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The Real Owner

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Colossians 1:15-18 ESV)

And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:22-23)

There is no doubt that according to the Scriptures, Christ is the Supreme Head of the Church, His Body.  The Church is here defined not as a building, not as a social club, not as a weekly appointment, but as the people of God redeemed by the blood of Christ.  These people have been born again.  They have passed from eternal death to eternal life.  They are now adopted by their Heavenly Father to be part of His family forever.  Everything about them is different.  They are completely transformed, now that Christ has changed them.  They are indeed “new creations” in Christ.

When we fail to define the church in this way, we get into all kinds of trouble when we “do church.”  If we think of the church as a building, those who put up the brick and mortar and those who paid for the brick and mortar see the church as “their church.”  (What then happens when someone else wants to paint the brick and mortar?)  If we think of the church as a social club, those who pay their “dues” expect certain perks to be given to them from the “paid staff,” whom they can fire if they don’t like what they are receiving, because “We pay their salary.”  If they see the church as another weekly appointment, they can cancel the appointment if another more fun and “profitable” use of their time can be found.  After all, their time is their own, and they can choose to do with their time what they choose.

All of these misconceptions about the church flow from a popular concept communicated in our churches today – “ownership”.  We want our people to feel “ownership” in the church so that they become more involved.  There is nothing more destructive than this.  When someone feels like they are the “owner,” they think they can control what they paid for.  They expect a certain return on their investment.  If what they own does not give them what they want and the cost outweighs the benefit, what do they do?  They sell.  Ownership is all about what you pay and what you get in return for your investment.

Is there anything more unbiblical?  I don’t want people to think that the church is theirs – it belongs to Christ!  And if they are part of the true church (the called-out redeemed ones), it is because they belong to Christ!  He is our Head – our owner.  He calls the shots.  It is all about what He gets in return for His investment.  He paid for the church by His shed blood!

Instead of feeling like owners, I want people to feel like they belong to the church because they belong to Christ.  If people feel like they are the owners, for them the church becomes all about power and control and getting a return for their investment.  This is one of the greatest reasons the western church is so unhealthy and unfruitful.  In the west, we base our church structure on a corporate model where we try to make all the people co-owners, with the staff being some kind of controlling partner.  But in this model, I guarantee that there will be a power struggle between investors and staff.  Each wants the church to be what they want it to be.  After all, aren’t they “the owners”?

I repeat – Christ is the Head of His Church!

Repent!

The book of Nehemiah chapter 8 holds a beloved passage of Scripture: “…the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  We sing these words in a chorus, but what do they mean?

Nehemiah is a story of restoration.  God’s people had been exiled because of their sin and unbelief, but now a portion of them have returned to the promised land and were rebuilding.  In chapter 8, the wall around Jerusalem has been rebuilt, but now there needs to be a rebuilding of the people.  The building project brought safety, but it couldn’t change their sinful hearts.  To begin this internal rebuilding, Nehemiah asks Ezra the priest to publicly read the law of God.  Nehemiah makes it clear that before there can rebuilding, there needs to be an acknowledgement that things are broken and the law does just that.

They held the gathering at the “water gate.”  In the Scriptures, water is a picture for the Word of God, which cleanses (John 15:3, Eph. 5:26).  It is also a picture of the Spirit of God, Who gives joyous life which satisfies our parched soul (John 7:37-39).

When they heard the Word, the people mourned over their sins, “for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”  They had just observed the Day of Atonement, and had spent 10 days examining their hearts.  Now the Word confirmed their guilt.

But revival doesn’t end with people feeling guilty.  When they repent (lit. a change of mind that brings a change of heart that brings a change of will that brings a change of life), they are cleansed, and they should rejoice in their forgiveness.  True repentance brings joy and restoration with their God!  The Feast of Tabernacles (a fun, celebratory festival) follows the Day of Atonement.  During the Feast, they lived in “booths” to remind them of their 40 years in the wilderness that resulted in their entering of the Promised Land.  What joy!  Warren Wiersbe said, “Conviction is followed by cleansing, then celebration.”

