08 April 2008

the living church (1)

John Stott, The Living Church (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007).

World-renowned theologian and preacher John Stott has long been a welcome read to many pastors and scholars who are invested in the church.  He has for many years been a strong voice within the body who has worked to strengthen the message and ministry of the people of God.  His latest book is a reflection on the the current state of the church and where it is headed.  In doing this, he offers principles and observations which will no doubt serve to clarify and sharpen the ongoing work of the church, and the many who work in it.

Chapter 1. Essentials:
Stott begins by providing the essential marks of a living church - those aspects of a body of believers which serve to demonstrate their commitment.  It has always been interesting to me how many people think of themselves as devoted followers of Christ but who pay little attention to his word or prayer (and the like).  This takes such a sentiment a bit further and considers whether or not our church bodies align with the expectations for spiritual health which are found in Scripture.

A Learning Church:  Building from Acts 2:42, Stott takes note that the earliest Christians devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles (22), a striking statement only when one considers how little of this we do today.  At first blush, it appears that our priorities are not the same as theirs.  His statement exposes many modern evangelical circles, "We note that those new Spirit-filled converts were not enjoying a mystical experience which led them to neglect their intellect, despise theology or stop thinking" (23).  For us today, this means that we must build our congregations upon the teaching of the apostles rather than on various business models or growth seminars - this is true 'apostolic succession,' according to Stott (25).

A Caring Church:  I will admit that whenever I hear of churches and leaders who want to capture the *spirit* of the earliest believers, they undoubtedly consider koinonia as the highest ideal.  But in Acts 2 (and for Stott), it is listed secondly - once again giving strong emphasis on the first point about being built as learning churches as a priority.  Nevertheless, there is an important lesson to be gained by focusing on the fellowship of our churches; we can certainly do better at building people groups who genuinely show love toward one another.
At issue in this passage (Acts 2:44-45) is that of an apparent communal life of the believers.  This has led many groups (Stott notes some of them) to turning churches into communes and seeing uneasy correlations between Marxism and Christianity.  But Stott handles this well by keeping in balance the voluntary sharing of property which is found among the early church and the prohibition of personal property which characterizes Marxism and communes.  He rightly identifies this as forcing all believers to participate in certain gifts/callings even though they might not be called to such (27).  Even still, the summons to reach out to the poorest and most needy cannot be ignored as it has been so often in the Western church.

A Worshiping Church:  There are two aspects to the worship patterns of the early church to which Stott draws attention.  The first is that it was both formal and informal (28).  They were meeting regularly in the temple and also in their homes (Acts 2:46).  They did not immediately abandon the institutional church (as have so many others who are overly eager for change, to which Stott handles on p. 29f.).  The second aspect which is noted is that the early church's worship was both joyful and reverent (30).  I agree with Stott that many worship services could easily be confused with funeral services, while others seem so flippant as to have no value at the center whatsoever (cf. 30).

An Evangelizing Church:  In the interest of church leadership, I find it interesting how often we have misread Acts 2, refusing to discover the proper balance of the attitudes and functions of the early church.  There are some churches who readily ignore the outward focus of the church, while others believe this is the only activity in which believers should be engaged.  The former read only 2:42 while the latter only see 2:47, "And the Lord adder to their number daily those who were being saved."  Not surprisingly, it is for us to discover the balance of these two statements in the attitudes of our congregations.

Stott lists three truths regarding the early church's evangelism: 1) Jesus did it - he is the one working through the work of the church, being lifted up to draw all unto himself (31); 2) Jesus added to their number those who were being saved - "He didn't add them to the church without saving them, and he didn't save them without adding them to the church" (32); 3) Jesus did these things daily - the witness was continuous and quite effective.

Having laid out this foundation for the marks of a living church, Stott will examine many of the various aspects found within the life of the church.  I appreciate one of his final statements: "We don't have to wait for the Holy Spirit to come, for he did come on the Day of Pentecost, and he has never left the church" (33).

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