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Why bother with theology?

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Many people find theology to be complicated, confusing and even irrelevant. They wonder why they should bother with it at all. “Surely,” they exclaim, “the Bible isn’t that difficult! Why read the works of head-in-the-clouds theologians with their long sentences and fancy terms?”

Sadly, it is common to ridicule what we don’t understand. But doing so is a formula for continuing in ignorance and possibly falling prey to heresy.

I acknowledge that some academic theologians are hard to understand. In fact, it is unusual to find a genuine scholar who is also a gifted communicator. People in academic circles often deal in lofty ideas, and speak and write mainly with their peer group in mind. They leave it to others to bring those ideas down to earth. The situation is not unlike the difference between the practices of science and technology. The experimental scientist in his laboratory discovers a new process or material, and leaves it mostly to others to harness the idea into something practical for the ordinary person.

Theology has been called “faith seeking understanding,” and we should not despise it. As Christians we trust God, but God has made us to want to understand the one we trust and why we trust him. Our God apparently wants us to grow in our knowledge and trust in him, having our minds more and more transformed. But knowledge about God is not something that we humans can just come up with on our own by thinking it out. The only way we can know anything true about God is to listen to what he tells us about himself.

God has chosen to preserve the revelation of himself to us in the Bible, a collection of inspired writings compiled over many centuries under the supervision of the Holy Spirit. However, even the most diligent study of the Bible does not automatically convey to us a right or full understanding of who God is. Most heresies come from wrong understandings of who God is, often promoted by one or a few individuals who fail to grasp how God has revealed himself in the Bible and ultimately in Jesus Christ, and who have given little or no attention to the biblically based teaching of the church down through the ages.

What then do we need? First, we need the Holy Spirit to enable our minds to understand what God reveals in the Bible about himself and give us the humility to receive it. The Bible and the work of the Spirit together are sufficient to bring the humble reader (or hearer) with a mustard seed’s worth of faith to an initial trust that repents of unbelief and acknowledges that Jesus is Lord and that he alone brings us God’s gracious salvation. Second, growth in our knowledge of who God is calls for a comprehensive grasp of the whole of Scripture with Jesus Christ standing at the center of it all. No one can do that for themselves in even a lifetime. We need the wisdom of others. Third, we may misunderstand some or much of what we read in the Bible due to assumptions we bring with us into our study of the Bible. We need help to remove these obstacles to spiritual growth. Fourth, we will not instantly know how best to communicate our understanding to those around us. Some are specifically called to help sort all these things out. And this is where theology comes in.

The word theology comes from a combination of two Greek words, theos, meaning God, and logia, meaning knowledge or study—study of God. Theologians are those members of the body of Christ who are called to synthesize and sum up the biblical witness to the nature, character, mind, purposes and will of God. In doing this they survey the results of others in the history of the church who attempted to do the same. They also analyze our contemporary context to discern the best words, concepts, stories, analogies or illustrations that most faithfully convey the truth and reality of who God is. The result is theology. While not all theologies are equally faithful, the church is wise to make use of those results that do help it keep its proclamation of the Gospel resting on the firm foundation of God’s own revelation of himself in Jesus Christ according to Scripture.

The church as a whole has an ongoing responsibility to examine its beliefs and practices critically, in the light of God’s revelation. Theology, therefore, represents the Christian community’s continuous quest for faithful doctrine as it humbly seeks God’s wisdom and follows the Holy Spirit’s lead into all truth. The church ought to make use of those members of the Body who are specially called to help it do just that. Until Christ returns in glory, the church cannot assume that it has reached its goal. That is why theology should be a never-ending process of critical self-examination. Theology can thus serve the church by combating heresies, or false teachings, and helping us find the most faithful ways we can speak the truth in love today in our current context.

My point is that theology – good theology based in a profound respect for the biblical revelation and a sound understanding of its intent, background, context and comprehensive meaning for today – is a vital ingredient to a growing Christian faith. The 21st century is posing unprecedented challenges that are not addressed directly in the inspired Scriptures. Times change, but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you” (John 16:12-15).

So let’s not despise the understanding that comes from good theology, even though it sometimes comes wrapped in difficult language. As the “resident theologian” to the people you serve, strive to understand it and then serve it up to your people in a way they can also understand.

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

PS. At www.gci.org/God/theology you’ll find a useful article on this topic. It might provide you with material for a sermon or two. You will also find an ongoing discussion concerning Trinitarian theology on The Surprising God blog at thesurprisinggodblog.gci.org/.

Thoughts about liturgy

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

In my Weekly Update letter last week, I discussed worship and noted how liturgy is an important component. This week I add some thoughts about liturgy.

Churches with a “non-liturgical” worship tradition tend to equate liturgy with formal worship that has lots of ritual (what my friend Professor Eddie Gibbs describes as “bells and smells”), including standardized prayers.

Copyright 1982 Larry Thomas and Christianity Today. Used with permission.

