Archives For orthopraxy

How do we understand the freedom of a new and fresh movement of the Holy Spirit and the structure that inevitably accompanies that work?

It is important to understand the difference between what the Holy Spirit does in an evangelistic revival and the (divine) origin/establishing/recognition of a local church under the Headship of the Lord Jesus Christ.

All too often people use the structure, or more accurately the lack of structure, of a revivalist movement and expect that that lack of structure is what must remain if that movement is going to be healthy. (That is one of a few concerns with a book like Steve Addison’s, Movements That Change the World: Five Keys to Spreading the Gospel.) In this understanding, any additional structure is considered the death-knell to the movement.

My response: A movement cannot stay a movement in the same way it was at the beginning or it implodes or becomes meaningless and useless. Moreover, any movement will eventually need some structure in order to maximize what the Spirit of God is doing. In fact, a movement demands structure, especially a local church if it is going to be biblical. And the Bible is not silent on that structure. An Acts experience (Pentecost, conversions, the establishment of churches) will inevitably result in the Pastoral Epistles structure of elders and deacons and life together under the Lordship of Christ, the Head of the Church (how we live life together in the context of a local church, consisting of structure, order, leadership, worship, the use of gifts, etc.). This is essential not only to reflect God’s divine design for order in the church, but it will also ensure an intentional path for spiritual growth and sustainability over time, for both individuals and the church.

Today we hear so much of a movement becoming viral, going back to the early days of revival and a new, fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Inevitably this means that we must do away with any structure as almost all of it (not much of an overstatement) is negative and an obstacle to the health, growth and expansion of the movement. Though there is some truth to this, and one must be careful of becoming too closely wed to structure, the response to any structure seems to be a bit naïve and simplistic.

Certainly one must not equate the structure of the Pastoral Epistles for the local church with the same sort of structure required for an association of churches. But neither should that association of churches work contrary to the God-ordained structure of the local church. The larger association/denomination ought to support and build into the individual church(es), not work in opposition to it or to build structures that undermine it, or claim that all structure hinders a movement. Ultimately, any association/denomination exists because of those local churches creating it, and that association/denomination then exists to serve those local churches.

God is a God of order. Though some structures can be bad and deleterious to a movement, there is also God-ordained structure and order that is not only good but also for our good. Following God’s ordained structure enables us to carry on ministry in a Spirit-empowered, Christ-honoring and God-glorifying manner.

For us in the EFCA, here is our question: How do we balance the strengths of a movement with the necessity of some components of structure beyond the local church (an institution or association or denomination) e.g. polices, requirements, credentialing, etc., to ensure orthodoxy and orthopraxy, vibrancy and stability, freedom and structure?

In a recent teaching, D. A. Carson shared about the French Canadian revivals during the 1970s:  There were significant lessons learned in the “lean years” prior to this revival; there were also important lessons learned during and after the revival in the “high growth years.” In the growth years, Carson noted four lessons, three of which I include (I excluded his second point, as it did not directly address this issue) as they address this vital work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people and the accompanying structure necessary to sustain the work and to bear fruit that will remain.

Lessons from the ‘High Growth Years’

  1. If you start getting rapid growth think especially hard about patterns of training and education. Don’t think that education and training slows the Spirit’s work.
  2. Do what you can to funnel all the God-given, Spirit-powered energy to Bible study and understanding the gospel, and teaching people to teach the Bible. If you don’t funnel the energy there, it will be funneled somewhere else.
  3. Start carefully, prayerfully, and humbly to institutionalize. Revivals almost never start with a plan. But any movement that never institutionalizes will fizzle and disappear within a decade or so. Institutions sometimes steer movements into dead legalism, but without institutions, you don’t preserve much. Cautious institutionalizing can pass along and preserve what is faithful to Scripture and the gospel.

