SPIRITUAL VISION IN THE CHURCH
By Philip A. Matthews
In Ephesians 4: 11-16 we find a clear description of the five-fold gifts of the Word and their purpose. Paul writes: "And He gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head-Christ-from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love."
Here we have the following scenario: The church, in obedience to Christ's Great Commission, is continually being filled with believers from everywhere in every stage of spiritual and social development. Once they are in the body, they then fall under the influence of the five gifts of the Word: Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Of course, these are by no means all of the gifts in the body, but they are significant because these are the gifts that minister in the Word. And remember, the living Word of God, accompanied and illuminated by the Holy Spirit, is what causes the body of Christ to grow and develop, both individually and collectively, into the "fullness of Christ," able to effectively fulfill God's divine agenda in this world (John 1:1,14; 6:63; 15:3; James 1:21; Psalm 107:20; et.al.).
When these five gifts of the Word are allowed to have their full freedom, respect and recognition, and highest influence, they cause the body, no matter how diverse it may be, to grow spiritually and numerically. Each member will be equipped and prepared to do "the work of ministry." Each member will be developed in doctrine and discernment so that they will be able to separate truth from error. Each member will be fully developed in how to function in fellowship with the rest of the body. Thus, the initial "unity of the Spirit" (Eph 4:3) will be greatly enhanced as the continual watering of the Word causes believers to become more alike in their spiritual beliefs ("unity of the faith") and in their experiencing of Christ ("unity of the [experiential] knowledge of the Son of God").
Eventually, if the body is working properly, everyone under the influence of the full gifts of the Word should become spiritually mature, full-grown, and equal to "the completeness of personality which is nothing less than the standard height of Christ's own perfection), the measure of the stature of the fullness of the Christ and the completeness found in Him" (Eph. 4:13 Amp). Each member will be able to carry his or her full share of the ministry of Jesus Christ. This whole process is the Great Commission carried out to its completion.
And it only follows that if these five gifts are not working properly, then the individual members and the body as a whole will suffer profound and pervasive stunted development in every area of body life.
The Five-fold Gifts of the Word
It would be well to discuss these five gifts of the Word:
(1) Apostles-Apostleship is both a spiritual gift and an office in the church. This fact is not always recognized or accepted among Christians today. Some recognize only the "Twelve Apostles" that Jesus chose. Of course, each of them possessed the gift of apostleship, but they also occupied a specific office in the Christian Church: "Now therefore you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone" (Eph. 2:19-20). These apostles are the Twelve, on whose teachings and preaching, in alignment with the prophets and Jesus Christ, "the cornerstone," the Christian Church was established.
In its strictest sense, these "envoys" or "ambassadors" refer to those who saw Christ in resurrected form, performed miracles, and were specially chosen by Christ to tell others about Him from their eyewitness accounts. Christians who use this strict definition thus believe that there can never be any more apostles since the Twelve, although they do include the Apostle Paul. This position is correct-if we are only referring to the office of apostleship.
However, as used in several scriptural passages, apostleship is also a gift of the Spirit, without or not necessarily accompanied by, the office. The word "apostle" literally means "one sent out with a mission." As such, Barnabus is clearly counted as being an apostle, but he was not one of the Twelve (Acts 14:4, 14). Since Matthias was chosen by the Eleven to replace Judas Iscariot as the Twelfth, Paul himself was not really part of the Twelve, but actually had to be the Thirteenth. James the Just, "the Lord's brother," was an apostle, but not one of the Twelve (Gal 1:19) either; perhaps, shall we say, the Fourteenth.
There is also evidence that Paul may have referred to Apollos as an apostle in 1 Corinthians 4:6-9. Also, Paul may have included Andronicus and Junia (a woman) as apostles, although this is disputed by many commentators and translations: (1) "Junia" is rendered "Junias" in most translations today, although there is no evidence at all that "Junias" was even used as a man's name during that time, and (2) the order of the wording might merely have meant that Andronicus and Junias were highly thought of among the Twelve Apostles, although that type of commendation was used nowhere else.