Though a “liturgical” approach toward worship might seem contrived and stiff to those used to a less formal style, it is perfectly valid when given to the Father, through Jesus, “in spirit and in truth” as Jesus explained to the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4.

But please note that liturgy is much more than a style of worship practiced by “high churches” like Roman Catholics, Anglicans and the Eastern Orthodox. Whether we recognize it or not, liturgy is fundamental to the rhythm of a Christian’s daily life before God.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word abad is used to describe both worship and work. In the New Testament, the equivalent Greek words are latreuo and leitourgia, from which comes our English word “liturgy.” The original meaning of leitourgia was not just religious good works, but any public duty or service rendered by a citizen for the benefit of the state. A person who did not accept this duty was known as an idiotes – an idiot!

In Romans 12:1, Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sister, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship (from latreia).” He saw a parallel: as citizens of a community accepted their responsibility for public service, so Christians should make themselves available to God for the work of the kingdom. Paul also draws from his own Jewish background of sacrifice in temple worship. The sacrifice here seems to represent an act of total self-giving of one’s life for the benefit of and in response to God’s mercy. But notice the radical transformation of the idea of sacrifice. In ancient Israel the animal gave up its life as it poured out its blood. It died as its life was given over for others. Here Paul proclaims that we are living sacrifices, continually self-giving.

Where did Paul get this striking insight? From the gospel of grace, which he had set forth in the previous eleven chapters! Our sacrifice is a mirror image, reflecting Christ’s own self-giving, which passed through death to eternal life, never to die again! We join in and participate in Christ’s own liturgy of pouring out his life even to the extent of death, but in a way that leads to fullness of life.

Indeed Christ’s own worship transforms the very notion of sacrifice and worship. Paul goes on to say: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (verse 2). Our sacrificial worship demonstrates a whole new pattern of living that comes from sharing daily in the grace of Christ, our crucified, risen and ascended Lord. As we read in Hebrews 8:2, as one of us, in our place and on our behalf, Jesus truly is our worship leader in every moment of our lives. In union with him, we daily die to ourselves in repentance and rise with him to newness of life through total faith in him.

Note that liturgy is not just something “religious” we do in church, or when we pray or study the Bible. It is characteristic of the whole rhythm of our daily life. When, in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 (KJV), Paul admonished Christians to “pray without ceasing,” he was not saying that we continually pray and never stop. The Greek word he chose is used outside the New Testament to describe a hacking cough. When you have a hacking cough, you do not cough all the time, but you feel like you are. That is what it means to pray without ceasing. It means being in an attitude of prayer at all times. So, when I say that worship is the rhythm of daily life, it is like saying that we pray without ceasing or breathe without ceasing.

The temple in Jerusalem was a liturgical place that involved more than sacrifice. At its dedication, Solomon prayed, “May your eyes be open toward this temple day and night, this place of which you said you would put your Name there. May you hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place” (2 Chronicles 6:20). We no longer have (nor do we need) a physical temple. Now God’s people are God’s temple—built up by the Holy Spirit (1 Peter2:5), where acts of sacrifice and service continue day and night, “without ceasing” as together we share God’s love and life with those around us.

And so now, perhaps we can see how in formal times of worship the exact same truth and reality are depicted. Baptism and communion in the context of proclaiming the grace of God in Jesus announce in action both the sacrifice of self-giving and the transformation to new life we share with Christ. We die with him in immersion and in the breaking of the bread and we rise with him as we ascend through the surface the water of his baptism and partake of his lifegiving blood by drinking his covenantal wine of life. And in both instances we share in what is his, enveloped in his baptism and partaking of his bodily death and resurrection. Yes, that’s liturgical too!

Next week I am travelling to Chicago, where I will meet with our denominational leaders from around the world. When these men and women share what has been happening in their areas of ministry, I anticipate receiving exciting reminders that in our part of being God’s spiritual temple, the sun literally never sets on our liturgy and worship.

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

Thoughts about worship

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In the last two decades, our denomination has made major changes in the way we conduct worship. Many of us remember when our worship services began with a song leader and a pianist. They would lead the congregation in two or three hymns as a prelude to the “main event.”

We have become more flexible and even adventurous. We have realized that “praise and worship” (as worship in song and prayer is often referred to) is an important component of our services. We have learned to embrace multiple music styles (understanding that people of different backgrounds and cultures express themselves very differently, especially in music). We have learned the importance of skilled worship leaders, musicians and others who facilitate worship. Many of our congregations have praise bands with multiple musicians. Also, many of our congregations have learned to use modern technology to enhance worship.

Copyright 2004 Thom Tapp and Christianity Today. Used with permission.

However, not all our congregations have the same resources. And so I want us to remember that, though advanced technologies and live praise bands can enhance worship, they are not essential to worship.

Worship is an interesting word. It comes from an Old English word, weorth meaning “worth.” In its earliest form, weorthscipe (worth-ship) meant the appropriate treatment of something or someone of worth. So worth-ship or worship is the act of affirming God’s worth. It does not mean we flatter God to boost his self-esteem. Rather, it is a declaration that God is worthy – to be praised, preached about, confessed to and served.

