Like most people in church leadership, I’ve been thinking a lot about the conditions for reopening church when the government gives the go-ahead. As I’ve been thinking about this I think it’s valuable for us to again stop and consider what church is, as well as what it is not. I think it’s an important question because as the UK starts to “open up” again, we see shops, for example, being given the go-ahead to reopen but churches have not yet had the nod to do likewise. It’s easy to look at Government and accuse them of overlooking places of worship, deeming them unimportant. But, I think the fact that at the time I’m writing churches have not yet been allowed to resume normal services is an acknowledgement that churches are fundamentally different from shops.
The church is different.
There’s a type of Christianity that I’ve been warning about for years, something called “Consumer Church”. It’s not the church. It’s an imposter.
“Consumer Church” is the mindset that churches are basically a place where a transaction occurs. You pay an agreed (it’s even a suggested) amount and in return, you receive an item, service or experience. If what you get isn’t to your satisfaction, you can usually get your money back – or get what you need somewhere else.
Let’s be honest … who hasn’t walked away from a church service feeling less than satisfied by the worship, preaching or quality of experience? (It’s not always the case that this is evidence of this mindset … sometimes preachers don’t perform … oops, there it is!)
It’s important to think about how transactional church thinking has crept into our thinking in light of the current COVID-19 crisis. This will then help us to decide when and how we are to reopen church buildings.
Church is Open
When the word “church” comes up in conversation, the first thing we think of is a building. We have this mindset that church is a place we go to on Sundays. As we get our family dressed, fight through traffic and get a good seat, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we aren’t just going to church; we are the church. Here’s the first thing I want to communicate: the church has NEVER been shut. Buildings have been closed but the church is very much “open for business”. The Church was never about brick and mortar.
In the Bible, the church is always a reference to people, not a place. The church is a body of believers that live out the truth that the Gospel changes lives.
So the church is very much open. We’re not closed. The church has a nature that moves forward even against the most fierce opposition (Matthew 16:17-19).
Church is not for the Spectator
I love the fact that our gatherings are structured so that everyone and anyone can come along. You can sit in the back and watch. We’re ok with that. However, being part of Calvary means that you are church. There are expectations on you. Expectations to love, serve, contribute, grow and help others do the same. We don’t sit back and wait to be ministered to. We are the ones doing the ministering.
If we don’t like something, we don’t discount it on the basis of our preference.
If we like something, we don’t accept it on the basis of our preference,.
Each person has a different role to play. For some that means that they are more visible than others but not more important.
We are measured on our faithfulness to what we have been called to do in the Kingdom.
Church is Supernatural
Gathering is important
Jesus gave us the principle that when two or three gather together in the name of Jesus, the presence of Jesus is there.
When Jesus wrote to the 7 churches, recorded in Revelation, He described Himself as one who walks with and amongst the people.
This is God’s way – to dwell among His people (Ex 29:45-46) – not in some kind of omnipresent way, but in a very real tangible way.
There is something supernatural and spiritual that takes place when God’s people gather. We should not devalue this important Biblical teaching.
Historically, throughout the centuries, “church” has been understood as taking place when the Bible is taught, the sacraments are administered, and church discipline (formal and informal) takes place. So, for example, three Christians meeting for coffee, talking about sport is not “church” even though they are Christians meeting. “In Jesus’ Name” means that His authority is brought to bear in our lives.
So gathering is important.
We Gather to Disperse
We don’t gather for gathering’s sake. We gather to be equipped and encouraged so that we can disperse. Jesus called us to “Go into all the world”. We gather so that we can live lives in honour to God, whether that be in a work place, education or home. We are called to take the message of good news to this world. Church helps us do that.
So I hope you can see that church doesn’t need a building. Maybe God is calling us to be church?
“in the kingdom of God, the one thing that qualifies you is knowing that you don’t qualify, and the one thing that disqualifies you is thinking that you do.
Consider the string of accounts in Matthew’s Gospel that we have touched upon. In every passage, a central character assumes that one has to ‘qualify’ to gain some corresponding approval.