In addition, some scholars believe that Silas, and possibly Timothy, were apostles, basing their opinion on a connection between 1 Thess. 1:1 ("Paul and Silvanus [Latin form of Silas] and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians..." and 1 Thess. 2:6 ("...as apostles of Christ, we [meaning the three aforementioned writers of the letter] might have asserted our authority"). Still others make the claim that perhaps Titus and Epaphroditus were apostles because the Greek word, apostolos, was used of them in 2 Corinthians 8:23 and Philippians 2:25 respectively.
In any case, it is not wise to make the dogmatic statement, as do many Christian teachers (mostly cessationists), that there have absolutely been only twelve apostles and no more. One of the biggest flaws in the cessationist theory is exposed by this question: Why do they claim that the gifts of apostles and prophets have ceased, but they allow for the gifts of evangelists, pastors, and teachers to continue, when all five gifts are on the same lists? Why do they get to pick and choose which gifts on the lists survived?
In addition, several passages indicate that the early church did not define an apostle in the strict office-holder sense only, because they continually had to deal with "false" apostles (2 Cor. 11:13; Rev. 2:2). If the early church had strictly defined an apostle to be limited to those who had seen Christ in the flesh only, there would have been no need to spend time "testing those who say they are apostles and are not" (Rev. 2:2). Obviously, men continually kept claiming "apostleship" based on their personal giftings and accomplishments, as even the apostle Paul wrote concerning his proof of apostleship (2 Cor. 12:12; 13:3).
The point is that apostleship can be a gift of the Spirit even when it is not an office in the Christian Church. Therefore, it is possible to have apostles in any age of the church, including today.
This being the case, here is a description that is generally accepted among Christian leaders who believe in a present-day gift of apostleship: The gift of apostleship refers to a special ability and authority that God gives to certain members of the body of Christ to win souls and make disciples, to plant and nurture new churches, parachurches, and ministry structures, and to assume and exercise general leadership over a number of churches with an extraordinary authority in spiritual matters that is recognized and appreciated by those churches. This is often accompanied by signs and wonders.
Whatever definition of apostleship one holds to, these characteristics remain: They saw something-either Christ in the flesh or Christ in the spirit. They were given a powerful supernatural vision (Acts 22:12-16; 265:19), a supernatural call (1 Tim. 1:1), a set of supernatural abilities that included almost all of the other gifts (2 Cor. 12:12), including faith and miracles, and a supernatural authority (1 Cor. 12:28; 9:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 2:20), resulting in a supernaturally effective church planting ministry (1 Cor. 9:1-2), usually in a region that was being newly introduced to the Gospel and ministry of Jesus Christ. Their special vision of Jesus Christ drove them to boldly go out as His witnesses.
Using this description, this apostolic gift has obviously been seen many times in the centuries since the first century, contrary to the cessationist claim. Even today, it is apparent that someone must have the gift of apostleship in places like Communist China, where the church has exponentially exploded to 120-150 million on-fire believers, largely because of the "apostolic" ministries of five or six God-gifted men that they rightfully call "apostles." According to C. Peter Wagner's Global Link newsletter (April 19, 2005), "The Chinese house church movement is organized into five large 'households' plus several smaller ones. 'Households' would be the functional equivalent of apostolic networks, each headed up by an apostle who would use the title of 'Uncle' or 'Elder Brother' in order not to attract undue government attention (i.e., spend time in jail). Larger ones would each embrace millions of believers. The five are (1) The Pentecostals in Henan (the apostle of which is currently in prison), (2) The OMF Charismatic Household centered in a certain costal city, (3) The Born Again Movement, (4) The Watchman Nee Movement, and (5) the Pentecostals in Anhui."
(2) Prophets- The gift of prophecy is the divine enablement to see and reveal truth and proclaim it in a timely and relevant manner for understanding, correction, repentance, or edification. There may be immediate or future implications. Prophets deliver direct revelations from God, foretelling God's actions and desires and forth-telling or revealing more clearly what God has already said in the Scriptures. Once again, this gift is characterized, probably even more so than any other gift, by spiritual vision. For this reason, prophets are often called "seers," because they "see" something from the other world that the non-gifted can't see.