Jesus makes one of the most pointed scriptural statements concerning worship in his encounter with the Samaritan woman. Living in a society polarized over the details of “getting worship right,” this woman seized the opportunity to ask Jesus about it. “I can see that you are a prophet,” she said. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:19-20).

Jesus explained that the practical details of worship were not what was most important. “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23).

The true worship of God is expressed in a number of ways. We see this by noting the three basic meanings to the Greek and Hebrew words translated as worship. The first meaning is that of praise and adoration. We express this when we sing and pray (together and individually). The second meaning pertains to public or ceremonial gatherings, like church services where we sing, pray and fellowship together. The third meaning, which is the broadest, is to serve. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word abad is used for both worship and for work. The Greek verbs for this meaning are latreuo and the similar word leiturgeo which is the root word for our English word liturgy.

The most important point about worship is found in the New Testament book of Hebrews, where the risen and ascended Jesus is said to be our Leiturgos (“minister”); our worship leader (8:2). He leads us in worship, conveying all of God’s graces to us and taking all our responses to him, sanctifying them and giving them to the Father in the Spirit.

Our worship of God, with and through Jesus, can occur in large groups and small. For the first 300 years of Christianity, church services occurred mostly in homes, and thus in small groups. There is a purity about this original pattern that carries the inherent blessing of simplicity.

The early church did not set up a bank of amplifiers, speakers, soundboards, microphones, projectors and such. These resources are not needed in a very small congregation. In fact, it would be ridiculous to set up for a group of 250 people when there is only going to be 10 to 20 in attendance. Sitting in a circle is just as good as sitting in several rows – in fact, it is often better for small congregations, providing an intimate environment where genuine, quality worship can happen.

If you are a small congregation, you need not feel that you are inadequate because your worship service is not a “mega-media-event.” Keep it simple – make use of the resources you have, knowing that God will meet you where you are. Instead of becoming preoccupied with the mechanics of doing church (like Martha in the kitchen!), embrace the freedom that Jesus gives you to focus on worship (like Mary at our Lord’s feet). Remember what Jesus told us: “For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20).

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. For more about this perspective on worship, see our Trinitarian Worship blog at http://trinitarianworship.blogspot.com/.

Jesus: the unexpected Messiah

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Why didn’t Jesus go down in history as a failure? In fact, why did he go down in history at all?

He lived on earth at a time when his people were expecting a Messiah to deliver them from the Roman occupation. It seems there were many zealots and fanatics eager to appoint themselves to that position. Some even gained a following, but their efforts came to nothing. Most died unknown, and even those we know about are just footnotes in history. However, Jesus is not a footnote in history. He remains considered one of the most influential, if not the most influential, human being who has ever lived.

When he was crucified two thousand years ago, his followers were left in confusion. Most were expecting the Messiah to be a royal military leader who would overthrow the enemies of Israel and be honored by the Jewish religious leadership as king. This would be the proof of his Messiahship and this is what they expected Jesus would do.

Just a few days earlier, he had entered Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowds. At last, it seemed, he was going to make his move and lead them in a war of liberation against the Romans. Then he would establish his kingdom, restoring the fortunes of his people. Those who had followed him would be given key positions. But before the week was over he was dead – executed like a common criminal, rejected by the religious leaders and his followers went into hiding.

No one expected this to happen. Although there were different ideas among the Jews about what the Messiah would do, there were some common themes. Being crucified was not one of them. In fact, coming to such an end would have been high on the list of events proving someone was not the Messiah. So why did his followers continue to believe in a Messiah who, instead of leading them to victory, only seemed to have brought ignominy and suffering on himself?

Let’s look at it from the disciples’ point of view. Clearly, Jesus did not fulfill any of those common expectations for the Jews of his day. Instead of routing the Romans, he came as the Prince of Peace, not even carrying a weapon. He was born in a borrowed stable and buried in a borrowed tomb. He was executed in mid-life by a method reserved for slaves and common criminals. So, why would his followers maintain that he was the Messiah? Why would they not just cut their losses after his death and move on? Why would they even be willing to be killed themselves for this Messiah?

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright explains it well:

There were, to be sure, ways of coping with the death of a teacher, or even a leader. The picture of Socrates was available, in the wider world, as a model of unjust death nobly borne. The category of “martyr” was available, within Judaism, for someone who stood up to pagans… The category of failed but still revered Messiah, however, did not exist. A Messiah who died at the hands of the pagans, instead of winning [God’s] battle against them, was a deceiver… Why then did people go on talking about Jesus of Nazareth, except as a remarkable but tragic memory? The obvious answer is that… Jesus was raised from the dead (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1996, p. 658).

Suffering would not have been necessary for the kind of Messiah the people of his time were expecting. He could have lived to a ripe old age, and then have been enshrined in legend and history like David, Joshua, or Gideon. Even if he had lost his life in a struggle against the Romans, he could have had a place of honor. But to live in relative obscurity and then die in disgrace – what kind of a Messiah is that?