The disciples thought little children needed to qualify by being a certain age in order to gain Jesus’ attention (19:13-15).
The rich young man thought he needed to qualify by law-keeping in order to gain eternal life (19:16-22).
Peter and company thought they had to qualify by making a sacrifice in order to gain a reward (19:23-30).
The workers who were hired early thought all employees had to qualify by doing sufficient work in order to gain a day’s wage (20:1-16).
In our moments of spiritual sanity, you and I know that we are no different. We tend to assume that in order for God to approve of us — really approve of us — we need to qualify. And at that moment, the gospel has shifted out of the burning fireplace of our heart and into the cold and dusty attic of self-contribution. A Christian is not someone who has been enrolled in the moral hall of fame. A Christian is a happily recovering Pharisee.”
Philippians 1:3-4 – I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy,
Paul visited Phillipi twice. Once on his second missionary journey in around 50 AD and again on his third missionary journey in around 56 AD. It was an impressive city established in around 356 BC by around 2000 soldiers from the 28th Legion who retired there and colonized the city.
God uses normal people to do extraordinary works.
The church in Phillipi wasn’t founded by former war heroes or even an apostle. In fact, the people who started the church were pretty ordinary: a Turkish businesswoman, a Greek Slave girl, and a prison guard.
The businesswoman was a late called Lydia who owned a company called Purple Inc. (Ok, I made that bit up). But she did sell purple clothes to the rich and famous. She was from a town called Thyatira which is in modern-day Turkey. One day she gathered with a group of women to hear the Scriptures explained by Paul. God used Lydia in a tremendous way because she asked some friends to join her in seeking God.
This little girl stands in absolute contrast to Lydia. Where Lydia is Asian, this girl is Greek. Where Lydia is in control, this girl is impoverished, enslaved, and exploited. While Paul and Lydia meet in the context of a formal, orderly group meeting, Paul and the slave girl meet as she follows the missionaries around, screaming her head off. She is disruptive. “These men are servants of the most high God and show you the way of salvation,” she said. Paul doesn’t turn around and say, “I’m doing a seminar Saturday on ‘Crazy.’ I would like for you to come because I think you have crazy in you.” What happens is, in an act of Holy Spirit power, he rebukes and exorcises the spirit that rules her and enslaves her on the inside. The girls becomes an evangelist and brings dozens to the Lord.
The prison guard was a tough guy. He was told to keep Paul and his companions safe but instead, he tortures them. He put them in stocks where their hands and feet where he forced the body into all shapes, locking limbs and joints in place to the point of making the entire body cramp. This jailer is very good at his job, and he probably likes it more than he should! As Paul and Silas started praying for him there was a great earthquake so that the foundations of the prison were shaken.
I’ve heard people with voices like that: when they sing everything starts moving.
This isn’t because they can’t sing it’s because God has heard them. The prison guard turned to the Lord.
A Turkish businesswoman, a slave girl and a prison guard. Probably not exactly your dream church-planting team yet God uses the ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
So by the time Paul writes to them it’s been roughly 1-15 years since he first visited. So it’s fitting that he thanks God for them. But now, he’s no longer writing to the businesswoman, slave girl prison guard. In that time they have changed and grown.
I wonder how old the slave girl is now. What sort of young woman has she grown up to be? I wonder if she has found a good man. Does she have children?
What about Lydia? What has Lydia done for the good of the gospel with all her wealth?
What about the jailer—has he softened, or is he still rough around the edges?
What has God down with you? Looking back can you say that you’ve been used in extraordinary by God and now, through that process, God has changed you?
You know I’m finding? It’s super easy to be negative! So I set about looking at some Biblical principles that I could structure into my week, for the sole purpose of feeding my soul. Here’s what I came up with:
Day 1 – Paul wrote “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” So take a walk for the sole purpose of praying. How does it work? You simply take a walk… outside. Just around the block will do … but try to imagine that Jesus is on that walk with you. As you think about that, make a note of all the things that you can see that you want to say to Jesus “thanks”. It doesn’t have to be a big thing .. small works! And then just go ahead and thank God for that thing. Why? Well simply because you can’t be negative and thankful all at the same time.
