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  Mark D. Roberts
         Pastor, Author,
         Speaker, & Blogger



Church . . . What Really Matters?

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at mark@markdroberts.com . Thank you.

Table of Contents: Posts on This Page (click to jump to post)
Part 1: Church Identity and Church Distinctiveness July 21, 2004
Part 2: Exposing the Idol of Distinctiveness July 22, 2004
Part 3: Don't Mistake the Wine for the Wineskins! July 25, 2004
Part 4: Is “Wine” More than the Gospel Message? July 26, 2004
Part 5: Fellowship July 27, 2004
Part 6: Breaking Bread July 28, 2004
Part 7: Prayer July 30, 2004
Part 8: Signs and Wonders July 31, 2004

Church Identity and Church Distinctiveness
Part 1 in the series “Church . . . What Really Matters?”
Posted on Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Today I’m beginning a new series that delves into the question of what really matters about the church. Though my conclusions will seem obvious to some, to others they will appear almost heretical. But I believe that all Christians, including but not only church leaders, need to take a fresh look at the church, asking the question: What really matters?

I was motivated to write on this subject by three recent conversations. The first conversation was with the senior pastor of a giant, thriving, vibrant, and relatively new church in my area. This pastor, I’ll call him “Bret,” has realized that it’s time for his church to define more precisely who they are and what should be their mission. Wisely, Bret has seen that being “hot” and “happening” isn’t substantial and, at any rate, doesn’t last. He wants to get to the core of what it means to be a church, and what it means to be the unique church that God has called him and his congregation to be. (What an encouraging example of wise pastoral leadership! I can see why this church is already so strong and healthy.)

My second conversation was with a member of my own church, someone I’ll call “Jim.” The context of this discussion was our plan to start a new band-led worship service on Sunday mornings, one that is meant to connect with teenagers and Gen-Xers, many of whom don’t relate naturally to our current form of Sunday morning worship (so-called “blended,” with a strong choir as well as praise music, etc.). Jim was asking if adding this new service was consistent with our church’s mission and identity. In his view, what makes Irvine Presbyterian Church distinctive is our unusual commitment to the creative use of traditional and classical music, as well as other kinds of classic liturgy. Indeed, this does set us apart from most of the “happening” churches in our area, and even some that aren’t “happening” at all.
The sanctuary of Irvine Presbyterian Church: Does worship with a rock band fit in a church that looks like this?

Our distinctiveness is bearing fruit in many ways, drawing people who value great hymns and choral music, and even lots of classical musicians who graciously share their talents with us in worship. So Jim made a good point in asking us not to forget the distinguishing marks of our church and our particular identity. After all, we can’t be everything to everybody. But, I wonder, should our distinctiveness as a church that connects with a certain kind of people be so central to our identity, or do we need to be more expansive in our vision and mission?

My third conversation was with a internationally-known church leader who is just about to plant a new church – something he has not done before. This man, I’ll call “Levi,” was sharing with me his vision for this new church. He and his partners aren’t even sure what exactly their corporate life will look like, how they will worship, or where they will meet. But, above all, they want to be an authentic church, faithful to God and to God’s vision of the church revealed in Scripture.

As my conversation with Levi progressed, I was surprised that I didn’t hear more about what might make this church distinctive, because that seems to be the main thing in so much conversation about the church today. Again and again I hear “cutting edge” Christian pastors say: “I don’t want our church to be like other churches. Rather, I want us to be on the edge. We need to be unique. We want to be different. We don’t want to be like the church on the next block. And we certainly don’t want to do church in the ways of the past.” Sometimes it seems that the main rationale for being a church is almost completely tied up in a church’s distinctiveness. If a particular church isn’t distinctive, we might conclude, then it has no good reason to exist.

These three conversations got me thinking about the whole question of church identity and church distinctiveness. Is it important for a church to define what makes it different from other churches? If so, how important is it? How much difference should distinctiveness make? Is this really what matters in churches, or is distinctiveness more of a distraction from what really matters? Maybe even an idol?

I’ll pick up this conversation in my next post.


Exposing the Idol of Distinctiveness
Part 2 in the series “Church . . . What Really Matters?”
Posted on Thursday, July 22, 2004

In my last post I described three conversations that led me to think about what really matters about the church. In many conversations about church these days, there’s a decided concern for distinctiveness. Many pastors think, not only that individual churches must be distinctive, but also that this distinctiveness is essential to their identity. But I wonder . . . .

I don’t think my church, or any church for that matter, should be just like another church. In fact, given the uniqueness of each individual human being, and the fact that churches are made up of such unique human beings, it’s impossible for a church to be exactly like another. There will always be differences among churches, even churches that are quite similar in form and theology.

