The Church 6: Timothy and Bucklebelt Bible Church
‘Thank you for visiting our church this morning. We hope that you enjoyed your time with us and that you will come again,’ said the youth minister of Bucklebelt Bible Church to the strangely dressed person who had hung around after the service until almost everyone had left. Then he added, ‘Where do you normally go to church?’
The stranger, who was dressed in a simple tunic and sandals, replied with a question, ‘I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘go to church’—are we not always the church if we have been baptized into the body of Christ? As Paul wrote, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’ (1 Cor. 12.13). If we are the church, what sense does it make to say that we ‘go to church’?
The youth minister straightened his cap and decided to evade the question, which struck him as a semantic quibble from a slightly off-balanced person that would keep him from Sunday lunch. Trying to be friendly, though, he said, ‘I think your outfit is pretty cool. Do you always wear sandals and a robe?’ ‘Yes,’ replied the stranger, ‘for me this is normal dress.’ ‘Oh, where do you come from? The Middle East?’ ‘I lived in Ephesus some time back—when everyone dressed like this.’ ‘I see,’ said the youth minister, lifting his gaze to someone standing a little off to the side and trying to plead with his eyes for some help. Taking his cue, the other person walked over and introduced herself, ‘Hello,’ she said, stretching forth her hand, ‘I am Stephanie, the counsellor for this church. I see you met Jimmy, our youth director.’ ‘Ah, pleased to meet you,’ said the stranger, ‘my name is Timothy.’ But he did not take her hand. ‘I’ve been raised from the dead for an hour to have this conversation with the two of you.’ Jimmy’s eyes widened, and Stephanie took a deep breath. ‘Right, well, perhaps we have a little time to talk,’ replied Stephanie, insisting with her eyes that Jimmy not leave her alone for one minute. ‘Why don’t we sit right here.’ She motioned to some seats in the church sanctuary. ‘Excellent,’ said Timothy, ‘and I appreciate your time.’
‘Well, now, you say you were raised from the dead? This is actually a first for us, right Jimmy?’ Jimmy nodded slowly. ‘Actually,’ said Timothy, ‘that is not so important—we really need to discuss your worship service in the time we have. At the end, I should warn you, I will simply disappear. Could we begin with your understanding of what you are doing during worship? I know that the expression of worship has had to change over the years and in different cultures, but what it is we are doing must surely remain constant.’ ‘Well, this is quite a large topic,’ replied Stephanie, ‘and I would actually like to learn a little more about you.’ She was going to try to keep the focus on this person, who obviously needed help.
Timothy understood that the conversation needed to proceed somehow along this line even though he was not the reason for the conversation. So he replied, ‘Certainly. I was a pastor of the church at Ephesus back in the days of the early church. We used to meet to worship together in houses, and so we were necessarily small in our meetings—about 50 or even 70 at times on average.’ Timothy had already turned the conversation away from himself and back to the question of what Christian worship was. ‘As Christians, we understood ourselves as the Church and our smaller grouping as a church, but we were the church 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That is, we really could not ‘go’ to church if we were always the church. This meant that we were a community involved in each other’s lives. Paul used to say we were like a body made up of different body parts. Each of us was gifted by the Spirit to contribute something to the body—the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12.27), who is our head. We cared for one another and gave greater honour to the seemingly inferior members (1 Cor. 12.24-25). Throughout the week, we would experience the various gifts that the Spirit had given to different members of our Christian community. Being the church was so much more than a weekly worship service or some other programme. It was all about people and not, by the way, about buildings at all. The apostles bore witness to the Gospel, the prophets spoke spiritual truth as they were moved by the Spirit to do so in order to build up the church, to encourage us, and to console those going through difficult times’ (1 Cor. 14.2).
At this, Stephanie said, ‘that rather well defines my role as a counsellor in this church.’ She was drawn into the conversation and, for a moment, forgot to try to keep the conversation on Timothy. There was something about the conversation that unravelled her professional training. This was not due to her own inadequacies in her role but had to do with Timothy’s personal authority and depth that was already showing itself in the conversation. Apart from his dramatic statement at the beginning about being 2,000 years old and raised from the dead for an hour, he seemed perfectly rational. In fact, his personality and words were compelling.