The Word brings conviction which leads to repentance.  It also brings joy.  “Your words were found, and I ate them, and Your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart; for I am called by your Name (Jer. 15:16).”  “The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart (Ps. 19:8).”  “Your testimonies I have taken as a heritage forever, for they are the rejoicing of my heart (Ps. 119:111).”  “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who finds great delight in His commands (Ps. 112:1).”  “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law he meditates day and night.”

When we truly repent, we are forgiven!  The past is gone.  The Feast of Tabernacles in the book of Zechariah (14:4, 9, 16-20) is a feast that looks forward to a glorious future when Jesus will return.  That is why the “joy of the Lord is your strength (8:10).”  When your hope is gone, when your joy is weak, think about where you have come from.  Think about where you are going because of Christ.  That gives you the strength for today.  We can live lives of obedience today (8:13-18) because of the joy of the Lord.  The joy of the Lord is your strength!

What Are We Calling Them To?

I have been reading the book of Acts lately and have been impressed by the sermons preached after the Holy Spirit came and filled God’s people with power to be witnesses of Christ.  Peter’s masterful sermon on the day of Pentecost was a Christ-centered history lesson that showed how the God of history brought the King of Kings into the world to save men from their sins.  3,000 people were saved after hearing and responding to these words.  In Acts 3, after a man lame from birth was healed in the Name of Jesus, Peter again preaches, explaining how this man was healed, but again putting the focus on Jesus as God and King.  (It is interesting that in both messages, Peter blames his listeners for killing Jesus – not exactly the best way to endear yourself to the crowd.)  In Acts 4, Peter and John are called before the religious leaders and Peter again preaches about Jesus.  In Acts 7, after Stephen is arrested by the religious leaders, he preaches another historical review that culminates in another clear proclamation of who Jesus is.  The result?  He is martyred.

Here are a few observations I have as I compare these messages to what is being preached today:

  1. These messages would be considered too “boring” for our western churches today. Too much history, too little humor and engaging stories.  Too much teaching, too little catchy principles for living.  Try to read these sermons word for word at our gatherings this weekend – see how many people remain interested.  Yet, look at what the Holy Spirit did through those words.
  2. These messages clearly lay out the track of redemptive history and the theology of who Jesus is before calling anyone to a response. Today, after hearing messages about how we can live better lives, preachers then give a quick invitation to “come to Jesus.”  My question is, if Peter and Stephen felt led by the Spirit to clearly lay out the historical context for who Jesus is before they called people to respond, and their audience was vastly religious, how much more do we need to lay this groundwork as we communicate to a largely biblically illiterate and post-Christian culture today?  When we don’t tell our audience who Jesus is, and then we tell them to “come to Jesus” – what are we calling them to?  Maybe a better question is, “WHOM are we calling them to?”  Is it to the biblical Christ, or the popular, tolerant, nice moral teacher Jesus of modern culture?  I think that one of the reasons many people “fall away” from following Christ today is because the Christ they accepted was a caricature, not the real Christ.  No wonder they fall away – a cartoon Christ cannot radically transform anybody.

A New Relationship

As we begin this new year, many are thinking of new jobs, new financial streams of income, and a “new you.”  Many are also thinking of new relationships.  But how many are thinking of a new relationship to God’s law?

I was reading from chapter 5 of Matthew this morning, the first chapter recording the famous “Sermon on the Mount.”  I don’t know how many times I have heard even those who don’t follow Christ say, “I like the teachings of Jesus.  The things He said about love – the things He said on the Sermon in the Mount – those things are beautiful!”  Let me agree.  It is a beautiful sermon.  But if you actually read what Jesus said, it is also terrifying!  After the beatitudes (“blessed are the…”), Jesus tells us that if we aren’t salty enough, we are good for nothing except to be path pavement.  He tells us that unless we are more righteous than even the most religious, we won’t see His Kingdom.  He clarifies that we are guilty of breaking the laws of His Kingdom not only if we murder, but even if we get angry.  The same is true of adultery – we are guilty of breaking this law not only when we commit the physical act, but when we lust in our heart!  He proclaims that most who get divorced and remarried are committing adultery.  He says that if we don’t keep our word, if we hold something against our brother, if we try to retaliate against our enemies, in fact if we don’t LOVE our enemies, we are not living up to the standard of His Kingdom, which is, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  If we honestly read this beautiful sermon, we have to admit, we’re in big trouble!