But Jesus was so much more than a military hero. He had come, not just to deliver Israel from the Romans, but to rescue all humanity from captivity to evil and death and reconcile humanity to God. And to do that, he had to suffer and die. On the very day that Jesus rose from the dead, he spoke of himself saying, “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26 NASB).

The full glory of the Messiah is seen on the cross. This was an important point that Jesus’ disciples had missed until after his resurrection. Many still miss this point today. The glory of Jesus as our Savior was not shown only through his power and resurrection, though it could have been. His glory certainly was not shown through any status or position he had on earth. Rather, his glory was also shown in the incredible suffering he willingly endured as an expression of his immeasurable love for those he came to save.

As Paul wrote to the church at Philippi:

[Jesus] being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8).

After his resurrection, the full realization of who Jesus was, and what he had come to do began to sink in. As his followers absorbed the wonder, grace and glory of both his crucifixion and his resurrection they were transformed. Led by the Holy Spirit, only then did they began to fulfill his “Great Commission,” taking his message of forgiveness of sin, victory over evil and death, and of salvation to the whole world. Convinced of the truth and reality of who Jesus was and what he had accomplished, not even the suffering of hardships, persecution and, for some, execution could stop their proclamation reaching “to the uttermost parts of the earth.” And we today are the beneficiaries of their mission and ministry that was handed on to others who were also faithful channels of God’s own reconciling and renewing work down through the generations.

As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

In this season of Easter continuing on to Pentecost, let’s take time to renew our own sense of wonder and commitment, as we each do our part in carrying on the Great Commission. It is a message this world needs. It has been well said, “he may not have been the Messiah all had hoped for, but he is indeed the Messiah of great hope for all.”

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. For a song about the cross, composed by GCI member Deborah Glenister, see the YouTube video at http://youtu.be/3vVRVbUSt7g

A message for Holy Week

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

There was something about the regional conference we held last month in Vancouver, WA that made it the best one I ever attended in that region (others mentioned similar impressions).

I was still thinking about the conference when I boarded the plane for home. As always, I wondered who would sit next to me. It was a short flight, on a regional jet with two seats on each side of a narrow aisle. If you have an aisle seat, as I did, everyone boarding after you gets to bump you with their arms, hips, cabin baggage and whatever! It is best to stay alert until everyone is seated. So much for the “glamor” of travel!

A fellow carrying a big screen TV squeezed by and then came a young woman who looked like Miss America. But they kept going. Then I saw the young man who was to be my seat mate. Actually, I smelled him before I saw him. “Oh no!” I thought, but tried to resist the urge to judge. The flight attendant gave me a look, wondering how I was going to react. I kept the consummate poker face. He certainly was not the guy I would have chosen to sit with. But I could not help thinking that Jesus would probably have chosen someone like him.

As it turned out, despite his lack of familiarity with personal hygiene, he was a really nice fellow. He was a graduate student who worked with computers for a hotel chain. He told me he had been on vacation. Then he told me (in some detail) of the women he had met (I won’t share the details here). You should have seen the look on his face when I told him what I did for a living!

We chatted and drank a beer together on the short flight back to southern California. As we prepared to land, he told me I was the kind of person he would like to hang out with. I took that as a compliment.

A verse came to mind as I considered this encounter with a challenging though pleasant fellow human. As you may recall, Jesus’ enemies criticized him for the company he kept. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they said (Luke 15:2). I confess that I have come to rather enjoy this kind of opportunity. I think of it as a “Jesus moment.”

Jesus eats with “sinners”

In Jesus’ day, the people you chose to be seen with, and especially to eat with, established a “pecking order” of righteousness. The self-righteous religious leaders would have probably classified my travel companion as a common and unclean “sinner.” But not Jesus! He sought out the people others rejected. He broke down artificial barriers that would keep him from connecting with those who by the Spirit were open to receiving from him new life.

When Jesus ate with the common, unclean and immoral, he had a way of making them sense the forgiveness and acceptance he offered them. In response, many of these “least” were motivated to receive his forgiveness by repenting and changing for the better. Remember how the despised tax collector, Zacchaeus, decided to mend his ways after Jesus had selected his home as a place to eat? (Luke 19:1-10). There were many incidents in Jesus’ life where he chose the company of social outcasts. I could picture him pointing to the seat next to my odiferous and libidinous companion and asking, “May I sit here?”

It was not that Jesus exalted immorality above morality or failure above success. He was willing to take his message of forgiveness and reconciliation to the rich and influential as well as to the poor and downtrodden. Here is another story in Luke’s gospel where Jesus accepted an invitation to a meal with one of the top religious leaders:

One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move. Right before him there was a man hugely swollen in his joints. So Jesus asked the religion scholars and Pharisees present, “Is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath? Yes or no?” They were silent. So he took the man, healed him, and sent him on his way (Luke 14:1-6, The Message Bible).

