Apprentice Lesson 3: All Christians need church

WARNING: If you’re feeling worried about me after you’ve finished reading the first few paragraphs, then please don’t. I’m being honest – social networking is full of so much fakery and glibness, and one of my life mottos is honesty is the best policy.  Often life isn’t dandy, and I don’t think we’re honest enough about it.  If you’re feeling lonely and isolated a lot, please talk to someone about it – don’t feel like you’re kicking up a fuss. 

Most of the evenings this week just gone by has reminded me of this song I used to listen to in my Kerrang/emo days:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnGdoEa1tPg

For a few reasons (feeling zonked from my job, my brain refusing to function over half-term to sort out my social life for the next week, and forgetting that arranging to meet up with someone in London can be a bit of a hassle), I spent four out of five evenings all by myself.

Yes, I could have rung someone for a chat.  But I use the phone all the time during the day as part of my job.  And I hate it when people don’t pick up their phones (which happens pretty regularly at work).  After work ended on Monday evening, I texted and Facebook messaged about ten different people. The first person to respond, did so twenty-four hours later.  I spent most of the evenings eating chocolate and sweets on offer in Tesco whilst watching videos on Youtube, listening to uplifting music, studying the Bible, writing Lesson 2 and constantly refreshing my Facebook feed.  All to distract myself from the vicious voice in my head which decides to emerge in difficult times like these, telling me that I don’t really have any friends.  Even if you call one of your so-called friends, they won’t want to talk to you.  Everyone else is having so much fun, and your life is lame.

This ‘London loneliness’ I had predicted has arrived.

People who move to London often say that the first few months are pretty lonely.  But last year that rarely was the case, and I thought those people were exaggerating.  I spent so much time with the other apprentices and students from church and other people who worked at church that I rarely noticed.  But now that they are busy and life has moved on, I’m finding it tough.

After work, there’s that desire within me to spill the beans with someone physically present, without having to filter everything I say (a filter which I miraculously manage to sustain at work).  And to hear what they have to say.  What’s happened in their lives recently.  To support them too, however I can.

So I was so thankful for Wednesday evening last week.  It was wonderful to chat with a good friend who I could share this struggle with, and to get things in perspective: people are busy in general (which doesn’t mean they don’t want to spend time with me – they literally can’t), Facebook is very superficial and in London it IS a lonely place.

But that need for support isn’t (actually!) the reason why Jesus-followers need to get stuck into a church.

Our reasons for church

As a social extrovert (someone who feels energized by being around people, and can’t really function after a day without having a meaningful and affirming conversation with another human being face to face), I’ve frequently relied on church and small groups to spur me on in living for Jesus over the years.

And I still think that this support from gatherings of believers is really important.  It’s tough living for Jesus, and brothers and sisters in the household of God should be encouraging each other on a regular basis in person.

But it’s so easy to lose sight of the PRIMARY reason why we should go to church.  (And when I say church, I don’t mean a church building.  I mean a community of Jesus followers, who meet together to sit under God’s word being taught, to sing spiritual truths to each other and  to love others gathered there).

Church can become a purely social activity – to meet friends and catch up after the service.  It can be ideal for sharking (definition: going to an event with the intention of flirting with lots of people of the opposite gender over a day/evening, before deciding to pursue one of them.  Don’t deny it, you probably have thought about this before!).

Or a person could go to church because they feel they have to.  They’ve been told by many other believers that they should, so they do.  Or they’re trying to keep up appearances, so no one probes them about their personal walk with the Lord, which may be far from fine.  Or it’s become such a tradition, a ritual, that it would feel weird and odd not going.  Or a person could go for the atmosphere, ‘the vibe’, to set them up for the rest of the week, so that they leave feeling better about their weekly situations.