Silas was a prophet (Acts 15:32). Barnabus was probably a prophet too (Acts 13:2), but then he was also chosen, "separated," by God to operate in the gifting of an apostle (Acts 14:4, 14). Philip's four daughters prophesied (Acts 21:9).
The early church recognized and respected the gift of prophecy, then responded to the words of its prophets (Acts 11:27-28; 21:10-12). They took seriously the special revelations that those having prophetic giftings revealed to the church. Paul instructed the church in Thessalonica to "not despise prophetic utterances" (1 Thess. 5:19-22).
(3) Evangelists-This word, euangelistes, denotes a "messenger of good," i.e., the Gospel or good news. In the first century, an evangelist probably was an itinerant preacher who preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is, in fact, what the first three groups (the gifts of apostleship, prophecy, and evangelism) have in common. All three were itinerant, not married permanently to a local church. They traveled. Paul was an apostle, not married to one particular local church. He traveled to different churches, as did those gifted in prophecy and evangelism.
A true evangelist, however, is not merely a traveling preacher who goes around to encourage the saints. He is supernaturally gifted to succeed in his appeal and persuasion regarding the Gospel to unbelievers. In other words, the Holy Spirit itself seems to preach or talk through him, so that it often occurs, without any obvious explanation, that hardened hearts are melted, seemingly-impenetrable barriers are broken down, and resistance to God is overcome, so that the Gospel is received and souls are saved. He just seems to have the knack to persuade people. The evangelist himself is often puzzled as to what he could have said that had such an effect on the person or people he was dealing with. Obviously the Holy Spirit speaking through him.
A true evangelist also seems to possess an unusually great love or burden for the lost and an almost indefatigable inner drive to share the Word of God with them. Every preacher simply does not have this degree of burden for the lost, although all preachers, indeed all Christians, are instructed to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5), whether that is their primary gift or not.
These two spiritual attributes of an evangelist indicate that this gift, too, is innately characterized by keen spiritual vision. Evangelists keenly see something that the normal Christian does not see quite as vividly: how much God loves sinners, how close to eternal destruction a sinner is living, how easy and simple it would be to just believe in Jesus Christ. Evangelists are deeply impressed with these understandings, and this is the vision that literally drives them. They view every place as a mission field and every situation as a mission opportunity for the Lord. Consequently, where the gift of evangelism is allowed to thrive, the horizons and reach of the church constantly expand.
(4) Pastors-Pastors, or poimen, literally meaning "shepherd of a flock" and figuratively meaning "the presiding officer, manager, director, of any assembly," along with...
(5) Teachers-Didaskalos, meaning "instructor, doctor, master, or teacher," are linked, even grammatically (syntactically). They are driven by one article in the Greek language, and they are also coupled with a conjunction, kai. The connection is even brought out somewhat in the translation: "and some as pastors and teachers." Some translators even say, "teaching pastors." They go together. These individuals serve in the local church. They are different from the itinerant apostles, prophets, and evangelists. By connecting pastors and teachers closely with a singular article, Paul is saying two things: (a) He is saying that these two gifts often simultaneously exist in one person, and (b) he is saying that the pastor and the teacher both serve in the same assembly and work closely together to support each other.
The gift of pastor involves shepherding. The term is often used in connection with sheep. It involves watching over, caring for, and protecting a flock. To this end, a pastor is given supernatural words, counseling wisdom, direction, authority and other abilities customized to the flock he (or she) is leading. A pastor is greatly concerned about and with the overall health and well-being of every member of the flock. It is his job to keep the whole flock growing, prospering, and moving together as a unit. He is generally not willing to do anything that would place any of the sheep at risk, and, like the Good Shepherd Himself (Luke 15:4-7), would find it unthinkable to risk losing even one of the sheep. He wants to keep all of the sheep, because each one is an eternal soul given into his charge.
