Church is not a Building

A number of people have reminded us in these days the church is not a building.

The church is people. Not bricks and mortar, but flesh and blood, living people. So what has happened to the church? Well, what has happened to the people? That’s what’s happened to the church.

Some people want to plant a new church. They want to begin again with something that they say is more incarnational. I have news for them: They do not need to begin again in order to make the church more incarnational. The church is already as incarnational as it can ever be. The church is totally incarnational. Wherever her people are – at work, at school, in lockdown at home, as long as they are in their bodies – there is the church. Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome: And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. (Romans 12:1)

Paul pleads with them to give their bodies to God; what could be more incarnational? We are to give our bodies to God:

  • Fit or unfit
  • Overweight or malnourished (or anything in between)
  • Healthy or sick
  • Old or young
  • Male or female
  • Saint or sinner
  • Damaged or all intact
  • Skin colour is no barrier
  • Tall or short
  • Despised or admired

Whatever the shape or state of our bodies, giving them to God is the way to go. Only two requirements:

  1. They need to be living
  2. They need to be holy

Why does Paul want us to do this? Did you see it there: ‘This is truly the way to worship God?’ There are those who attend church regularly, but maybe do not worship. Then there are those who rarely darken the church doors, but continuously worship.

This interruption to our way of life need not disrupt our connection with God when we understand that all of life is worship.

How do we know if a quality is a principle or not?

Covey says a quick rule of thumb for testing if a quality is a universal, unchanging and unchangeable principle, we should try to imagine living in a world where the opposite is the rule and practice. For example, what would it be like working for a company (or being part of a family) where everyone wanted to control, rather than empower, each other? And what about being in a team (or a relationship) where nobody cared?

He says:

“Principles are guidelines for human conduct that are proven to have enduring, permanent value. They are fundamental. They’re essentially unarguable because they are self-evident. One way to quickly grasp the self-evident nature of principles is to simply consider the absurdity of attempting to live an effective life based on their opposites. I doubt that anyone would seriously consider unfairness, deceit, baseness, uselessness, mediocrity or degeneration to be a solid foundation for lasting happiness and success.” (‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,’ page 35)

Christian Schwarz has a clear definition of the term, principle: “A principle-oriented approach to church development fulfils the following four criteria:

  1. Principles are universally valid. They don’t apply only to certain situations or specific circumstances. They apply to all denominations, to all church models, to all devotional styles, and to all cultures.
  2. Principles must be proven. Until we have clear empirical proof, we may be dealing with an interesting concept that is worth consideration, but we shouldn’t speak about it as a principle. There is only one way to find out whether or not a specific feature is a universal principle: research on a universal (worldwide) scale.
  3. Principles always deal with what is essential, never with secondary aspects of the Christian life. Therefore, we can expect to find the principles that influence our lives also described in the Bible, even if the terminology is different.
  4. Principles always have to be individualized. They never tell you exactly what to do. Rather, they give you criteria that enable you to discover what should be done in a given situation (‘Color Your World with Natural Church Development,’ page 19).

Jim Collins had just finished presenting to a group of internet executives when he was asked: “Will your finding continue to apply in the new economy? Don’t we need to throw out all the old ideas and start from scratch?”

Collins answered, “Yes, the world is changing, and will continue to do so. But that does not mean we should stop the search for timeless principles. Think of it this way: While the practices of engineering continually evolve and change, the laws of physics remain relatively fixed. I like to think of our work as a search for timeless principles – the enduring physics of great organisations – that will remain true and relevant no matter how the world changes around us. Yes, the specific application will change (the engineering), but certain immutable laws of organized human performance (the physics) will endure.”[1]

Which are those things that are timeless? They are the qualities we should pay attention to!

[1] “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, pp.14, 15

NCD: A Common Denominator

There was a time when going to church was a bit like going to MacDonald’s; that is, you could predict what the experience would be like.

Not anymore.

Very few churches are the same today, even when they are from the same denomination (stream) and have the same label.

One reason for this is that church hierarchy have encouraged their pastors to shape the local church to fit the community where that church is located. The idea seems to make sense, but there is one very large hitch. Pastors, like all human beings, do not come without bias. They are not able to shape anything without putting their own personal stamp on it. Even our perception of God is biased! When a pastor seeks to fit the church to the community, (s)he also unintentionally (or intentionally) shapes the church to fit him- or her-self.

Another reason the worship experience from church to church is so different these days, could be that many of them have removed denominational labels and named themselves simply ‘Anytown’ Community Church.

Local churches are becoming more individualistic (the truth is, like siblings, they always have been different – unique – even when they looked similar), looking different from one another. Comparing churches these days is like comparing apples and oranges; they appear to be so different.

Is there any way we can find common ground between churches that appear so different?

Yes, there is a way.

A church leader I know who had responsibility for the oversight of some twenty churches in his denomination, decided to invite them all to complete a Natural Church Development church health assessment. The great value for him was that in each church’s regular review he now had a measure that was common to them all no matter the size of the church; no matter how many (or how few) programs the church was running; no matter what leaders and/or pastors said about their church; no matter what kind of worship team, or music (even untuneful – make a joyful noise) or other components of the worship experience.

Natural Church Development (NCD) takes us to bedrock, to what is essential in any church.

·       Empowering Leadership

·       Gift-based Ministry

·       Passionate Spirituality

·       Effective Structures

·       Inspiring Worship Service

·       Holistic Small Groups

·       Need-oriented Evangelism

·       Loving Relationships

These are like the vital organs of a human being; it is difficult to go on living if someone removes one of our vital organs. And a group could scarcely be a church if any one of these is missing.

The good news for our leader who asked his church to complete the health assessment was they all registered a score in all eight qualities. The not so good news was that some were quite low. But that’s another story.

Natural Church Development Principles and the Bible

Don’t cheat your neighbor by moving the ancient boundary markers; don’t take the land of defenseless orphans. For their Redeemer is strong; he himself will bring their charges against you. (Proverbs 23:10-11)
If we are in a position of power we must not take advantage of that position for personal gain, or even so that some other party may gain. People with power are to ensure than justice prevails, whatever form that may take. And justice (don’t cheat your neighbor) must be guided by truth (the ancient boundary markers) and grace (defenseless orphans). These three qualities together in balance equate to love.
As if the Preacher’s directive is not sufficient in itself, he continues with another strong deterrent for such action:
Their Redeemer is always on the side of the oppressed and disadvantaged. If we do not love them, He does, and in the great accounting day – if not in this life – we will discover ourselves to be in the dock. We will discover that it all belonged to Him anyway and we were but stewards; we will have nothing with which to pay for our ‘crimes.’
Sometimes in these days, when change is the only constant, some people are always wanting to change things, to make them more relevant and appealing to the unchurched. In many cases they are changing cosmetics things, making changes that irritate others, changing things that do not really need to be changed. Ancient boundary markers – like the eight quality characteristics of Natural Church Development – cannot and should not be changed. Perhaps in a church, the only changes that should be made at the commencement of the NCD process, are those changes that will facilitate improvements in church health; such changes will give members sufficient to grapple with, without making them all angry by changing a few cosmetic things and sending church health plummeting!