Timothy, though, knew he needed to challenge Stephanie in her own understanding. ‘Stephanie, he said, you have some training to counsel people, but I am speaking about a ministry that goes beyond your own gifts and training, a ministry in the Holy Spirit. This is something God wants you to add to your wonderful service in this church. This will not come in any other way than through prayer, an ever-deepening study and knowledge of God’s holy Word, and an openness to be guided by the Holy Spirit in your counseling. Don’t turn your gift into a professional exercise to help guide people to self-discovery, to identify their problems through analysis, to find their own truth and meaning. Be God’s spokesperson in this community, and do so with fear and trembling as a service commissioned by God himself.’ Stephanie stared ahead, knowing that Timothy had spoken right to her own sense of inadequacy. She felt secure as a counsellor in so many ways, but not in her own sensitivity to the Spirit and her knowledge of Scripture. She also felt, at times, that she failed to tell people what seemed rather obvious, trying, rather, to help them discover their own issues and solutions through therapy. Timothy was telling her to turn her training upside down, to begin with Spirit-gifted, prophetic ministry rather than professional training, as valuable as it was.
Timothy, however, moved on as he had much more to say. ‘For us, ‘church’ also meant gathering in various settings to be taught the Scriptures, fellowship, worship around the Lord’s Table, and prayer (cf. Acts 2.42). Teachers spent their time in the Scriptures, for it was the Scripture that they taught. This always happened as we came together as the Church around the Lord’s Table in our house meetings, but the teachers we had in our churches also taught almost daily in various ways. I was a teacher more than anything else in Ephesus, having learned the Scriptures from my youth (2 Tim. 3.14-15) and been gifted by the Spirit to this ministry (1 Tim. 4.14). I gave myself to the public reading of Scripture, exhorting people through the Scripture, and to teaching people the Scripture (1 Tim. 4.13).’
Then, Timothy looked hard at both of them. ‘I have a word for you about this as well. Your church is not getting enough teaching in the Scripture. People do not know Scripture well enough. This is, in part, because your adult Sunday School hour is more a social event around coffee and doughnuts than anything else. People ‘share’ their ideas and receive little teaching. Also, your teachers do not know Scripture well enough themselves. The emphasis during this Sunday School hour is more on application than on learning God’s Word. The same goes for the younger age groups. It is as though your primary concerns are fellowship and everyone having an opportunity to speak rather than a time to learn from those appointed by the Holy Spirit as teachers in your church.’
At this, Timothy turned to Jimmy, ‘This is especially a challenge for you. You are in charge of a youth programme. You are young and easily relate to many of the youth—somewhat like an older youth guiding other youth. You focus on games, music the teenagers like, and teaching is a minimal part of your ministry. I’m not here to tell you to teach them more, although they need much more teaching. But your church has laid this on your shoulders too heavily. You yourself have not been adequately trained in the Scriptures, and you cannot do this alone. The older members of the church need to be involved with the younger people—a youth group that is all about youth is destined to shallow faith. Don’t build a youth group as a youth programme; start with the depth of community where youth and elders come together. Let the life of the whole community in Christ bear the responsibility for developing the youth in their faith, and let the teachers of the church teach the youth. Do not make this your overwhelming responsibility. And never, never turn the spiritual life of the youth of this church into a youth programme.’
Jimmy felt a burden lift from his shoulders. He had been given a responsibility beyond anyone’s capacity to fulfill it. He himself needed mentoring and teaching, let alone being given the responsibility to train the youth of the church with a couple of adult helpers. He had seen himself in charge of a programme, but what he needed was a ministry with people.