It should be noted that the New Testament speaks of pastors as both a gift (Eph 4:13) and an office in the local church (Acts 20:17-28; 1 Peter 5:1-4). In other words, it is possible for a person to have the gift of pastoring or caring for sheep (other Christians God has placed in their lives) without having the office of being the head of the local church. Indeed, one can "pastor" others without even being a pulpit preacher at all. This happens regularly in almost every local church. Somebody besides the senior pastor or overseer is regularly "pastoring" or caring for various members in the congregation. No overseer can really do a good job of pastoring alone, especially if the congregation is not small.
And, in similar manner, a preacher can find himself in the office of being the senior pastor but not having the gift or heart of a pastor at all. For this reason Paul says that the overseer or person in the pastoral office "must be apt [qualified] to teach," must be "patient," (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24), and must meet several other qualifying conditions.
The gift of teaching, of course, is instruction in sound doctrine. It is the divine enablement to understand, clearly explain, and apply the word of God, causing greater Christ-likeness in the lives of listeners.
These last two gifts are intended largely for the local church. And we should also note that, although both are definite manifestations of the Spirit, neither is characterized by the same degree of broad-picture, spiritual vision as the first three. So pastors should never be faulted for not having the most spiritual vision in the movement. They are excused; that is not their primary area of giftedness.
The Appropriate Order or Relationship of the Gifts
The order of these gifts of the Word is also very significant. In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul places the gifts in the following order: "And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues." In Ephesians 4:11, he doesn't explicitly rank the gifts, but he does mention them in roughly the same order: "And He gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers."
The significance is that the outward-focused, visionary gifts-apostles, prophets, and evangelists-are placed first in the body, before pastors and teachers. And when we think about the nature of each gift, it is easy to see why. Apostles, prophets, and evangelists, because they are vision-based and vision-driven, keep the church constantly on the move. They lead the church into new areas, new directions, new revelations, new paradigms, new conquests, new conversions, and new, broader horizons. Ever looking up and outward, and reaching forth and forward, these three gifts prevent the church from ever becoming stagnant. A church or movement without outward-focused vision in the driver's seat becomes a church or movement going nowhere fast.
On the other hand, the pastoral and teaching gifts are by definition more inward-focused. This does not mean that pastors have no vision, because they do. Their vision is simply more inward-focused and targeted to their specific flocks. This is not a fault; this is simply God's design. These two gifts-pastors and teachers-by nature, are designed to focus on caring for and developing the sheep that are already in the fold. There is no need to look up and outward; just make sure that the sheep are healthy so that they can grow up and begin making baby sheep. There is a great need for such pastoral care and instruction throughout the body.
A major problem arises, however, when the pastoral and teaching gifts become the leaders of the church at large. This can happen either when pastors and teachers are given the preeminence in the body, or when apostles, prophets, and evangelists are pushed to the back, not recognized, or simply disappear for any other reason (e.g., the church grows cold). Whatever the cause, a church body that is being led by pastors and teachers is going nowhere fast: the visionaries are not in the driver's seat.
Think about it: A prophet is loyal to God alone. He fearlessly speaks what God has revealed, no matter whom it might offend or what the consequences might be. If John the Baptist had been a pastor, he would have kept his head. He would have thought, like a pastor, "Now Herod is part of my extended flock, and even though he's wrong, I probably should exercise a little wisdom in getting him to see that he shouldn't have his brother's wife. I should keep the channels of communication open; this not only involves Herod, but also Herodias, her daughter, and possibly her future grandchildren. I need to be in a position to win this whole family to the Lord, and minister to them in their obvious need." And he would have not spoken the inflammatory words that led to his beheading.
Pastors, in contrast to prophets, have split loyalties; they walk a spiritual tightrope. They have to minister to the old saints, the young saints, the spiritually healthy saints, the spiritually sick saints, the strong saints, the weak saints-and even the "aint's" in their congregations. It is thus very difficult for them to make too many radical moves because they fear, rightfully, that in saving one of their sheep, they might lose two others.
Apostles, prophets, and evangelists, on the other hand, can afford to simply obey God as He reveals Himself. They look at the broader picture. They are concerned about local churches and individual sheep, of course, but they are more concerned about the broader Kingdom. "Let's do what God wants us to do. If somebody is going to get hurt, well, kinda, so be it. They need to learn how to grow up!" So away they go, following God. But this is the way-the only way-that the body of Christ ever moves forward-both in the past and the present.
