepared his "exit strategy."
God knew him, on a deeply personal, deeply compassionate and loving way. God knew his fears and weariness and struggles, and God did not resent him for them or punish him for them, even when he behaved foolishly or weakly. God was not a relentless taskmaster who didn't care what the emotional state of this tool was as long as it got His job done. Far from it. God was gentle with Elijah at his lowest, most broken point--a great man, but still a man like us.
to be continued
image by Bryan Minear from Unsplash
My pastor preached a sermon the other day which helped me rethink the way we see coming to church every Sunday.
Let's face it. Eventually, for any good Christian attending church regularly, we can't help much of it becoming routine. Like how you hit the gym every Tuesday or visit your grandparents, or water your plants. We go through the motions of church every Sunday, the process of events becoming mind-numbingly familiar.
What's the main, ultimate purpose in going to church? We go to church to worship God. No one would disagree with that, I presume. And worshipping God, however that practically translates to you--regardless of whether you sit among the congregation, are in the pulpit, in the AV room, in the worship team, or ushering outside--is not a passive action.
When we gather to worship God in church, we are neither performers or passive spectators.
We are all equally, actively worshipping God.
Sometimes it's easy to forget when you're involved in the worship service, in leading any of the events. I remember sitting in my seat as the sermon came to an end, feeling like a runner at the start line of a race. It must be an even greater temptation for pastors, for whom Sunday is their big day, where they present the sermon they've been working on the whole week. Or for those playing music, or teaching Bible study classes; we feel, like performers, that we're "running this."
But that's a mindset that makes it hard to worship. When we're most tempted to feel that everything depends on us and our ability, we're least aware of our need for God. And in the midst of all our busyness, we need to fight to remember this. How do we worship God on Sunday? Being busy helping others to worship Him is not a replacement. We need to seek to worship Him ourselves. This is something that, like glorifying God, we don't just accidentally drift into doing. This requires us to purposefully dedicate and prepare our hearts, to purposefully focus. We need to stop seeing ourselves as performers, being so acutely aware of the gaze of others, being so focused on getting this done successfully.
Sometimes, as someone who regularly sits in the congregation, it's easy to forget. When church is something that you're not involved in, that you simply turn up to every Sunday, we tend to develop a kind of passive spectatorship/entitled consumer attitude. As if it's a restaurant or hotel, or we're watching a movie. Was it entertaining enough, comfortable enough, impressive enough? We come expecting to be spoon-fed and served, without making more effort than it took to be there. We frown, purse our lips, shake our heads or nod, making notes, mentally reviewing, comparing, assessing. Three out of five stars. Could be more efficient. The ushers could smile more. The babies could be quieter. The air conditioning should be colder.
But no. In God's eyes, just as each one of us is individually His child, each one of us is there to worship Him. And that is something that requires our individual response and involvement.
We need to pray--not for smoother, more impressive, more well-run Sundays--but for the Spirit to move hearts, to plant repentance in us, to enable us to come before God and truly worship Him with the humble and quiet hearts, regardless of whether we're sitting in the congregation, or in front of everyone.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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