Day 2 – Turn off the negative news. I know, we’re bombarded right now, so turn it off (don’t worry it will still be there when you return!). If you’re prone to have quite a negative outlook, turning off what is feeding your negativity will help. I think that hope is the energy of our souls. 1 Corinthians 13:13 says that faith (in God) and hope are linked. Faith is the confidence we have that our source of hope is trustworthy (Hebrews 11:1). So as I turn off the negative, worldly thinking that fills my head, and I turn to God in faith – my hope is restored.
Day 3 – Rejoice. I mean … actually immerse yourselves in worship music. For you that could be reading and singing some hymns. It could be that you load your phone with a worship playlist and put it on repeat. Honestly, one of the best ways I know to help me get out of my negative rut is to focus my heart on worshipping Jesus. The Bible tells us to pour out our souls to God (Ps. 42:4) and lift up our souls to Him (Ps. 25:1).
Day 4 – Money doesn’t buy happiness. We know that. However, I’ve been told that having rich friends makes a difference! ha ha! (I’m not sure that’s right BTW!) But .. I do know that “rich” friends help us stay positive. Wise friends who can lift up hearts and rich friends to have indeed! What the proverb says about friends is true – Solomon exhorts us to “walk with the wise” (Proverbs 13:20). So why not schedule a Zoom meeting with a friend who you know will encourage your spirit?
Day 5 – Smell the Roses. Literally this is what I have been doing. I have some beautifully scented roses and jasmine in the garden at the moment and getting out in the garden has been great relieve for me. If you don’t have a garden, just go for a walk and stop to praise God for his creation. As you do, meditate on what Psalm 19 says about God in creation.
Day 6 – Make a Gratitude visit – I love this! Paul says in Colossians 4:2: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” Last month Lorrie spent a few hours making cards for our church members and sent them out via post. Last week I roasted some coffee and took great delight in delivering some all over town. I genuinely hope that the people I delivered it to enjoyed it but you know what? This was all for me! It’s good for my soul to be generous.
Last week the Church’s leadership team met to discuss the next phase of our church lockdown. I was so encouraged by the care and attention that our leaders have over you. The summary of our conversation can be highlighted by these main points:
Sunday morning services will continue online for the foreseeable future. This is because social distancing at the School would be very difficult.
Virtual Life Groups are most likely here to stay until a vaccine is found. I can’t encourage you enough to get involved in one of these.
Given the opportunity from the government, we will look at opportunities to socially gather in outdoor places.
We will continue the decentralisation of pastoral care to the wider leadership team.
We are experimenting with a second service on Facebook. This takes place at 4 pm on Sunday and you are encouraged to share and distribute to your friend list.
Our Sunday morning service is being developed to include more of our church family. You have received an email this week tell you how to get involved.
We’re not going to rush to get back to what was normal 8 weeks ago. We’re going to pray, listen to the Holy Spirit as He speaks through others (we are in regular contact with the EA and FIEC committees who are guiding churches, not to mention other church leaders from around the country.)
This Sunday, following the Prime Minister’s announcement to our country, some churches in Southampton are gathering to pray for the road ahead.
Praying is always good. I have found that it is not only a sanctuary but a forge. A sanctuary from the challenges that my own mind throws up – often rooted in the unknown and desire to fix things. Pray is a place where my heart is humbled to accept again the sovereignty of Jesus seek His help. It’s also a forge whereby I’m made ready for what lays ahead. It’s an opportunity for my heart and mind to be conformed to His will and likeness.
The link to access the city prayer meeting is here: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/87040213842 but whether you choose to gather with Southampton churches or you are praying on your own I’d invite you to pray at 7:30pm tomorrow (Sunday) following the Prime Minister’s announcement.