For example, had Peter been merely a pastor, there is absolutely no way God could have gotten him to go to Cornelius' house (Acts 10-11). There were far too many good Christian Jewish brethren in Jerusalem that he might offend (and did) and far too many established paradigms that he would have to split wide open. Pastors are seldom major boat-rockers. Those who are, are usually not pastors for long. But thankfully Peter was an apostle-James was the pastor-and the vision of God was emphatically telling him, "What I have cleansed, don't you dare call it unclean and reject it! I'll take care of the 'offended brethren' later. You get yourself on down to those Gentiles' house." And that's how the Gospel was spread to the rest of the world-eventually including us today.
How This Applies to the Church of God (ELS) Today
These biblical truths have immediate and profound applications for the Church of God (ELS) today. Looking around, we recognize among us very few, if any, apostles, prophets, and evangelists. That is, we see very few true visionaries who possess a definite revelation from God that would help the church find and maintain its direction. We can only surmise why this is so, but whatever the reason, it is so.
Instead, we are a movement almost exclusively led by pastors, good, faithful men and women of God, who love Him and are very loyal to their sheep. It is almost unfair and unrealistic to expect these pastors to provide much vision for the church as a whole, because their chief concern is, as it ought to be, for the sheep in their local congregations. Even if they are "visionary" pastors, you'd better believe that their vision is never going to be so radical that they risk losing any sheep. Their hands are, by definition, rather tied. They characteristically play it safe, and many times, almost too safe.
Thus, if our movement is ever going to start moving again, it must get back to: (1) Developing a spiritual environment that allows and encourages the broader, outwardly-focused visionary gifts to develop and prosper among us again, and (2) Recognizing, acknowledging, respecting, listening to, and following those visionary gifts.
This movement began with clear, supernatural gifts of apostleship, prophecy, and evangelism in the forefront. D. S. Warner obviously operated in an apostolic gifting. One cannot start a movement that at one time becomes the fastest growing denomination in America without being an apostle. Warner and other spiritual men were definite visionaries, with apostles, prophets, and evangelists operating freely among us with supernatural manifestations and anointing. Under the unction of the Holy Sprit, they pushed the church forward just as fast as it could go and into as many new areas as God could lead them.
It was only after this "flying ministry" of apostles, prophets, and evangelists enabled the Church of God movement to grow by leaps and bounds that the leaders realized the need for local pastors to remain after their revivals and church planting efforts in order to disciple and hold on to the many new fledgling flocks. But some of them continued to carry the church forward into new fields and arenas. That was how the church was supposed to work, just as described in Ephesians 4. But, unfortunately, that is how our church no longer operates.
First, Develop An Environment of Spiritual Openness
To remedy this situation, we must do two things, as mentioned above. First of all, we need to develop a church atmosphere and culture that allows and encourages the visionary gifts to be free to begin emerging and prospering among us. This is done by radically increasing our openness to the Holy Spirit. We seem to be missing some special quality that emanates from the Spirit alone, and this needs to be recaptured. Hopefully, our next few ministers' meetings will be called to deliberately seek God's direction through prayer and tarrying before God and listening to what He speaks through those prophetic, apostolic, and evangelistic vessels He chooses. This booklet is a humble plea for some of these kinds of ministers' meetings to take place immediately.
We need to deliberately cultivate an attitude among us that objectively asks God, "Lord, what is Your direction in which You want Your church to move today?" We must ask that in complete honesty, not with mental and spiritual constraints and limitations still filling our minds. In other words, we must seek God's direction and vision without tacitly expecting it to stay within our acceptable, comfortable paradigms. Praying, "Lord, tell us what You want us to do on this road we are on" will never be the proper prayer. God may just want us to get off that road completely and try an entirely different road. We must be open to that before He will even give us any renewed vision at all.