Furthermore, I do think it’s a good thing for churches to have distinct personalities, worship-styles, emphases, and so on. This allows the overall mission of Christ’s church to reach a broader spectrum of people in the world. Moreover, it reflects the unique way God calls and shapes particular churches. My church, for example, is very different in many ways from Bret’s church (see the first post in this series), a young, predominantly Gen-X church with an outstanding and, dare I say it, outstandingly loud worship band. (There, I’ve just dated myself as an aging boomer.) I’m thrilled about what God is doing in Bret’s church, but I don’t think my own congregation is meant to be like it in the details, or vice versa. (By the way, for the record, I don’t think Bret would ever call his church “Bret’s church.” In fact this label probably horrifies him. But I want to keep his identity confidential. Hence my odd way of describing this church.)

Having said that churches will be distinctive and that this is a good thing, I want to reverse ground and rail against what I call “the idol of distinctiveness.” As I listen to lots of conversations about church, it seems to me that distinctiveness has taken on too much significance among many church leaders. It’s as if being new, being edgy, and, most of all, being different from other churches has become the main thing. But I happen to believe that these are so far from the main thing that prizing them too highly can become a form of idolatry.

Often it’s also leads to pride. I’ve listened to leaders from edgy churches talk as if they have finally invented God’s perfect church. Hubris, indeed! (Okay, a moment of confession. My own church used to be filled with this sort of pride. When I got to Irvine Presbyterian Church thirteen years ago, some of my members actually thought we were, literally, the best Presbyterian church in the country, if not the best church, period. Yikes! I know of at least one other church that’s as good a we are. Well, maybe two . . . .)

I want to propose a contrarian thesis that will sound like heresy in some Christian circles, but here it is: In all of the things that matter most, every church should be like what every other church is trying to be. Let me say that again, in case you missed it or didn’t believe it: In all of the ways that really matter, every Christian church should seek to be basically the same. Distinctiveness, however inevitable and beneficial, is not part of what really matters to a church. When being different gets too much attention, this is a mistake. And when a church begins to prize its distinctiveness, or even to think of itself as better than other churches because of its distinctiveness, this can be a form of idolatry. It also can keep a church from finding its true divine calling and identity. The key to becoming a truly godly and healthy church, I believe, is focusing on what really matters in church, and what really matters is constant across churches, denominations, cultures, and continents.

On the left, St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. On the right, a small church in the community of El Niño, outside of Tijuana, Mexico. Am I really saying that both of these churches should strive to be essentially the same?

If you want to be a true Christian church, don’t be preoccupied with what makes you different from all the other churches. Instead, strive to be what God’s Word says the church is supposed to be. If you don’t know where to start, you might begin with some of the Paul’s letters, since they often speak directly to the question of the church’s identity. Read 1 Thessalonians, or Philippians, or 1 Corinthians, or Ephesians. Ask yourself: What does this book reveal about the nature of the church? How does this book help my church to understand who we are in Christ and what our mission is? If you keep your focus here, and if the leaders of the church up the street keep their focus here, and if the leaders of the churches across the world keep their focus here, then all of our churches will grow to be what God has called us to be. Yes, we’ll differ in the details. But we’ll be much the same in what matters the most.

I’ll continue this conversation in my next post in this series, as I look for biblical support for my thesis about church distinctiveness.


Don't Mistake the Wine for the Wineskins!
Part 3 in the series “Church . . . What Really Matters?”
Posted on Sunday, July 25, 2004

In my last post I proposed a thesis which, I admitted, would sound like heresy in many Christian circles. In case you missed it, here it is again: In all of the things that matter most, every church should be like what every other church is trying to be. Or to put it another way: In all of the ways that really matter, every Christian church should seek to be basically the same.

Okay, now that I’ve laid out my heresy, I’d better defend it from Scripture. I’d like to begin by pointing to a biblical text that doesn’t address directly the nature of the church, but nevertheless provides a useful analogy. The passage comes from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus speaks about wineskins:

“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” (Mark 2:21-22)

In its original context in Mark, this text claimed that the “new wine” of the kingdom of God – the core of Jesus’s ministry and message – wouldn’t fit within the “old wineskins” of Jewish ceremonial law (fasting, legalistic Sabbath-keeping).

It isn’t too much of a stretch, I think, to say that the new wine of the gospel of Jesus Christ can’t be confined within the wineskins of religious forms and traditions. As the good news comes to life in a new century or a new community, new forms and practices inevitably develop. Preach the gospel in Latin America, for example, and before long there will be songs of praise in Spanish sung by worshippers who are, for the most part, way more expressive than those of us who hail from Northern Europe. When missionaries try to force new converts from other cultures to adopt the traditional forms from the missionaries’ own culture, these wineskins inevitably burst.
A praise service from a church in Peru.