The prim and proper guests were outraged, since they were not at all ready to repent and receive anything from Jesus. So Jesus could only show them the way forward by exposing their pride and hypocrisy and instructing them to try a whole different way of relating to others:

“The next time you put on a dinner” he told his host, “don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people” (vv. 12–14).

Since they wouldn’t repent and receive from Jesus now, he opens the door to them for doing so in the future.

I realize that social convention and custom have their place, but I more strongly identify with Jesus’ behavior that deemphasized the significance of social barriers when it comes to extending God’s own hospitality to others. All such distinctions, categories, evaluations and pigeonholes should be left behind when we dine with Jesus.

Surely we should keep this in mind during Holy Week when we will partake of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus welcomes his dinner companions into a new family – the household and family of God. There, as the Apostle Paul says, we enter into our new life of communion in Christ. Jesus invites us all to his table. And as we gather ’round for that meal, we are reminded of the future Messianic banquet which will host those from every land, nation and people. Then, we will celebrate the coming of his Kingdom in fullness, the first course of a banquet that never ends.

The mood of Holy Week, including our time at the Lord’s Table, is one of holiness, joy, confidence and hope as Easter approaches, when we will celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and King. Let’s enjoy it, wherever and whoever we are, being especially ready to welcome the stranger as Christ himself has welcomed us.

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

The written word reveals the Living Word

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In our Statement of Beliefs, in the section concerning the Bible, we say this:

The Holy Scriptures are by God’s grace sanctified to serve as his inspired Word and faithful witness to Jesus Christ and the gospel. They are the fully reliable record of God’s revelation to humanity culminating in his self-revelation in the incarnate Son. As such, the Holy Scriptures are foundational to the church and infallible in all matters of faith and salvation.

This is a carefully worded statement, and we took a lot of time to formulate it. It is important in what it does not say as much as in what it does. You see, although as Christians we must take the Bible very seriously, it is also possible to get into trouble by regarding it as more than what it is. It seems that we know that the Bible is not equal to God even when we sometimes mistakenly behave or speak as if this were the case. No one prays to their Bible or believes the Bible will forgive their sin or raise them from the dead. But there have been some well-intended theologians who have regarded the words of the Bible as the highest or most direct revelation from God – in effect worshipping Father, Son and Holy Scriptures. This error even has its own name – bibliolatry.

This was the problem the religious leaders of Jesus’ time had. Jesus told them, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).

Notice that Jesus did not say that the written scriptures give life. Regarding the scriptures, of themselves, in this way, misses the point. Scripture testifies to the truth and reality of God’s Word becoming incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. The scriptures point to Jesus who is himself the resurrection and the life. This truth was something the religious leaders refused to accept, and so their whole understanding went awry, leading them to reject Jesus as their Messiah. Like many people today, they didn’t comprehend the distinction between the Bible as the written revelation that prepares us for and directs us to Jesus himself, who alone is the personal self-revelation of God.

I realize that statement may raise eyebrows in some circles. Some may worry that it downplays the importance of the Bible. But it does nothing of the kind. Rather, it properly relates the two different forms of revelation. I have tried to explain it in sermons by saying that Jesus is the Living Word and the Bible is the written word. The written word conveys life to us only because its author (the Living Word) is personally present by the Spirit and speaks again to our very spirits when we read and listen to it.

In the Bible, the Living Word is revealed using human language, expressed in multiple literary genres (poetry, prose, etc.), from within various historical and cultural contexts. The Bible tells the story of how God has worked in human history, most especially in ancient Israel, preparing them (and us) to recognize and receive in faith the salvation accomplished on earth by God’s Son, the Living Word.

Thinking along these lines, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “We must read this book of books with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One” (Reflections on the Bible). Indeed, the Bible is the only ancient book you can read where the author is still alive and with you, opening and guiding you to faithful understanding and holy communion with him.

This is the glorious purpose for the Bible and we err in trying to make it serve other ends. But we also err by not receiving it in faith for all that it is, namely, a God-inspired gift given to reveal a perfect God (and his perfect plan) even while using a limited, human media.

The apostle Paul, who knew the scriptures inside out, spent much time in his letters explaining how what we call the Old Testament needed to be interpreted in the light of Jesus, even if that meant jettisoning some “carved in stone” ideas that people held about Scripture. Ironically, many today still approach the Bible without giving due consideration to the nature of language, the importance of historical context and the particular reason the various authors wrote what they did.

We should not demand that the Bible serve purposes and function in ways that it does not claim for itself. We do not thereby honor Scripture even if we assert that by doing so we are giving it some kind of greater “perfection.” Examples of this kind of mistake would be turning the Bible into a textbook of science or history, or regarding it as a handbook of instruction about every aspect of human existence.

Let us value the Bible for what it is – a unique, reliable and authoritative guide that, as Paul wrote to Timothy, can make us “wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). How marvelous that God can use human language, with all its limitations, to give us an authentic revelation of his Son! Without the risen Lord, the Bible would be just another ancient book and could not lead us to eternal life. But since this written word belongs to and faithfully serves the Living Word, as we hear it proclaimed we are led to the Savior in whom we put our faith, hope and love.

In Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

Reaching out with the gospel

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

What is the best, most effective way to share the gospel with others? This is a question our church has been discussing as long as I can remember. And I think I can say with some confidence that we have tried just about everything except the Goodyear blimp.

We have published millions of magazines and booklets, used radio and network television, launched evangelistic personal campaigns – and in recent years we have experimented with web casts and other types of social media.

Which of these has been the most effective? It’s very hard to quantify the results. Some work for a time, and then the novelty wears off. Others seem to be effective, until we add up the cost. Then there are those methods which generate a huge initial response, but very little actual returns. Like the Plain Truth Newsstand programs. Or the advertisements we put in the Reader’s Digest about forty years ago. Believe it or not, our offices still get the occasional request for literature from those.

But is there one method that is the most effective? Yes there is.

Many of you will remember Ed Stetzer who was a guest speaker at our International Conference two years ago in Orlando. Ed is a missiologist and the president of LifeWay Research, and he provided us with a helpful, humorous and colorful presentation on evangelism. He noted that while driving down the interstate, especially in the “Bible belt” in the USA, you will come across some interesting billboards and marquees, set up by well-meaning religious organizations that seem to have more enthusiasm than theological insight and marketing savvy. Here are two examples:

Like me, you probably wonder what made them think that messages like these would turn people to the gospel. As Ed said, “You feel frustrated at how silly they seem. But more importantly, you wonder about the reaction of the countless unchurched who are reading them.”

Ed has done more research on this topic, and has come up with some interesting information about how unchurched people respond to various evangelistic approaches. He conducted a survey with more than 15,000 Americans, asking them about different methods of church outreach. The survey covered 13 different evangelistic methods to discover ways that Americans are willing to receive information about local congregations. The top five, in increasing order of effectiveness, are:

5) Newspaper or magazine advertising – 46%

4) Outdoor sign or billboard – 46%

3) Informative ad in the newspaper – 48%

2) Personal conversation with a friend or neighbor from the church – 56%

1) Personal conversation with a family member – 63%

So the research showed that, whereas mass marketing methods have some effect, the biggest impact, by far, is gained by the least expensive techniques.

Additionally, the research discovered that some people are more or less receptive to considering issues of faith at different times in differing circumstances. The following are the top five times that people are most open to considering matters of faith:

5) After the birth of a baby – 28%

4) After a natural disaster – 34%

3) After a major national crisis, such as 9/11 – 38%

2) During the Easter season – 38%

1) During the Christmas season – 47%

What Ed Stetzer’s research has shown is that unchurched people are more willing to talk about Jesus than we may realize. But it has to be the right person and the right time. So while the research shows that marketing and advertising do provide support for outreach, they are supplemental at best. Contact based on relationships is the most effective approach.

And so it has been since the early years, when Peter exhorted the first Christians to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).

The message of Jesus is best shared by example, one conversation at a time. Perhaps that explains at least some of why, rather than hovering over us for all eternity in a heavenly blimp, Jesus came to us in time and space, in flesh and blood, in person, face to face!

In Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

A new generation of leaders

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In my letter to you this week, I want to draw your attention again to an item we featured in last week’s Update. This was the report on the Generations Ministries (GenMin) annual conference, held at the Mt. Lebanon Camp and Conference Center near Dallas (click here to read that report).

Nearly 100 GenMin leaders and workers attended this conference, which GenMin call their “summit.” The great majority of these were younger people–and that is very good news for our denomination.

As one gets older, the questions we ask about the future begin not just with “what,” but “who”? This is not a new problem. The first Christians expected Jesus to return almost immediately and certainly in their lifetime. “Succession planning” was not a high priority. They were certainly not thinking two thousand years in the future!

However, as the years went by, they had to consider how the work would continue after they had gone. They had to consider the welfare of the church after their contribution had been made. For example, in Acts 20, we have the account of Paul’s farewell to the elders at Ephesus. Knowing that it was unlikely that he would ever see them again, he said:

What matters most to me is to finish what God started: the job the Master Jesus gave me of letting everyone I meet know all about this incredibly extravagant generosity of God. And so this is good-bye. You’re not going to see me again, nor I you, you whom I have gone among for so long proclaiming the news of God’s inaugurated kingdom. I’ve done my best for you, given you my all, held back nothing of God’s will for you.

Now it’s up to you. Be on your toes—both for yourselves and your congregation of sheep. The Holy Spirit has put you in charge of these people—God’s people they are—to guard and protect them. God himself thought they were worth dying for (Acts 20:24-28, MSG).

Paul had learned that it is not easy to replace pastors and elders who would put the welfare of their congregations ahead of their own interests. He wrote to the congregation at Philippi, “I have no one quite like Timothy. He is loyal, and genuinely concerned for you. Most people around here are looking out for themselves, with little concern for the things of Jesus” (Phil 2:20 -21, MSG).

