I believe the church in America is in a moment of transition and also in a moment of emerging hunger, and the current season of my life has caused me to share in this hunger. I have been exposed to radically different expressions of what church is supposed to be, and while each has elements which I cherish, none is really satisfying. A new paradigm must emerge which leverages the best of existing paradigms and perhaps other features which have not yet been introduced to the church.
The first question that any vision of church must answer is: “What is Church?” “Why does it exist?” “What does God want it to be like?” The Church exists as the manifestation of Christ on Earth, as the vehicle of his ever-increasing reign, as a healing family, and as a mission to a lost and dying world. The church does not exist to fulfill our personal dreams, but we exist to fulfill the dreams of God. Looking back over centuries of Protestant history we see that God is progressively deformalizing and deinstitutionalizing the Church[i], fashioning a living body, bound together in love. At each step in this process, He reveals His awesome love and power in revival and revival movements. This is what I pray God would allow me to be a part of. Some have looked for a house church movement, and others are starting what is called the “emergent church”, but I am looking for a new movement among Charismatic/Pentecostal believers which eschews the excesses of the past but builds upon all of its strengths.
Satan has many ways of corrupting a church: Some he can corrupt through false doctrine. Some he can corrupt through bad practice. Some he can corrupt through personal sin in the leadership. Some he can overturn through rebellion or strife among the leaders. When the enemy gets a foothold in one of these ways and remains unconfronted, the presence of the Holy Spirit gradually begins to erode and we are slowly left with a substitute which may have the form, but not the power, of godliness. It this moment in history, it seems to me that while the church has been growing in influence and in breadth, it is in need of a major reformation of depth and vision. Large segments glorify money or men. Big buildings, outward appearances, fancy clothes and deceptive doctrines designed to increase giving seem to be the order of the day in some segments of the church. Pastoral personalities loom larger than even the building they occupy. In other places, there is less ostentation, but the meetings are wild and uncontrolled, the mind seems to be disengaged, and the lost ignored. Other places are often dead or dying. We cannot accept these as substitutes for what God wants to bring to the Earth, and I pray for a people to arise that will contend for purity and passion within it.
The Gospel Church
The very foundation of every church must be its commitment to the pure Word of God. This begins with a commitment to the authority of Scripture. Upon this we lay an honest and mutual submission to the authority of Scripture. From this position we may hope to remain in true doctrine. The most essential feature of the Gospel in my mind is that we must die unto ourselves and live unto Him. Much has been said recently about what God can do for us. We have been encouraged to tell God exactly what we want, and He will surely provide. We have been told that the Christian life is about finding and fulfilling a “personal destiny.”
While neither of these messages is completely wrong, when we remove convicting preaching of death to self, they lead us astray. First we die to ourselves and live unto God, and from this position, all of His power flows freely through us to accomplish His purposes. We die to our selfish appetite for more and for better, and we delight in what we have been given, and most in our relationship with Him. When the church preaches the right gospel, it will obtain the right results. Christianity is about a cross. It is an invitation to come and die, and in that dying to live forever. Too much of the church has lost this message and we must reclaim it. We have become enamored with the next move of God, defending and reviving the truth, or advancing our political agenda, but we have forgotten the foundation.
The Loving Church
We may have convicting preaching, but if we have not love, “we are but a gong or a clanging cymbal.” The church must have the heartbeat of God. If we miss the heartbeat of God, then He may move through us, but He will not dwell among us. A loving church must be relationally based. It must value individual lives more than a corporate vision. I believe this is part of the heart that Jesus reveals when he says that he will “leave the ninety-nine on the mountains in search of the one that went away.” The vision and goal for the herd is important, but loving the life of every single sheep precedes it.
Our fundamental relationships with other Christians feed our souls and propel us forward in God. A church may have thousands of members and amazing facilities but not really be a healing community. Various models of authority have seemed to sap the natural love of God’s people for one another. I believe that central to our attempts to love must be a model of true servant leadership. Rather than give people orders, or scare them with doctrine, we must show the way, and offer them the choice to follow.
A loving church must be evangelistic. The essence of why Christ established the church was to reach out to and transform the world. This must be our central mission above all others. It is my observation that when a church or movement loses this focus, it begins to become unhealthy or to die. Movements that keep reaching the lost at their center remain healthy and orthodox because they are truly practicing love. Some churches do not really evangelize, they recruit. More interest is taken in getting a person to join a certain church or assent to certain doctrines than to getting to know Jesus. Or perhaps people are encouraged to know Jesus apart from sharing Him with others, and it becomes introspective. Some churches do neither, and therefore die a slow death over many decades. First they die spiritually, and then they are either supplanted with a false gospel, or simply close their doors.
I believe also that our theology impacts how we see God. If we are not convinced in our hearts and minds that He is good, then how can we expect to be consistently good to one another? Even more, how can we believe that He will answer our prayers? The Scripture teaches that “whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him.” This has led me to conclude both Scripturally and practically that Calvinism, which is currently experiencing a resurgence, is not the answer. The great evangelists are almost exclusively moved by the conviction that God wants to save all, not just a few chosen. Therefore, I believe that a balanced form of Arminian doctrine is part of a healthy evangelistic movement. My experience is that Calvinism leaves many unanswered “Why God?” questions, while Arminianism, questions man, and puts the weight upon us to do God’s will, or at least cooperate with it.