This sermon is a “kingdom sermon.”  It describes what God’s Kingdom is like, and how His kingdom people are to live.  Right before this chapter, we read, “Jesus went throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.”  Jesus talked about His Kingdom, and He demonstrated the power of the Kingdom.  In this context He gave us a sermon about the Kingdom.  It is much like the giving of the law in the Old Testament.  The law describes the character of God and what the character of His covenant people should look like.  Paul accurately teaches that on our own, none of us can live as God’s people.  On our own, with our sinful hearts, none of us can live as Kingdom people.  That is the purpose of the law – to tell us we can’t be good enough on our own (read Galatians or Romans).  What we realize when we see God’s standard is this – we need new hearts, indeed new lives, to truly be Kingdom people who live like the King!  And only Jesus can make us new and give us the circumcised hearts that His people must have.

In other words, you won’t be able to live up to the requirements of the Kingdom unless you have been made a citizen of the Kingdom – unless you have been made into a new creation.  Unless you have been born again.  Only then, after this miraculous transformation, will you have a heart and a life capable of living like the King.  It is then that you have a new relationship with the law and with this message of the Kingdom.  It no longer condemns you as guilty and incapable of living right.  When you are made new, it now describes who God is and who He has made you.

To Leaders of Large Churches

Dear brothers and sisters in large churches,
As a pastor of a small church, I dare not try to speak for all small church pastors and leaders, but I do think a few of my small church brethren might share some of my sentiments. So, please allow me to write down a few thoughts that have been heavy on my heart.

First of all, can I say a big “thank you” for all you do in our community for the sake of our King and His Kingdom? I agree with Paul when he wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:3-6, NIV)

When I think of you and what God is doing in and through you, I rejoice! You see multitudes of people pass from darkness into light as they are transformed by Christ and His amazing grace. I join the angels in heaven, as they rejoice over these souls that are saved. I am filled with joy when I think of addicts being set free by the Holy Spirit, wounded partners in marriage finding forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ, and the poor in our community receiving not only a cup of cold water in Jesus’ Name, but also hope and healing in that same Name. Your army of workers for the sake of the gospel make that possible. Thank you for all you do!

Thank you for having a God-honoring voice in the community we all love. Sometimes someone needs to speak up for the sake of righteousness, and you have a voice that is heard. Thank you for the times you courageously stand up for truth, as you at the same time extend Jesus’ love. Thank you for your servant-leadership given to all in our city, as you serve and lead both great and small. I appreciate you!

Thank you for bringing exciting, Christ-exalting events to our community. Because of you and your generosity, our entire city can enjoy wonderful music and gifted preaching, as you bring talented evangelists and musicians to town. Thanks for hosting these events, and thank you for inviting us all. This same generosity enables the wonderful, grace-giving, mercy ministries in our area to have the people and resources they need to make the big difference they make.
Thank you – a thousand times thank you – for all you are and all you do in Christ. I am thankful for you, and I do pray for you, because I see us truly as partners in the gospel.

I love the word behind that English word, “partnership.” “Koinonia” is translated in various translations as “partnership, communion or fellowship.” But this deep camaraderie is not just an enjoyment of each other’s company; it is “partnership for a purpose, communion for a cause, fellowship to further the Kingdom.” I enjoy our friendship. I am encouraged by you and your love. But I see our relationship as more than that – we are together to extend the good news of the gospel of Jesus to those in our community who do not yet understand who He is and what He came to do. Thanks for letting me work with you.

Can I also add a word of confession? While I am truly thankful for you, sometimes the green-eyed monster of envy rises up in the hearts of those of us in the small church. I admit that at times I have been jealous of your numbers, your budgets and your fame. Please forgive me.

Forgive me that sometimes those of us in small churches sometimes try to justify our bad attitudes. “They must not really preach the gospel in that church!” we might say. “They are a mile wide and an inch deep!” I know that over-generalizing tends to get us in trouble. As is true in our small churches, not all of your fellowships are deep or faithful. But many of you are. Thank you to those who are.