But I don’t think these motivations match what God says our motivation should be.  A passage in Ephesians (which the church I’m at frequently reference) I think reveals the primary reason for Jesus-followers to gather together.  (By the way, I read Ephesians throughout most of the year with my supervisor – one of the female student workers – who pointed out all this stuff about the church to me.  It’s a rich book, with long sentences which are often hard to understand straightaway.  But I totally recommend that you spend time reading the book of Ephesians for yourself).

God’s reason for church

So far we’ve seen in Ephesians that God has a plan for all of time.  His plan ‘for the fullness of time’, is to unite all things in [Jesus], things in heaven and things on earth’ (Eph 1:10).  And how will He do that?  Well through the church.  Through trusting in Jesus, Jews and Gentiles (everyone who isn’t a Jew) have access to God (2:18), and become part of God’s growing and expanding household (2:19-22).  And God is using His church, this vast group of people, to proclaim His wisdom to rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (3:10).  It’s like God is saying, ‘Look! Look at my sons and daughters whom I love and have saved – they’ve trusted my Son who has conquered sin and death.  My beloved Son – look at how we have redeemed so many people whom I created in my image, and behold, look how many more will turn from their sin and trust in Him, and be in relationship with me forever and ever!’

The church in the UK often looks foolish, and sometimes embarrassing.  I’ve read surveys and heard stories and know people who are done with church.  But this is how God views it.  It’s His way of showing the universe His wisdom.  He loves it – He shows it off in the supernatural world – to all his angels and all the different spirits.  This is how people become part of His Kingdom, and united in Jesus.

This is what Paul writes next, detailing what practically the church should be doing:

’11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.’ (Ephesians 4:11-16)

I’m going to focus on verses 11 and 12 (about who exactly does ministry) later in another post, but for now let’s look at the rest of this passage.

In the Bible, ‘saints’ means those who have trusted in Jesus.  A Saint is a Christian.  And in verse 12, the saints are to build up the body of Christ.  And why?  In verse 13, it’s so we can grow in knowledge of Jesus, to mature and to become more like Jesus. AND in verse 14, it’s so that we don’t grow gullible.  That we don’t accept everything we hear taught in church, but check to see if it’s true.  That we’re not swayed by false teaching, or what the world teaches or cult-like ideas.

And how does this work practically?  Not just being nice to each other.  It’s speaking the truth in love (verse 15).  It’s reminding, encouraging and challenging other Christians using Jesus’ and God’s words – that is the truth.  And it’s telling truth to each other, but to build up, not tear down.  I established in my first blog that when the Bible is opened, that’s God speaking to us – and therefore thorough Bible teaching needs to take priority in church.  Listening to Jesus, the Head of the Church, through His word, is how the church (the body) grows.

What is speaking the truth in love?

I think speaking the truth in love can look like various different things, and depend on different situations.  Encouraging someone with truths about God, challenging them on something which they’re doing which is detrimental to their walk with God, or sharing what you’re learning about God from the Bible.Or giving Biblical advice to someone who’s facing a dilemma or a tricky situation, where they need wisdom.

And I don’t want to limit speaking the truth in love to just when loads of Christians are gathered together, but it should be mainly happening when Christians gather together.  Sundays are ideal days for people to gather, because most jobs don’t have people working on those days.  Speaking the truth in love can happen after the sermon or talk (because that’s when the word is opened and taught and at work in people’s hearts), and it can happen before the service starts.  And it can happen in small groups, where it’s far easier to have people speak the truth in love to you, as you’re setting aside time to get to know a specific set of people, to allow them to speak the truth to you more deeply, and so you can speak the truth in love to them in turn.

And this is where I’m going to make a case for small groups at church.  I used to think they encouraged cliques and factions.  Actually, from a year spent doing ministry with students in such an isolated city, small groups are essential for speaking the truth in love to take place.  It can be so easy to go to a church service, and sneak away afterwards, and not join one.  And then feel after a month or two that actually you don’t really know anyone.  And it’s fairly awkward.  Especially in a large church.