But even new wineskins are still just wineskins. They’re not the new wine. New ways to evangelize, new forms of worship, new language for church – all of these are necessary and potentially even good, but they should not be confused with new wine. In time, all new wineskins become old. This is something that younger church leaders, full of vim and vision, often overlook. I know I once did!

Please understand me. I’m not saying wineskins are bad or to be avoided. Hardly! Wine has to come in some container, whether it be a leather skin, a bottle, or, as in 21st century America, a cardboard box. Wineskins are just fine, even necessary, but they’re not the wine.

The forms in which a particular church contains the gospel will be distinctive, and, in a healthy church, never too rigid. But that which matters most, the wine inside the skins, should be essentially the same from church to church. For example, though I might preach the gospel in a different mode than the Gen-X pastor down the street, our fundamental message – the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ – had better be, not just similar, but precisely the same. And, no matter how much we pastors might be tempted to focus on the mode of communication, what really matters is the substance of the gospel.

I believe that what makes a church distinctive is always be a matter of wineskins, not wine. What makes a church Christian, what makes a church a church – now this is a matter of wine. All genuine churches should be filled with the same wine, the good news of the gospel and its implications. If ever we’re tempted to change wines, then we fall into real heresy. Let’s not forget Paul’s stern warning to the Galatians:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel --  not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! (Gal 1:6-9).

It’s a fine thing to look for new ways to communicate the gospel in a different cultural setting. But it’s not a fine thing at all to change the basic gospel to fit the whims of that culture.

So far I’ve been talking about the wine of gospel, the enduring message of what God did in Jesus Christ. I’ve said that this same gospel should be at the core of every church. But is there more that should remain constant? To put it differently, is wine more than just the gospel message?

To this question I’ll return in my next post.


Is "Wine" More Than the Gospel Message?
Part 4 in the series “Church . . . What Really Matters?”
Posted on Monday, July 26, 2004

So far I’ve argued that every church should share, at its core, exactly the same “wine” – the gospel of God’s work in Jesus Christ. But is this all that every church should share? Is everything else a matter of wineskins? Or are there other elements of church life that are so essential as to be considered part of the wine?

My friend Levi, the one I mentioned in Part 1 of this series who is helping to plant a new church in his community, works within the support and constraint of a well-established denomination. Before he and his colleagues could start a church, they needed the endorsement of the local denominational official. This person also had a great deal of authority over the specifics, those things that would make this particular church distinctive, at least at the beginning. But in his charge to Levi & Co., he said the following: “I’m not particularly concerned about exactly how you meet or how you worship or what the church looks like. Just do the things in Acts 2 and all will be well.” What sage and godly direction! Way to go, nameless church official from a highly institutional denomination!

I’m going to take the lead from this denominational official and flesh out in some detail “the things in Acts 2.” Indeed, these elements of church life are so closely connected to the gospel that they should be thought of more as wine than as wineskins. In other words, wherever the gospel of Christ is received in faith and translated into daily living, the things we see in Acts 2 will necessarily be present. And if one is inclined to quibble, it would be easy to show from the rest of Scripture that the practices of the church in Acts 2 are, indeed, essential to any healthy Christian community. By the end of this series I’m quite sure you’ll agree.

If you haven’t read Acts 2 in a while, let me remind you of the context. The Holy Spirit was poured out on the earliest Christians. Peter preached his first sermon and about three thousand new believers in Jesus gathered to form the first church. So what did they do next? Here is the summary in Acts 2: 42-47:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Although this passage is not a didactic treatise on the nature of the church, it certainly touches upon most of the things that matter most in any church. In this post and in those to follow, I want to highlight these essential components as they are found in the text of Acts 2.

Authoritative Teaching

The earliest believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” Notice, they didn’t merely listen to it or tolerate it. In fact the verb “devoted themselves” suggests a more passionate and energetic commitment. These people really wanted to learn! And so should we. Every single Christian church should have, at the core of its corporate life, a commitment to the teaching and learning of God’s truth.

Of course we don’t have the original apostles around to teach us. But we have the writings they endorsed as God’s Word (the Old Testament) and the ones they or their followers wrote, which were approved by the churches they founded (the New Testament). So when we devote ourselves to Bible study, we’re acting like the church in Acts.