Cultivating such an open, God-seeking atmosphere is critical to successfully rediscovering the vision of the Holy Spirit for today. By refusing to listen to the visionaries that have risen among us over the years, we have gradually squeezed them out or pushed them to the fringes of our movement. And by insisting on holding to our historical church paradigms and religious legacy ("our heritage"), we have created a spiritual atmosphere in which visionaries can no longer emerge or remain. Their voices simply have been too radical and too dangerous for us. We have not been comfortable with their visions. But, as Jesus Himself asked, "Which of the prophets have you religious people not killed?" God's people are notoriously tough on prophets and visionaries. And this results in visionaries leaving the movement and visions ceasing to rise up among us. After awhile, we no longer know which way God is leading the church, because in essence, He isn't. Instead, our "heritage" is leading us.
In our openness to God and His Spirit, we must be willing to seek out and listen to visionary Christians from the larger Body of Christ, because, over the years of our stagnation, God has not ceased talking to somebody in the Body; we ourselves have simply ceased to listen and keep up with Him. So we will need some vision from outside our ranks in order to play catch up.
Next, Recognize, Respect, and Follow Our Spiritual Visionaries
Second, we need to recognize, acknowledge, listen to, follow, and obey the visionary gifts that do rise up among us. The supernatural giftings of our evangelists should be harnessed, supported, and directed to freely work in whatever areas God burdens them. If they have the gift, then the whole church should support them, spiritually and even financially, to get out there and wins some souls. The whole idea and purpose of the church of God in the world is to build the kingdom of God. Here is a man or woman whom God is working through to touch people for Him, and too often we are so short-sighted we tell them, "Go on out there and do something, and when we see God blessing you, we will start helping you." How foolish! We ought to be deliberately positioning them for service.
Similarly, the prophets point out new directions for the church, along with warnings of stagnation if we do not move quickly and resolutely, and too often we drag our feet concerning them also. "You go do it first; we're watching you!" But a prophet is the visionary who casts the vision, not the sole executor of the vision. He may point the church into a new potential mission field, but he is not necessarily the evangelist or the gifted person to actually cause the vision to materialize. Telling him to go out there and do it first just might be encouraging him to operate out of his place and gifting. The church is the entity that is supposed to move and do the work, not the prophet alone, all by himself.
As the apostolic, prophetic, and evangelistic gifts begin leading the church as they should, stagnation and dying off will disappear from among us. A spirit of openness to God will prevail. Our young people, indeed, all of our people, would finally have a real purpose for their service to Christ, something besides mundane church maintenance, to pour their whole hearts and lives into. They will finally get to see their time, efforts, and money go into the direct Ministry of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:18-19). They will finally get to feel like they have become directly involved in the great and wonderful task of building up the kingdom of God in this world.
The Spirit has something more to say to us regarding outreach: Pastors should never think that just because they start an "outreach" program at their churches, they are truly prepared to receive and assimilate those who respond to their evangelistic efforts. Too many churches open the front door but never close the back door, meaning that people leave their churches just as fast as they come in. Therefore, any sensible or serious outreach program must be one that simultaneously addresses the issues of assimilation, discipleship, and other matters of utmost importance to keeping new converts in the church. New babes in Christ need an appropriate and adequate incubator.
Thus, it is not enough for us in the Church of God simply to go out and try to get people to come into our churches. As they currently are, our churches simply are not new convert-friendly incubators. What in the world would we do with a big group of newly-converted drug addicts or street walkers or a few newly-saved homosexuals or a crowd of typical post-modern Generation X college students with tattoos and pierced tongues? Can we handle a couple dozen converted gangstas? Can we handle just one? God promises, "Ask of Me, and I will give you the heathen for your inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for your possession" (Psalm 2:8), but which of our churches would have any idea of what to do with these real heathen? We would be completely overwhelmed.
In other words, our churches are simply not ready for a sudden or steady influx of true heathen. This is why many, if not most, of our young people would readily tell you that they would never seriously invite their friends and social acquaintances to become part of our church. They just know that we would not know what to do with heathen young people. We would not provide them a suitable environment in which a non-religious person with the typical American heathen background could grow spiritually and stay saved. We might be able to handle an influx of reclaimed saints' children or transfers from other denominations (although we don't always do such a good job with them either), but for any real heathen, we're just not ready.