Ed Stetzer (President of LifeWay Research, Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at TEDS, and missiologist and theologian) and I shared a few thoughts about this. To the notion of the joy of a movement of God and the necessity of structure, Ed stated,

I’m not anti-structure or anti-institutional. I wrote the Christianity Today cover story on the value of denominations.

However, there is no question that institutionalism hinders innovation or, to use the current term, movement.  To me, balance is the key.

Systems are the tool and not the goal.  As long as the goal is always before us, the systems will serve the goal.  However, most denominations turn tools into rules.  They become driven by their rules and systems rather than the goals.

So, I think that we need both– but most denominations are right now evaluating whether they have leaned too heavily on their institutions and need them to be leaner and more focused on fulfilling their mission.

The danger is that we will think that institutions and systems don’t matter. The other danger is that we will make them matter too much.

Here are my final thoughts to Ed:

As with so many things, it is a matter of balance. When we attempt to address an imbalance, it is far too easy to go too far in the other direction such that we become imbalanced again, just in the other direction. I also find that the other challenge when we have done this is to conclude that our balancing corrective to the imbalance, which itself is an overreaction resulting in another imbalance, is considered to be “gloriously” in the middle of the issue. That causes additional problems!

On so many of these matters, I will often say, sic et non, yes and no, just as Paul did with so many of the concerns raised by the Corinthian believers.

For many years, Luis Palau has been engaged in the ministry of evangelism, similar to Billy Graham, though on a smaller scale. God has used him significantly and the Holy Spirit has used his preaching in the conversion of many.

In more recent years, Palau’s sons, Kevin and Andrew, have partnered with him in ministry of the Luis Palau Association, and they have expanded their evangelistic ministry to include a festival that culminates in a service in which the gospel is preached evangelistically.  As part of this ministry a new model has been developed in which the Association coordinated a “season of service” with local churches to meet the needs of people in their cities, and the serving of people culminates in an evangelistic festival. What they have done is combine social action, justice and compassion, and evangelism.

The Palaus were recently interviewed about this ministry: “The ‘Delicate Dance’: An Interview with Luis, Kevin, and Andrew Palau,” Leadership Journal (November [Online-Only] 2012).  As stated in the interview, how using social action as part of the larger context in which the gospel was shared was actually prompted by the mayor of their city. There were 1200 single, homeless mothers, and the major knew there were 1200 evangelical churches, so he asked if the Association would coordinate a relationship between a homeless mother and a local church. Though such a ministry has certain needs and appropriate leadership, the Lord, in His grace and mercy, is using it in the lives of people.

In the call to evangelism and social action, there is often a leaning more in one direction than another. With an appropriate call to re-address meeting physical and social needs of people, through compassion and justice, there is a tendency to focus on that at the expense of evangelism. When asked whether the ministry of caring for and meeting needs of people “translate[d] into greater receptivity to the gospel message,” the Palaus responded as follows:

Luis: The pendulum seems to swing between social action and evangelism, and right now I think the pendulum has swung to social action. I worry because right now people almost sneer at the concept of evangelism.

Andrew: Especially proclamation evangelism. They would say relational evangelism is fine, but proclamation evangelism is too much.

Luis: True. But I wonder how much real evangelism goes on in “relational evangelism.” Is having a beer together at a bar and chatting for three hours about culture truly evangelism? When are they going to hear the gospel?

Kevin: I wish I could say, “Oh, my goodness. We held a service festival which fostered a ton of relational evangelism, and the number of people accepting Christ doubled.” But we can’t say that. At times I wonder, Has it taken all of this work just to keep anyone at all interested in hearing the gospel?

Andrew: Looking at the broader perspective, changing people’s general sense of who a follower of Jesus Christ is opens the door for more relational and one-on-one evangelism. And just getting evangelism on the radar of some people inside the church is important. If we can’t even do that because we’re too focused on the festival model, they’re going to keep it at arm’s length. But we want to start breaking down the barriers that have kept people from even thinking about evangelism. At the end of the day, they look at the whole thing and say, “You know, this festival thing really wasn’t that bad. The gospel was proclaimed. I brought my friend, and he came to the Lord. Or maybe he didn’t come to the Lord, but we’re still friends and now we have this new conversation.”