We are making some improvements to our online church environment that we hope you will like. For now please do check out our new page where all online church downloads will be located. (resources are usually available a day before Online Church takes place)
To get to the new page either click here or go to our home page and click on “Visit Our Church Online”
Paul has constructed his argument over the opening chapters of Romans: while it may appear that there is a marked difference between “saint” and “sinner,” the truth is, all have sinned. Whether a little or a lot, we all have disobeyed and stand condemned before God.
Paul’s quoted the Psalms for his theological crescendo. He says that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God … no one does good, not even one.” You have to pause and ask – “is that really true Paul?” Not a single person does moral good deeds? We observe every day, don’t we, people doing good. Right now, we rightly celebrate the sacrificial good work done by keyworkers. The NHS staff are daily putting themselves at risk, while the rest of us are hunkered down at home. At the same time, we have Biblical examples of individuals like Joseph and Daniel who seem to live holy lives. And then you have passages like Matthew 1:19, where Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus Christ, is described as “a just man.” The word for “just” there is more typically translated as righteous.
What are we saying, Paul? We’re saying that no person consistently and earnestly seeks God. Nobody always, every day, lives well enough. Nobody meets the standard. And whether we fall short by a million miles or by a few centimetres, we fall short. As David said in Psalm 51:5, sin is with us from the moment of birth. Job agrees in Job 14, saying of mankind “who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one.” James argues that if we bread the law in one point only, we are guilty of it all. The law is broken, and it can’t be unbroken.
That’s what we mean by Total Inability. We are unable to save ourselves because it only takes one act of disobedience, one moment of self-seeking rather than God-seeking, and it’s over.
After that devastating conclusion, Paul is keen to move us forward into hope! Having shown there is no distinction amongst us in terms of sin, there is also no distinction regarding salvation. Paul writes “[as] all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [so all]:
are justified – meaning, they’re declared to be right. Not made right, but called right by God Himself. How?
by His graceas a gift – it couldn’t be by any other method. We were totally unable to earn it, so therefore it has to be a gift of grace. But how can it be offered?
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus – Paul uses the metaphor of the slave market. Redemption means that a transaction has occurred: one party has paid a sum to another, that a third party may go free.
Whom God put forward as a propitiation – this technical term refers to the act of paying a satisfactory sum. In this case, it’s the sum to cover the penalty of sin. What was the sum paid?
by His blood – there it is: the Law of Moses always declared that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (see Hebrews 9:22). The eternal blood of the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, is the only sufficient sum.
to be received by faith – and here at last is the differentiator. All have sinned, but are all justified? Clearly, not: we do not hold to universalism, which is the view that everybody goes to Heaven. The differentiator is faith. God holds out a free gift. He says “I HAVE MADE A WAY THAT YOU MAY BE JUSTLY DECLARED RIGHTEOUS.” We who have gone astray – some a little, some a lot – have an equal offer of a free gift. It’s there for the taking. How do we take it? By believing all these things: that I need it, that I don’t deserve it, that God is able to offer it. And that belief, or faith, leads to faithfully living for Him.
Abraham the Example
Paul then wants to illustrate the point for us. To do this, he refers us to the highly revered figure of Abraham. Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, the first to receive circumcision, the one who received the promise of the Land, etc.
Paul shows that, while the Law of Moses does indeed give hundreds of rules for living and good conduct, it came after a more fundamental teaching. As such, it is subordinate to that teaching. What teaching? That righteousness comes through believing God. Paul argues: yes, Abraham received circumcision and is the father of the circumcised people, but that came after. After both the promise, and the faith in that promise. Yes, Abraham obeyed (Hebrews 11:8ff makes the point), but obedience came after and because of faith.
In the same way, for you and for me, we should walk in obedience. We ought to do works of faith. James argues this in James 2:22 – again using Abraham as his example – “faith was completed by his works.” We ought to aim to live holy lives. But we ought not to think this leads to more favour before God. It doesn’t purchase good will or God’s blessing. It doesn’t mean God will preserve our jobs or any such thing.
No, they are simple tokens that our allegiance has shifted. We once were dead in our selfish ways; we are now alive and free, and able to live as we were made to live.