Timothy had proven to be reliable. But there was only one of him. So Paul advised him to “throw yourself into this work for Christ. Pass on what you heard from me—the whole congregation saying Amen!— to reliable leaders who are competent to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:1-2, MSG).

I see some similarities with our situation today. Thankfully, our ministry involves those who are loyal, hard-working and faithful. But we are aging, as are our people. Perhaps if you are the pastor of a small congregation of older people, you might wonder about the future—not just what, but who will come after you?

Anthony Mullins (with baton) is commissioned as GenMin director by former directors Greg Williams (left), Ted Johnston (center) and Jeb Egbert (right).

That is why we should all be encouraged by the Dallas conference. Not only because nearly 100 young people attended, but also because some of our middle-aged leaders “passed the baton” on to another generation of young leaders, and moved into mentoring roles (see picture at left). In this way, their experience is not lost, while a new generation of leaders has the opportunity to build their own experience. This is vitally important for the future of GCI.

Our GenMin programs (camps, mission trips and young leader development programs like Journey with the Master) serve as “incubators” to develop the next generation of pastors and other church leaders. We will invite those who show promise for pastoral ministry into the GCI (U.S.) pastoral internship program, which I discussed a few weeks ago. We can help them receive a quality theological education through ACCM (undergraduate level diploma) and/or GCS (graduate degree).

Maybe you do not have many, or any, young leaders. However, think beyond your congregation. The GenMin conference shows that our denomination does have an up-and-coming generation of leadership, and we do have a future.

It would be foolish in this ever-changing world to be too specific about what that future will be like. New challenges, new conflicts and new technologies will continue to change the world, as they have in our lifetime. But whatever the situation, I know there will always be a need for men and women who hear and obey God’s call to pastoral ministry.

The conference in Dallas shows that we have just those people. Let’s give them our wholehearted support and encouragement. In this way we can all participate in the task of preparing for the future and moving towards the fulfillment of our vision of all kinds of churches for all kinds of people in all kinds of places.

In Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. To learn more about GCI’s GenMin programs, go to genmin.gci.org/. To learn more about the GCI (U.S.) pastoral internship program, go to mindev.gci.org/internships.htm.

Place-sharing with Jesus

Copyright 1984 Doug Hall and Christianity Today International/BuildingChurchLeaders.com. Used with permission.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Many of you reading this are leaders in GCI churches and denominational ministries. And as the cartoon above suggests, sometimes you are inundated with offers of books, programs, consultants and the like that tend to emphasize efficient program management and guaranteed results more than what is central to Christian ministry—journeying with Jesus as he, through the Holy Spirit, fulfills the Father’s mission to our world.

Theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to what Jesus is doing in the world as our Lord’s ongoing “place-sharing” ministry. The gospel declares that the incarnate Son of God, through the Holy Spirit, is sharing the “place” or life situation with every person on earth and is at work acting on their behalf.

Many people are blind to this presence and activity of Jesus in their lives. We refer to these people as nonbelievers. However, Jesus, their true Shepherd, refers compassionately to them as his “lost” sheep (Luke 15:4). As believers who know Jesus as their Shepherd (John 10:11, 14), we are aware of his place-sharing ministry and his call to us to join with him in “finding” his lost sheep.

If we are to join actively in what Jesus is doing, we must hear his voice. We must discern the nature of his ongoing place-sharing activity in the world around us, and the nature of his call to us as a community of believers to join in. This participation is not a pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all program. Rather, it is a dynamic, active lifestyle that involves us in Jesus’ missional life, being lived out through the Holy Spirit in our world.

So what place, then, do programs and consulting services have in that context? Theologian Thomas F. Torrance referred to the church’s organizational structures and programs as “scaffolds” that, when used appropriately, can greatly assist the church in doing what it is called to do. Sadly, structures and programs can begin to take on a life of their own, being seen as the ministry itself, rather than as tools to facilitate ministry. When that happens, they become impediments to participation. Scaffolds can be a help to construction, but they can also be used as frameworks for hanging people! Obviously, we need to be selective and discerning in how we use them.

Thankfully, some books, programs and consulting services are helpful scaffolds. They teach us skills of discernment, and processes and approaches that help us join with Jesus in his place-sharing ministry. GCI U.S. Church Administration and Development (CAD) offers US churches one such resource. It’s called Transformational Church (TC) Consulting. It utilizes a survey instrument produced by LifeWay (called the Transformational Church Assessment Tool) that assists congregations in discerning the work that Jesus has been doing among them.

The survey is followed by a daylong Discovery Retreat. At this retreat, which is facilitated by a CAD consultant trained and certified by LifeWay, congregational leaders come together to clarify the Lord’s call to them to share more effectively in the work that he has for them. Following the retreat, the CAD consultant prepares a report that gives form to what the congregation has discerned and committed to do.

For information about CAD’s TC consulting services go to http://mindev.gci.org/services.htm (look under consulting services). For those who do not have access to a CAD consultant, it would be helpful to read and then discuss the book Transformational Church, creating a new scorecard for congregations (by Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer, B&H, 2009).