Expounding Article 8 on “Christian Living” in Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith in the Evangelical Free Church of America, pp. 199-200, we have stated these joint truths, proclamation of the gospel and propagation of good works through compassion and justice ministries, in this way:

Regarding ministries of compassion and justice, the church has often vacillated between two extremes, either focusing on the physical needs of people while assuming or neglecting the spiritual or seeing people only as “souls to be saved” and disregarding their tangible suffering in this world. The example of the early church in Acts 6 provides a helpful model. In response to the inequitable distribution of food among widows, the apostles saw to it that some were assigned to address that situation. But they did so while maintaining the priority of their ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:2-4). The church today must do the same. Ministries of compassion have been a strong part of our Free Church history, both in America and around the world, through the establishment of orphanages, homes for the elderly and hospitals. We now have a ministry known as TouchGlobal dedicated to this purpose. Certainly, our highest priority must be the proclamation of the gospel, for the gospel alone can address our deepest need, and the church alone can bring this gospel to the world. But while maintaining this priority, we ought not to neglect the very pressing material needs of those around us. Love requires no less.

Please note that while we affirm these are joint truths, we also state unequivocally that “our highest priority must be the proclamation of the gospel.” But making that our highest priority in life and ministry does not mean we “neglect the very pressing material needs of those around us.” We attempted to capture this briefly in a single sentence (EC, p. 200, n. 27): “We believe we ought to seek to alleviate all human suffering, but especially that which is eternal.”

I humbly acknowledge that it is easier to get this right doctrinally in propositional statements than it is to get it right practically in ministry. And yet both orthodoxy and orthopraxy are necessary (the former for the faith that saves [Romans]; the latter for a faith that works [James]) and important.

Tim Keller, “Ministry in the Middle Space,” City to City Blog (August 31, 2012)

Another book by Keller has recently been published: Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). In this work Keller commiserates that many churches misunderstand the “relationship between doctrine and ministry.” The church can have a sound doctrinal statement, but it has very little effect on ministry practice. In other words, the church is orthodox in its orthodoxy, but it is “whatever” when it comes to orthopraxy. Keller’s argument for and plea to churches is that orthodoxy is foundational for orthopraxy, and orthopraxy is grounded in orthopraxy. (Michael Bullmore, former Professor of Pastoral Theology (Homiletics) at TEDS, helpfully explained the necessity of the latter as the “functional centrality of the gospel” in life and ministry.) 

Keller refers to the connection between the two as “middle space,” i.e. the importance of developing a “theological vision” that bridges the gap between doctrine and ministry practice, the latter being influenced by tradition, culture, time and place. That is to say, it will require each local church must remain grounded in the gospel, but then they must humbly and wisely consider what this means in their particular instance at this particular time in this particular location. Keller gives some helpful examples, which I encourage you to read.Keller has the final word explaining the problem and the reason he wrote Center Church.

It has become clear to me that while most Christian leaders do very deliberate, conscious study and thinking to arrive at their doctrinal beliefs, they are almost blind to the process of developing a theological vision. They often just “catch” their convictions about culture, reason, and tradition without really thinking them out. They come upon a ministry that they admire or that helps them personally and then they adopt it wholesale without recognizing the presuppositions, convictions and decisions that went into it.

To be faithful and fruitful, more Christian leaders should pay attention to this “middle space” between believing doctrine and choosing methods. The vast majority of resources on “how to do church” discuss either the Biblical basics of church belief and practice or specific ways to adopt certain ministry programs. I don’t know of any book that, instead of asking “what should our doctrine be?” or “what should our programs look like?” instead asks “what is our theological vision for ministry in our time and place?” That’s why I wrote Center Church