Then Timothy continued, ‘Also, teaching must not be reduced to what you experience in this church as preaching. It is clear that preaching is the main part of your worship services, with the singing as a kind of preparation for this moment. In fact, what everyone sees up front from their seats in the audience tells a pretty big story. When you put all sorts of instruments on the stage up front, you emphasize that musical performance is a very important part of your service, and when you have a pulpit in the centre you state that this is the other important part of your meetings. Worship in song and teaching the Word of God are absolutely critical, do not get me wrong. However, there is a sense of theatre about all this, as though music and preaching are more a matter of performance. The singers and musicians put on a rather good show, and about half of the congregation sings along with them. It is as though you have a concert and are allowed to sing along. Similarly, the preaching also comes across as performance. It is a successful piece of oration more than a Biblical teaching. Have you ever noticed that there is no such practice in the New Testament or early church? Where ‘preaching’ is mentioned in the New Testament, it is really proclamation of the Gospel, not some weekly sermon that is a well-crafted piece of oratory. You understand preaching as a Biblically-based talk that has the goal of applying the big idea of the passage to your life. So you want the preacher to tell you interesting and enjoyable or challenging stories that bring that big idea out. This puts quite a responsibility on your preacher to be an orator, and it downplays the importance of teaching the Scriptures. In my time, all the emphasis was on teaching the Scriptures—something we inherited from the Jewish synagogue. Over time, the influence of Greek culture put increasing pressure on people to produce fine orations—sermons. Paul already saw this coming and often warned against it (e.g., 1 Tim. 2; 1 Cor. 2). One way to test what you understand about the church is to ask what difference it would make for you if you lost your top musician or singer or your rhetorically excellent preacher. Would your church survive that, or would people leave? If so, then you have the wrong understanding of what a worship service is, and you have the wrong understanding of what a church is.’
Timothy asked how much time remained. He had been speaking for about forty minutes. ‘I have a few more things to say before I need to go. In our churches, some others were gifted with gifts of healing in our churches in Ephesus. If someone was injured or became sick, these persons would go to the homes of the sick with other elders to anoint them with oil and pray for them. They would also be prayed for during our home gatherings. You have lived through a radical time in history during which the Christian faith became more an intellectual philosophy than an encounter with the living God. You see the Christian faith as a list of doctrines, but it is so much more. You would not try to describe a relationship with someone, like a husband or wife, in terms of tenets of faith. I’m not saying that the content of faith is unimportant, of course, and we have to teach against false teaching all the time. However, do not reduce the Christian faith to doctrine. To move in this realm of the Spirit, people need to draw close to God so that He will work miracles and healing through them. Do not undermine this through your lack of faith in such things and by essentially dismissing the Spirit from the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Some of you Evangelicals have as little faith in God’s powerful presence today as the Liberals you rightly challenge for a lack of faith in the power of God to work miracles in the days of the Bible.’ This point hit Timothy’s two listeners hard. They had a very successful church in the eyes of many, but they had little place for healing and miracles. In fact, one of their ministry staff was a Cessationist, someone who believed that such gifts ceased after the apostolic age. While he believed that miracles happened in Biblical times, he did not believe that they continued to occur in the present day. Some in the church believed in miracles, but they were actually considered a little awkward. More people prayed for God to guide the hand of the surgeon or to comfort those going through difficult times—that was the level of expectation around illness and trouble. The church was rather pleased that it had so well opposed the pathetic Health and Wealth charismatics down the street, whose distortion of Christian faith had caused so much harm to so many—some of whom had left and joined this congregation. Timothy was not advocating this either, but rather challenging them to encounter God rather than experience him as a list of doctrinal truths.
Timothy continued, ‘When this church hired your head minister, they said that they were looking for a pastor for this church. Then they interviewed various persons and eventually hired someone who is not a pastor at all. In this, your church failed. You hired a gifted speaker, and he tries hard to deliver sermons that speak into people’s lives. He does very well at this—so well that you start other churches and beam his talk into those assemblies through your amazing, modern technology. In that way, he is able to speak to a great many people. He is also trying to pastor people in this way, although it should be patently obvious how difficult this is to do through telecasting. But his gift of oratory gets in the way of his really pastoring this church, just as much as the enormous size of this church does. He is not, frankly, a pastor. The word ‘pastor’ means ‘shepherd’. This preaching you do in your churches today is a kind of shepherding, but so often these pastors are distant from the people in the church. If it is not because of their special role as a cleric versus the laity, it is because the church is too large to pastor. Or it may be that the pastor spends so much time crafting his messages—and this would be necessary to keep a couple thousand people coming back each week—that he cannot take the time needed for real pastoring. Nor can I imagine how a person with responsibilities for several campuses, so many other ministers, preaching to thousands every Sunday, and so forth could have the time needed for his own proper soul care or spiritual life. Stop demanding this kind of ministry from your minister, and do not let him fool himself that he is in fact providing meaningful ministry by running this programme every week. You’ve hired a kind of teacher, although he is too focussed on crafting his message and addressing life issues in the community to get into any depth of teaching the Scriptures. In fact, while he is Biblically sound, many in this congregation would not know if his replacement were teaching the Bible or not because you have become so accustomed to listening to stories and picking up points of application. You have a flickering candle of Biblical teaching in your church, even though you pride yourself in being a Biblically based church.