Can I make another confession? Small churches are small for a reason. Sometimes (and I use that word very purposefully)… sometimes our church families are small because God has called us to be small and to serve Him as such. Many times churches are small because they are not healthy, and sick bodies will not grow, but will over time shrivel up and die. As we pray for you, will you pray for us to experience fullness and health in Christ?

I wasn’t thinking of these things recently, but something happened that brought them to my attention. My daughter, who is in college being trained for Christian ministry, for some God-ordained reason, chose to serve her college internship in our small church. Some thought it was the easy route – that she wasn’t challenging herself enough by going home. I knew it would be the hardest thing she ever did.

She is an extremely gifted young lady who loves Jesus with all of her heart. She has been a “PK” all of her life, did not go through decades of rebellion, but has worked through a myriad of hurts and pains that go along with living in a pastor’s home. She has seen much and has a deep understanding of ministry, in spite of my efforts to shelter her. She has a heart to help the “least of these” by extending God’s mercy in very practical ways as she boldly proclaims God’s truth. I am very proud of her.

And I was extremely proud of her as she began to serve in our church. She worked tirelessly and put together a full week of camp for the children of prisoners. It was the best camp I had ever seen on paper! She worked just as hard developing our church’s first Vacation Bible School in years, with the help of her team, our church’s youth group – all three of them. Did I mention that of the three, two were her younger sisters? She did such a good job, and truly did it for Jesus!

And then the camp was cancelled. Just a few kids signed up, in spite of cards, phone calls, visits, and parents’ meetings. I tried to explain to her that she is learning a valuable lesson – that all of her service was not wasted if it was truly service to the Lord! Then we had the VBS – and our little team faithfully and lovingly served six kids over four days, in spite of hundreds of invitations being extended.

As all of this was going on, we would drive by other churches holding their own VBS’s with parking lots full and kids everywhere. Today, we went to a wonderful event where an incredible church in our town came into our neighborhood and at our local elementary school hosted an exciting festival for the children (and their families) that we had been loving and serving. Hundreds were there when we visited. We rejoiced. And we prayed for good fruit. And I saw something in my daughter’s eye that reveled something deep in her heart.

While she was happy with all that was happening, she couldn’t help but wonder, “Why?” Why did she work for months for one cancelled camp and a tiny VBS? And why did others seem to have “success” we could only dream of? After years of service in small churches, I have grown used to the hours of prayer, study and service for events that never happen or that have just the same few regulars attend. I have shielded my heart from such constant disappointment. I almost expect us on Sunday to have to sing acapella because no musicians show up. Even though I thought she had seen these realities over the years, she was shocked and told my wife, “I don’t know how you and dad do this year after year – I am struggling doing it for a few months.” I do not have answers for her. But it made me want to write to you. Can I share a few thoughts with you, brothers and sisters in the large church?

First, be thankful for what you have. You have been blessed in many ways. I realize that you have problems and disappointments that I could never dream about. But you also are experiencing blessings that some of us may never experience. God has indeed blessed you!

Second, people from our small churches will leave our churches to go be part of your church. I hate to say it this way, but here is the reality (at least in some people’s minds) – we cannot compete with the size, variety, excitement, and excellence that you offer. For better or for worse, many people desire what you have – few desire what we have. They will leave us for you much more than they will leave you for us. When they do, please check with them (or me) to see if they left my church on good terms. I will give them my blessing if they leave seeking health and life! But will you at least ask where they were and why they left? By the way, it would be to your advantage to know if these new people will be a help or a hindrance. I know you desire to grow through conversion growth, but the truth is, most who entered your doors exited mine. Check with me. I will do the same for you.

Lastly, continue to remember those of us in small churches. You are my heroes! I am so thankful for your incredible, fruitful ministry! But can I be honest? I hold those who serve selflessly and faithfully in small churches in even higher esteem. You are my heroes. Those serving in anonymity with constant disappointment are my super-heroes! Why not call up one these servants and invite them to lunch and thank them, too. Continue to invite them to your events, as full-partners and co-laborers in Christ. Return their phone calls and emails. Treat them like they are valuable members of the team, not as distractions from your “real” ministry. And please remember them in prayer, thanking God with joy for the partnership in the gospel that you have with these heroes.
Faithfully yours,
Brian Heinen