I am deeply grateful that God has given us a theology that grounds us in the love and life of Christ, and helps us understand more clearly the nature of his ongoing work, and thus of our work. This theology helps us to use wisely and effectively certain helpful ministry tools. My prayer is that our understanding of all these matters will continue to grow so that our ministry activity will be even more focused on what really counts—a life of place-sharing with Jesus.

It is a joy to share the journey with you.

In Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

Our mission and vision

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

We have just concluded the first of our 2012 US regional conferences. GCI members and friends gathered in Ontario, CA for three days of worship, dialog and presentations. I always look forward to these conferences—they are wonderful opportunities to renew old friendships and make new ones. Several more conferences are scheduled around the nation this year. I urge you to attend if you can.

Sharing our mission and vision

At our conferences, I’m often asked to cast a vision for our denomination’s future in the way a CEO might cast a vision for a business. Though, for practical reasons, churches must embrace certain business practices, the Biblical model for leading the church is that of a shepherd or farmer rather than a business executive. This does not mean, of course, that we are called to sit back and do nothing. However, it explains why my approach is not to cast a vision but to gather a vision. Let me explain.

In the fifth chapter of Romans, Paul wrote: “We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!” (Romans 5:3-5, The Message Bible).

This passage describes the sense of hope and expectancy that I feel as I receive reports concerning what our congregations around the world are experiencing in Christ’s service. We have moved from being a denomination where our congregations existed to support a work that emanated from a central headquarters, to a network of congregations that are working under the overall umbrella of the denomination. Now, each congregation seizes opportunities that God presents to them locally to advance the overall work of the church globally.

Ontario, CA regional conference audience (click to enlarge)

I have the privilege of telling the stories of many of these congregations in my presentation at the regional conferences. Like Paul who couldn’t “round up enough containers” to hold everything, I do not have enough time to tell all the stories about the marvelous things the Holy Spirit is doing through our congregations. From these reports, I gather a picture of what God is doing with and through us. And that collage, rather than grandiose ideas I might come up with, is what frames my vision for our future as a denomination.

With that in mind, let me now share with you some thoughts concerning our mission and vision that I shared at the first of our 2012 regional conferences.

What is our mission?

Grace Communion International is a people called together by God to share in the ministry that Jesus is doing through the Holy Spirit in our world. We are a communion of churches and denominational ministries with a shared mission, which is taking us toward the realization of a shared vision.

We are called to the same mission as all other followers of Jesus—it’s often referred to as The Great Commission. There are a number of ways to summarize this mission. We do so in our denominational motto: Living and Sharing the Gospel.

This motto, which appears in our denominational logo (see above), is not just a catchy slogan. It encapsulates our sense of calling to lock arms, sharing together in what Jesus is doing in our world, through the Holy Spirit, to fulfill the Father’s mission. We can expand this into a more complete mission statement: Grace Communion International is committed to living and sharing the good news of what God has done through Jesus Christ.

We pursue this mission by:

  • Building healthy, Christ centered congregations that are sanctuaries of worship, friendship and nurturing pastoral care.
  • Providing sound biblical teaching through our congregations, media and personal outreach in ways that are relevant and meaningful to people of diverse backgrounds and ages.
  • Equipping people for Christian service so that the gospel can be known, understood and experienced.
  • Sharing in the work of the gospel with the broader Christian community, acknowledging that we can learn from one another and that Christ’s love goes beyond denominational boundaries.
  • Expressing the love of God to all through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

The result of this mission focused work is lives transformed by the gospel, one person at a time. This is actually Jesus’ mission—and we are called to share in it with him. Through eyes of faith, we are able to see the transforming presence and activity of God that others are not yet seeing. It is not about us “taking God to people,” but rather helping people see the God who already is sharing his life and love with them. It’s not about helping people “find” Jesus, but of showing them the creative, life giving Savior who, through the Holy Spirit, is already present and at work in their lives.

What is our vision?

Our vision is a faith and hope-filled glimpse of what GCI will continue to become as we pursue our mission to live and share the gospel. We summarize our collective vision this way:

All kinds of churches for all kinds of people in all kinds of places.

Expanding it, we can say: Grace Communion International exists to help each congregation of Grace Communion International attain its God-given potential. Why this emphasis on local congregations? Because it is my belief that God’s primary instrument for realizing our collective vision is healthy local churches—here in the US and around the world. As I look ahead, I see us becoming more and more a growing, loving community of congregations that are dynamically living out God’s mission in a broken world, and that excites me!

Our core identity (who we are) is founded on our communion with the Father and Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit. And who we are drives what we do—our passionate participation in what God is doing in the world. In this way, our mission gives shape to our vision.

I look forward to sharing more about these things at future US regional conferences and on trips to other parts of the world. I hope to see you there!

Your brother in Christ,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. For locations and other information of future US regional conferences, see our web site (www.gci.org/event/12/conferences). Also, be sure to note in this issue the article (linked above, left) telling about our new US military chaplain support ministry.