‘Also, I want you to understand what a pastor really is. He is to be humble, not someone set apart from or above the congregation. He is to set the example for the rest of the church—and that requires life on life ministry. People have to know him well and want to follow the example of Christian life that he sets. Some people think that a shepherd lords it over the flock, but this is not the image of shepherding or pastoring from the Scriptures. The apostle Peter said to the elders or shepherds in the church that they should not ‘lord it over those in [their] charge, but be examples to the flock’ (1 Pt. 5.3). Shepherds are charged to give oversight, and, frankly, this can only be done by living among the flock and not mainly by speaking from the pulpit. Living with the sheep, not talking at them, is the key. Here’s a test: is the person you hired to minister spending his days in your homes and visiting with you, or do you really only know him as a great public speaker who tells great stories, often about himself, and offers pithy advice to you for the upcoming week from the pulpit? Pastors are shepherds, not pulpiteers.’
Stephanie and Jimmy were stunned. That is exactly what their head minister was. People loved him, but the church was far too large for him to visit people in their homes, let alone know most of their names. His gift was oratory—and being publicly likable as a person. But few people knew him. Pastoring happened in small groups, but those leading these groups had minimal training to pastor or teach, and the emphasis was really on the fellowship people had together. ‘Three major Biblical metaphors for the church,’ Timothy continued, ‘are ‘body’, which emphasizes Christ as the head and also the Spirit-gifted ministry of members to one another, ‘temple’, which emphasizes being built upon Jesus Christ and the apostles’ and prophets’ speaking the Gospel and truth and the holiness of God’s people, and ‘family’, which entails the love and intimacy in a small community that is drawn around Jesus Christ. Many people are part of a large gathering that lacks intimacy, does not require the exercise of much love, tries to be as inclusive as possible rather than strive toward holiness, and is a spectator sport of the musicians and preacher instead of people ministering to one another as a body.’
Checking the time once again, Timothy quickly added, ‘This brings me to my last point. As I just said but need to emphasize in closing, Jesus is central to everything we are and do as the church. This is why it is better to place a table with bread and wine in the center of the church rather than the pulpit and the musical instruments. Aesthetics are nice, good public speaking is fine, fellowship is critical, but Paul used to say, ‘I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2.2) and ‘Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him’ (Col. 3.17). We are Christians—Christ followers. It is so easy to turn our meetings together into meetings that offer great music, great speaking, and great fellowship, without Jesus. That is what we mean by ‘worship’—we are ascribing, proclaiming, and declaring God’s worth in what we do, and we do this because of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation. Here is a final test for your church: ‘Does your music point people to the musicians or to Jesus? Does the sermon make you rejoice in the minister as a great speaker or lead you to Jesus? Is your fellowshipping together a community formed around natural interests and food or does it originate in and express itself as fellowship in Christ? When you find yourselves in the presence of Jesus, you will find yourselves lost in worship wherever you meet together. This is the exact opposite of church as performances and programmes. It is meeting with Jesus, being broken before his holiness, washed in his loving sacrifice, and empowered by his Holy Spirit.’ As he said this, he waved his hand toward the cross on the wall, and as Jimmy and Stephanie looked away from Timothy and to the cross, he faded from their presence. The two of them broke into spontaneous worship in the Spirit and, as they did so, they felt the presence of a third in their midst.