But even worse than that, is that by not allowing people to speak the truth in love to you, and not speaking the truth in love to anyone, you’re not going to grow as a Christian.  You’re going to wilt, then shrivel.  I used to comment during the year to apprentices, that students I knew who weren’t plugged into a church were basically going to die spiritually.  And I don’t say that very much now, because a couple of people have found it offensive.  But I still think it’s true.  You’re more likely to fall away if you’re not plugged into a church where you can hear God’s truth, remind others of it, and grow more into the likeness of Christ.

As I don’t hear God’s word preached as much as I did last year, or study it as much as I used to, I literally cannot wait for church.  I really look forward to spending time with Christians, not to feel like I’m in a safe Christian bubble, but to be able to hear God speaking to us as a family, learn from others and explore how we can apply His word to our lives practically.

And if you go to a church where there isn’t Biblical teaching, do yourself a huge favour.  Find another church where the Bible is taught in depth.  Pray that you’ll listen carefully to the talk, and that the Lord would be at work in your heart.  And then, after the service, instead of chatting about the weather, ask, ‘What did you think of the talk?’.  Or, ‘what stood out for you from that sermon?’.  Or, ‘What’s one thing which you want to take into this week, which you’ve learnt about God?’.  And be prepared to be asked the same questions back.  Stick around after the service, even if you’re scared and nervous about meeting new people.  Approach people you don’t know and strike up a conversation with them, and bring up the sermon.  Ask how they’re doing spiritually.  Don’t be scared.  It’s their problem if they’re unfriendly.

It’s vital we speak the truth in love to each other when we gather together.  If in a few years time, I no longer go to a small group, or even to church, help me out.  Please show me this post, and remind me how important it is that all Jesus followers are part of a community of believers, who are building each other in God’s word, to flourish and grow to be more like Christ before He returns.

Further reading:

I want to speak the truth in love more, and am no model to follow.  But here are some articles which I really want to put more into practice

http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2014/10/16/20-ways-to-be-refreshing-in-the-local-church/

http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/five-common-small-group-myths-and-the-truth-to-help-transform-your-group

Till next time, Immy xxx

Apprentice Lesson 2: How to REALLY read the Bible

During my first few years of secondary school, I often read the dictionary during break times.  Yes, you read that correctly.

I didn’t have a great time at my secondary school, and I generally preferred reading the dictionary than trying to get to know my classmates.  Sad times.

Since leaving school, I haven’t really used a dictionary (to my parents’ dismay).  I mean, who needs to, when you have Google definitions, and the Oxford English Dictionary online?  Hard copies of dictionaries WILL become extinct within fifty years.

But dictionaries are so handy aren’t they? You can find definitions and spellings for words in minutes, without having to read pages and pages of information which seems irrelevant.

And this is how, very often, I read the Bible before last year.

a) Out of context

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think that certain books of the Bible were irrelevant.  But often when finding verses to meditate on, I would often completely blot out the verses in my mind before and after.  This is what I mean mentally, using Lamentations 3:

16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
    and made me cower in ashes;
17 my soul is bereft of peace;
    I have forgotten what happiness[a] is;
18 so I say, “My endurance has perished;
    so has my hope from the Lord.”

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
    the wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it
    and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;[b]
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul who seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
27 It is good for a man that he bear
    the yoke in his youth.

28 Let him sit alone in silence
    when it is laid on him;
29 let him put his mouth in the dust—
    there may yet be hope;
30 let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
    and let him be filled with insults.

31 For the Lord will not
    cast off forever,
32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
33 for he does not afflict from his heart
    or grieve the children of men.

3To crush underfoot
    all the prisoners of the earth,
35 to deny a man justice
    in the presence of the Most High,
36 to subvert a man in his lawsuit,
    the Lord does not approve.

Sometimes this was due to laziness – I wanted to find a few verses to dwell on or encourage a friend swiftly, and couldn’t be bothered to analyze the verses before and after.