For this reason, God wants the established church, which is usually centered around its denominational history and controlled and often hampered by its religious traditions, to begin to break out of its mold and start sponsoring relevant new churches and ministries for the heathen out in the heathen world. If our outreach is serious and realistic, we will quit trying to funnel them into our ELS church mold.
Such funneling efforts will seldom work unless a pastor is able to quickly change his church mold radically enough to cultivate a spiritual atmosphere capable of being a new convert-friendly incubator for all new converts, regardless of their heathen backgrounds. However, unless a church is a rare exception to the rule, it will not be able to change itself quickly enough to create a good incubator for heathen converts. If it changes too much too quickly, it will most likely permanently offend and lose some of its established sheep.
So don't bother trying to change the church at all. Instead, the more practical solution would be to create and develop new churches and ministries out in the heathen sub-cultures that will reach, disciple, and hold on to those new converts who might be radically different from our current average church member. They may be different in language, culture, common shared background, social class, economic level, or just normal lifestyle. So take the church out into their world to them-and leave it there. Remember, we are not preaching our specific brand of church but Christ to the world.
This is the concept of "Antioch," the new (but old) vision on which our church efforts should be focused at this time. Let our young people and forward-looking leaders operate as "Barnabases," "sons of consolation" (Acts 4:36), able to safely shuttle between "Antioch" and "Jerusalem" and minister to both groups without getting offended or being offensive.
Prayer, time, thought, effort, and resources (i.e., people and money) should begin immediately to focus on this "Antioch" vision and type of ministry. This is the only way for our churches to become effective, stay alive, and grow in today's world.
Some pastors will raise objections by stating that no church can reach out to or appeal to everybody. Every church can handle only certain types or groups of people. Every church does not have the resources, gifts, and ability to minister to everybody or every group of people. While this is basically true, still the big question each church must ask itself is this: OK, so exactly who are we reaching out to? Exactly who do we make an appeal to? Exactly who can we handle and disciple? Exactly who are we burdened to target, rescue, and save?
And the unfortunate truth is that our Church of God (ELS) churches rarely reach out to any outside groups of people. This is said, not to upset or antagonize anyone, but in humility and honesty. We make a serious and realistic appeal to hardly any unchurched groups of people, and we don't seem to be truly burdened about anyone outside of the saints' families. Our churches have little or no ministries to any target group of people. This situation is a spiritual tragedy, a flagrant failure to obey the Great Commission, our marching papers, the church's only biblical reason for existence. It is also sinful, and somebody, somewhere, ought to feel very concerned, if not condemned. Perhaps we don't want to tackle the gangstas, but we'd better find somebody to reach out to and disciple. Idleness, neglect, or focusing all of our money, time, and attention on ourselves is simply not an option that Jesus Christ will accept.
This world needs true Spirit-led, holiness people now more than ever-people who are very open and responsive to the Holy Spirit but who remain true to the standard of selfless, "Christ-crucified," practical holiness and sanctification described in the Word. Truth is not merely good doctrine (i.e., the Word). Real truth is the Word accompanied by the power, manifestations, and effectiveness of the Spirit. And that is what we must offer-the realized marriage of the Word and the Spirit that experiences and emphasizes both equally-because that is what Jesus Christ died for and that is what both the religious and the secular worlds are missing today.
Society is in emergency mode, with millions of our wounded, bleeding neighbors living pointless, purposeless lives, then tragically dying and going to hell. Meanwhile, as a church movement, we continue to plod along on the sidelines unresponsively, becoming more and more irrelevant and ineffective with each new generation. May God help us to courageously confront and begin to reverse this condition as soon as possible. Let us rise up with renewed vision and truly be the church.
April 22, 2008 (Updated December 2008)
My book, The Significance of Antioch and Jerusalem to the Christian Church Today, contains the scriptural basis of "Antioch" and lots of practical ideas for how to implement it in your church. For a free printed copy, send $3 for shipping. Or, to respond for any other reason, contact me at:
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