What are you learning from this series? How is it impacting your lives?
Everyone is focused on improving themselves during the COVID-19 crisis, but how does that work spiritually? Most people think of adding a lot of spiritual habits to their daily routine. In this conversation, Aaron Salvato and Brian Higgins unpack what God really wants out of us and how spiritual thriving is less about doing things for God and more about being with God
This is a really interesting conversation hosted by Dr. Mitch Glaser of Chosen People Ministries. Scott McConnell (LifeWay Research), Dr. Darrell Bock (Dallas Theological Seminary, and New York Times best-selling author) Joel C. Rosenberg (Middle East expert). This webcast is a virtual discussion about a new LifeWay Research survey which revealed that nearly nine out of ten pastors see at least some current events in light of Luke 21 and the events Jesus said would occur shortly before His return. These experts will unpack the survey, which was designed to provide an objective picture of the ways in which American evangelical pastors view the end time.
A recent British Museum exhibit provides fresh, dramatic insight into the ruthless enemy of ancient Israel – the Neo-Assyrian Empire and its most powerful king, Ashurbanipal. In Part 1, Patterns fo Evidence considers the story conveyed by surviving artifacts. You can read the article here
This week I was able to reflect a little on the idea of sanctification and stumbled on this post that I think is helpful:
“I’m worn down.
Early on, this isolation felt like a reprieve from our formerly busy schedules. No meetings, no pastoral visits that kept my husband away from home in the evenings, no ball practices or tutoring. No hurried school drop-offs or pick-ups. No cooking a meal for Sunday afternoon potlucks while scrambling to get ready for church on Sunday mornings. The emptied calendar was a welcome respite. I welcomed the quietness of a long, unhurried day that would be replicated again and again.
But a month into this, and I’m beat.
The longer this isolation continues, the more readily my sin rises to the surface. The longer we’re all here huddled in one house with one long, same reality, the more I see the parts of myself that I ordinarily coat with relationships and shopping and coffee shop visits and work and traveling and conversations. When it’s all stripped away, the girl in the mirror doesn’t fare well under pressure. I don’t sleep well; my emotions are constantly frayed at the edges with irritation. Every morning, I read my Bible and then lace up my shoes and walk out the front door. I run the streets of my neighborhood with one reverberating prayer in my heart: “Lord, help me to be different when I get home.”
This coming week I get to record (perform) on a new album from Citizens & Saints so, in tribute, I thought I’d share one of my favourite tracks of the moment – it’s a few years old but a good song to meditate on the goodness and kindness of God.
It is always good for us to take time to reflect on the Cross. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not merely a key doctrine to our faith. Rather, it is absolutely central and of primary importance. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:
If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is vain. … If in Christ, we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Christianity without the death and resurrection in empty, vain and futile. It would have nothing to offer. But Christ HAS died, and he HAS been raised. Let us pause and reflect on a few thoughts:
The Cross is Historical
The death of Jesus of Nazareth is one of the best attested historical events. Plenty of books and articles do a far better job that I could of articulating this. Lee Strobel’s book “The Case For Christ” is noteworthy here. Even the Wikipedia article, which is hardly sympathetic to Christianity, agrees that the Crucifixion is one of “two historically certain facts about Jesus.”
The Cross was Brutal
Most of us will have seen Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” I found it very difficult to watch, and that’s intentional. Crucifixion was utterly brutal and repugnant, specifically designed to provoke a visceral reaction and hopefully dissuade others from crime. It was an extremely painful way to perish – so much so that the word “excruciating” was invented to describe it. But more than that, it was shameful. It shamed the victim to hang there, totally exposed and open to insult and ridicule.
In connection with this, let’s consider two things:
First, Jesus did not deserve this brutality. He was declared innocent at least three times by the presiding judge (John 18:38, 19:4, 6), and the trial was an illegal sham anyway. His execution is probably the greatest miscarriage of justice the world has ever seen.