Sometimes because I genuinely thought that it was better to focus on what was in one verse, instead of having to look at the entire book of the Bible it was from too.

Sometimes I deliberately blocked out what was before and after. Often because they were about God’s judgement or wrath.  Or it seemed too complicated to understand.  Or the verses made me feel uncomfortable.

But the Bible is not a dictionary.  It has a plot.  It has a beginning, middle and end.  Everything which we pull out from the Bible needs to be explained in context.  We can’t block out things which happen before and after a moment in a story.  In the same way, we shouldn’t block out most of what God says.

For example, here’s a popular passage read at weddings, but (if I get married), I NEVER want it read at my wedding.  It’s 1 Corinthians 13 .

But why? (You may be asking). It’s such a NICE passage, all about what love should look like in practice.  It’s well known enough: Love is patient, kind, it doesn’t envy or boast..

And I agree.  That is how we are to love (what a challenge!).  But up to this point, Paul has been telling off the Corinthians.  (Don’t take my word for it, read it for yourself!) They’re a church focused on the here and now, and fixated on their spiritual gifts.  Paul stresses almost ad nauseum in chapter 12 that regardless of what gifts a believer of their church has, they are all part of one body.  They must all love each other.  The fact that Paul had to tell the Corinthians this, emphasizes that they weren’t loving each other at all.  Therefore, chapter 13 is a harsh rebuke to a church not loving each other.  It’s not about marriage.

So chapter 13 isn’t to be studied apart from chapter 12.  In fact, the importance of love is even more pronounced when examined alongside the previous chapter.  I think that chapter thirteen on its own is fluffy, idealistic and even optional.  But when it’s explained in light of chapter 12, love becomes essential and pragmatic in gatherings of believers.

b) Skimmed over

On top of my tendency to ignore chunks of text whilst reading, I’m now a speed reader.  Otherwise my English degree would have consumed every minute of my university experience.  I had to read about three solid books a week, and half a dozen critical essays and secondary materials.  I then had to discuss what I’d read at weekly seminars.  And also write clearly, concisely and imaginatively about it in assessed essays.

And this approach dramatically affected my regular Bible reading.  Sure, I listened during sermons, and enjoyed them (the ones which actually focused on the passage and didn’t digress into rants about how the UK needs to pray more, or how conservative baptist churches are the only way forward).  But when studying God’s word by myself, I was keen to jump quickly to what the passage meant, and also how it applied personally to me right here and right now.  Even if the original audience was in a totally different situation to me regarding God’s revelation of himself.

I remember Dad (who loves reading the Bible properly and has done a fair bit of preaching sermons over the years), trying to make me read Dig Deeper when I was a teenager.  I can’t remember if I actually properly read it, or said I had to get him off my back.  But I didn’t see the point in having to really work hard at working out what the Bible said.  I thought taking the post-modern approach of interpreting the Bible (within reason) however I wanted, was absolutely fine.  Yeah, focusing on judgement and predestination was a bit embarrassing with other Christians who didn’t ever talk about it.

And then I struggled through some Bible study reading notes (back in September 2012) produced by Navpress, on friendship (on which there is very little about in the Bible).  It took passages totally out of context and tried to apply them to friendships.  It was also pretty naff.

Gradually it dawned on me that Bible handling requires brain power.  And reading Dig Deeper with a student at church last year, enforced this in so many ways.  It’s so profound that (unlike my last blog) it can’t be articulated.

Christians need to know the Bible in depth

I think that there is a Western Christian sub-culture (predominant in America, the UK and Europe) of young, keen Christians, longing for experiences of God and for wrongs to be made right in this world.  People who want to encounter God through singing and worship leading, and spending time with other believers who wear similar clothes, have similar hairstyles and share similar interests.  They’re determined to stay relevant in the way they live and talk, and care about the way they look (to avoid the socks and sandals Christian caricature in the media).  Lots of them wear checked shirts, go on short-term mission trips to far flung countries and serve in their churches and student mission groups in any way possible.  They use a whole lot of Christian jargon.  Many listen to unoffensive, religiously correct bands like Hillsong, Rend Collective Experiment and Switchfoot.  But lots of them probably don’t see right Bible handling as a priority.  And that’s such a shame.