The Supernatural Church
It is good that we make all effort to love each other and love the lost, but this love is incomplete if we do not invite and welcome the Holy Spirit. The church must be supernatural. As the Church draws ever closer to His return, it becomes ever more fashioned in His Image, and therefore we should be ever nearer to His presence. Being supernatural in God is not about novelty, curiosity or personal glory, but it is about intimacy. If our life is “hidden with Christ in God” then being supernatural is really about God’s personality expressing itself through us, since God Himself is supernatural and desiring to demonstrate His love to the world. When I think of the supernatural church, I think of the touch of God and the prophetic word of God.
In the worship, God can deeply touch us, reshap our convictions, lift burdens, and change who we are. Likewise, when we receive prayer from someone else, God can deeply touch us, healing our wounds and drawing us closer to him. He may come in a way that we physically feel, or in a way that we emotionally feel, or one that we only later perceive. Regardless, this touch of nearness of God is essential to a healthy walk with Him. Without this, I believe church is bound to have many who come and go unfulfilled, and even those who are free will leave thirsty. There is no overestimating the impact of God being present in the midst of His people. In the wilderness Moses was sated in God’s presence, and he refused to leave the wilderness without it. We too should refuse to have church without Him. We have to be ready to set our agendas aside and invite Him to work in our lives.
I was in a prophetic meeting with a world famous prophet and I will never forget the impact that the accurate prophetic word had on my soul. Suddenly I realized that God loved us so much more than I had ever known. He really did know the hairs on our heads. When there is real and healthy prophecy people know His nearness, and they have expectancy for something to happen. They are motivated to serve God and to seek Him because prophets release vision into the church. Even more important, however, prophecy used correctly can avert personal disaster. In another meeting I remember the prophet identified a couple who had come to the conference with their marriage on the rocks, and encouraged them to stick it out. Imagine what would have happened, had the prophetic word not been spoken? The impact of a divorce can last for generations, so too can the impact of a single well timed word from the Lord.
The Victorious Church
A church may preach the Gospel, it may be loving, and it may be supernatural, but it must also be victoriously minded. We cannot roll over while the devil conquers the world-it is we who have been given the authority over every demonic power and have been promised that the gates of hell cannot withstand our assault, not vice versa. We must have faith that God will display His ability to overwhelmingly conquer through our faith. The church should have victory over sickness, over sin, and over our circumstances.
While not widely practiced, divine healing is one place where the Church must have faith for God’s power to move. Why should God’s children, who serve Him with their whole hearts, be afflicted and suffering, not to mention all of the unbelievers whose lives can be changed through the Healer? This was a central and regular feature of Jesus’ ministry, do we have any right to neglect it, especially when we know that God has done tremendous healing miracles even in modern times? He can grow back limbs, cure AIDS, cure cancer, and any other problem known to man. When people are on death’s door, they are suffering, they have no future, and then God comes in and conquers the sickness, we know the He is God. This is a God who is worthy to be served.
God also gives us victory over sin. It is easy to compromise or make excuses for sin While no one will be perfect in this life, it is important that we have faith for a life that is free of overt sin, and which grows progressively free of heart sin. Without such a vision for holiness, I believe we are destined to experience God from afar, and rob ourselves of the true joys of walking with God. This desire must be more than a fear based legalism, or a wild excitement, it must be a passion for intimacy with God and conformity to His image.
God’s power is also displayed in his provision. He can open doors that no man can shut. He can bring believers into sovereign relationships with important people. He can bring promotions. He can find facilities. He can bring in resources and He can cancel debts. He can restore broken relationships, and much more. In all of these ways, God displays not only His great love towards His people, but His power over all things which might hinder or oppress His Church. It is not that we love His power because we want personal gratification, but because this “fight of faith” advances His Kingdom and draws us closer to Him. As this Kingdom advances, we begin to know who He truly is in all His fullness, and His name is vindicated as truly a “name above all other names”, and worthy of all worship.
It is my firm belief that the healthy church does not have to strain to touch the community, but the life of God is like the vision of the temple in Ezekiel-the river of life flows freely from it and heals and feeds everything in its path. This is not at all to say that no active effort is made to reach the community, but that we must first be a vibrant body. When we are healthy, those who come will also be healed and bring others. Evangelism must be the heartbeat of our community outreach, and church vitality must be the heart of our evangelism.
From this context, I believe that is important that we both reach the city and the world. A church must be interested in “the least of these”-and not just because it will get us favor with the city or favor with God, but because it is God’s heart. The Kingdom of this world oppresses people through its systems. The Kingdom of God comes to “set the captives free.” This means finding the oppressed-all who are weak, tired, broken, and lonely-and “compelling them come in.” When we build our churches on these people, the true nature and heart of God is fulfilled.
We must reach beyond evangelism, and even social improvement, and into true community transformation. The Church must do more than save a few while the whole world burns-it must aggressively confront evil. The Church should be a place where members are equipped and inspired with a vision that extends beyond the walls of the church. Their minds should be discipled to understand the systems in which they find themselves and also impressed with the vision of God’s system. By changing the systems of the community, we can address more than the root, but also the fruit.
[i] This observation is original to Dr. Elijah Kim.