Second, Jesus Christ could have easily avoided it. Remember how easily He slipped away from His would-be murderers in Luke 4:30? Or how he refused to give any defence against the (false) charges against Him (see e.g. Matthew 27:13-14, John 19:9)? He rebuked Peter when he tried to fight back, saying (Matthew 26:53):
Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?
Amazing, isn’t it? He could have avoided the horrors and the shame, but He didn’t. These two together leads to a third point:
The Cross was Purposeful
The Cross was not an accident, a tragedy or a defeat. To meditate on this point, and how seriously Jesus took it, look at how He answered Peter. Peter, in his characteristically misplaced zeal, rebuked Jesus when He started speaking of His imminent death. The response:
Matthew 16:23 (ESV)
23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
This is a stinging rebuke! To Peter, the idea of a crucified saviour was a nonsense, but Jesus knew the Cross was integral to His being the Saviour.
Not a tragedy, but an accomplishment (see Luke 1:1). How is it an accomplishment? In that it fulfilled many specific prophesies, and is the antitype to many types, in the Old Testament. Again, many more learned than I am have undertaken to catalogue these. my purpose for this meditation is only to remember that those bloody events of Good Friday were foreseen and predicted centuries beforehand.
The Cross was NOT Christ’s Fear
I think any mere mortal who faced a Roman cross would be afraid. Christ, indeed, just before His arrest, prayed in agony such that His sweat mingled with blood (Luke 22:44). But I submit He was not afraid of the nails. When you read the accounts of the Passion, in contrast to Mel Gibson’s view, Jesus never cries out in pain. After the flogging, as He makes His way to Golgotha, He ministers to the women there with Him (see Luke 23:26ff).
At what point did Jesus Christ cry out? What was it that finally caused Him to cry “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?” It was when the darkness had come, and when that Temple veil was torn in two, top to bottom. It was when, as Peter says, He “bore our sins in His body on the tree.” It was when He was “put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith,” as Paul says in Romans 3:25.
That was Christ’s fear. The only moment in eternity when the fellowship He enjoyed with God the Father was severed, and He experienced separation. This was the fearful thing He anticipate in Gethsemane. Not the nails.
Christ was Victorious
We cannot ponder the Cross without recalling the glorious Resurrection that we celebrate tomorrow, on Easter Sunday. We remember, paraphrasing Peter in Acts 2:24, that it was impossible for death to hold Him. He rose triumphantly. So let’s conclude by finishing Paul’s thoughts from 1 Corinthians 15:
1 Corinthians 15:20–22 (ESV)
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
There is our hope! The Cross speaks of death, yes, but defeated death. Through faith in Jesus Christ’s death, that it was for you, you can find forgiveness and hope.
I’ve precious written about praying and today I feel compelled to share this prayer with you. Written by Philip Doddridge and found in “Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans”
Light up, O Lord, a brighter and a stronger flame in the lamps of your sanctuary.
Send the arrows of your quiver deep into our conscience. Clothe your priests with salvation, that your saints may shout aloud for joy! Anoint them with your Holy Spirit, that the aroma of your grace may spread throughout all your tabernacles, like fragrant oil poured on the head of Aaron.
Lead us, O Lord, in the way everlasting. Make us resemble our great Master, more and more, as we show grace to others.
Sanctify our hearts by your grace, that we may be as trees bearing good fruit, or like fountains of pure streams. That is the path to lay up good treasure—it is the way for holiness and compassion to spring forth in freedom, to refresh and give life to everyone around us.
May your grace animate our souls, Lord. May nothing stand in the way of faithfulness even to death, or deprive us of the crown of life your grace has promised.
Send forth labourers into Your harvest, and energize them in their work. Give us a deeper sense of that horrible condemnation due to those who despise their divine Master and his Heavenly Father, in whose name he was sent.
Preserve us from that kind of guilt and ruin, God! Your kingdom has come to us, and its privileges. May we never abuse them and be cast down to hell, but may divine grace open our hearts to the gospel.
May we receive all those who faithfully proclaim your word, and welcome them in the name of Jesus. Amen.