Many believers tend to think that knowing their Bibles well is not their responsibility.  That they can trust their teachers at churches and those with more ministry experience – that because they spend more time studying the word, they’re more likely to be right than they are.  They learn solely from what is taught from the front or preached in the pulpit, and don’t critically evaluate what’s being said, as they assume that the preacher MUST be right.

Many think that knowing their Bibles is beyond them.  That passages are beyond our comprehension, and because they haven’t gone to Bible college, or studied theology at degree level, or aren’t naturally very academic/bookish, studying scripture in depth is something they’re incapable of doing.

Or they rever God’s word, but think that the Bible has no clear coherent structure.  Why some books are included is a mystery (like Song of Songs or Leviticus, for example).

But these attitudes are devastating.  In my previous post, I established that the Bible is God’s word.  God speaking to us.  And that it’s essential for ministry.

If the Bible is God’s word, and is THE way God speaks to us, then surely us believers need to persevere and really set aside time to really understand the Bible properly?  Loads of you do already, and I’m very thankful for those of you I know who want to get to grips with what passages actually mean.  But there are many brothers and sisters who don’t see the need. And it’s to their spiritual detriment.

The New Testament talks lots about false teachers.  I’ve just finished reading 2 Peter in my quiet times, and it addresses false teaching head on.  It can be tempting to think that there are no false teachers now, or that all false teaching is blatant and can be spotted a mile off.  But it’s everywhere.   It’s all over the internet.  Jehovah’s Witnesses stand on almost every street corner in Central London and the City, holding out a message which can be misconstrued as the gospel truth.  But it’s not the truth.  It’s a distortion of God’s word.  It’s not God speaking at all.

People are being led away from the truth, and are in serious danger unless they are rectified in their understanding of God, his character and WHY Jesus came to earth.  Jesus did not just come to be an example for us to follow, but to rescue us – a people so far away from our Creator, who shut Him out and deserve His judgement.  Jesus came to take our punishment, and to bring us into a wonderful relationship with God – through His death alone, and nothing else.

We don’t just need to stick to God’s word in our churches.  We must know God’s word well for ourselves.  We must persevere with studying it.  We must be like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), studying the scriptures every day to check what is being preached is true.  We must be so familiar with what God says, that when false teaching creeps into our churches, it can be dismissed before it takes root and ruins lives.

I sound like an ardent Bible basher (and I probably am an almost fully fledged one by now), but I’d really recommend (if you haven’t before), getting into a habit of reading the Bible (in a translation you feel most comfortable with) by yourself every day, and praying that God would help you understand what He’s saying AND that you’d grow in love for Him.

And if you’re already doing this, keep going, keep praying, and have a go at reading a whole book of the Bible, looking at how it fits together and discussing it with a Christian friend.  Start with a New Testament letter like Colossians or Philippians, or one of the gospels like Luke.  Read it several times, without looking at any commentaries or sermons from it, and try and work out what the big idea is running through the letter, and what the writer wants the reader to do (with New Testament letters, often the practical commands are in the later chapters – but they’re always linked back to what we’re told about God or Jesus in the first few chapters).

Here are some resources which I’ve found really helpful over the last couple of years:

Explore Bible Study Notes  

This incredibly winsome video, which basically says what I’ve said in this blogpost.

The Daily Reading Bible Notes

Dig Deeper by Andrew Sach and Nigel Beynon

Biblegateway – a website where you can read the Bible online in many different translations, search for references and print it off!

Blue Letter Bible – a website which gives you the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic words and gives you the translations (to really get to the heart of the original text).

Until next time, Immy xx