Needless to say, the modes of Bible study will vary in different churches (lecture, discussion, small groups, study guides, video, expository preaching, blog, e-mail, etc.). But every Christian church should strive to make the study of “the apostles’ teaching” a central element of corporate life. Leaders should focus, not on how they can teach distinctively, but on how they can faithfully convey God’s truth in the place where God has put them. This will lead to distinctiveness, of course, but not to making an idol out of being distinctive.

A Bible study for inner-city kids at Grand Valley Christian Camp outside of Cleveland, OH.

Increasingly these days I hear some Christians speak negatively about teaching. Identifying someone as a teacher supposes this person has a certain measure of authority, perhaps even “privileged” interpretations of Scripture. This sort of model doesn’t fit well in a postmodern culture where all opinions are equal. So some churches, buying into the postmodern ethos, have abandoned biblical teaching in favor of group discussion and the sharing of feelings. (Ironically, this is much like the “values-clarification” approach to learning that impoverished my teenage years in church.)

I’m all in favor of small group discussion. And I’m well aware that others might have insights into biblical truth that I have overlooked. Just because I have a Ph.D. in New Testament and am called "Pastor" does not mean I have all the answers, believe me. But the authentic church will always be based upon “the apostles’ teaching,” and at times this means certain teachers – trained, gifted, and authorized – will be charged with the task of rightly teaching God’s Word. Of course, in the power of the Spirit, we can all “teach and admonish one another” (Col 3:16). So no person is ever left out of the teaching loop, even if some are called to special ministries of teaching.


Part 5 in the series “Church . . . What Really Matters?”
Posted on Tuesday, July 27, 2004

In my last post I began to spell out in detail some of the elements of the church’s “wine” – the essentials that should matter most in any church. Using Acts 2:42-47 as a paradigm, I proposed that every church should be centered in the teaching of God’s truth. Today we come to the next element in the list: fellowship.

The first Christians devoted themselves, not only to teaching, but also to “fellowship” (Acts 2:42). They seemed to understand intuitively that the Christian life was necessarily a shared endeavor. So they gathered together with other believers right from the start.

For years I’ve been concerned about the pervasive tendency towards individualism in much of the church in North American and Western Europe. Unlike the first Christians, we seem to think that “fellowship” is optional equipment rather than required component of true Christian living. My concern about our rampant individualism led me to write a whole book that shows how essential fellowship is to Christianity. That’s the main thesis of After “I Believe.” I believe it’s as valid and needed today as it was four years ago when I wrote the book.

Of course we must understand that “fellowship” in biblical perspective is far more than donuts and coffee after church. As I showed in After “I Believe,” the New Testament notion of “fellowship” (Greek, koinonia) is intimate, committed relationship and partnership. It’s closer to what you’d experience in a healthy family than in the typical church “fellowship hall.” Genuine Christian fellowship is an expression of mutual love, the love of God in Jesus Christ, the love that forms the center of the gospel.

Fellowship among God’s people is essential, therefore, because it’s part and parcel of the gospel. As we see in Acts 2, when the gospel is preached and rightly received, fellowship necessarily comes into being. Moreover, the fellowship created by the gospel also becomes the chief vehicle for the gospel’s proclamation in the world (see Acts 2:47 and 1 Thes 1, for example).

So a church without intentional, dedicated Christian fellowship is not a real church. Yes, of course the forms of fellowship will differ widely among churches. But the “new wine” of fellowship must always be present. Once again, let me say that Christian leaders should worry less about whether their forms of fellowship are unique, and more about whether the people in their church are truly sharing their lives together in Christ. Is there genuine mutual love and commitment? Are people helping each other to grow in faith? Are they putting up with and forgiving each other? Yes, new needs and technologies make new forms of fellowship possible. (I’m impressed, for example, at how much instant messaging is used among the junior highers in my church, and how much cell phones are used among the high schoolers, and now much e-mail is the communication mode among collegians.) But, in the end, true Christian fellowship will look more or less has it has for centuries. It will look like people, people interacting with people, caring for each other, praying together, studying together, playing together, worshipping together, serving together in the world.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. If you’re interested, you can always buy the book!) How’s that for shameless self-promotion?


Breaking Bread
Part 6 in the series “Church . . . What Really Matters?”
Posted on Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Using Acts 2 as a paradigm, we’ve seen that biblical teaching and fellowship are among the elements that really matter in church. Today we’ll continue our study of Acts 2 as we move on to the next crucial component of church: breaking bread.

The first Christians also devoted themselves to “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42). Biblical commentators debate the precise meaning of this phrase. Clearly it means “eating together.” In first-century Judea “breaking of bread” was an inevitable part of each meal. But some interpreters have seen in “breaking of bread” a pointer to Communion, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper among the first Christians.

I don’t think one can prove that “breaking of bread” in Acts 2:42 necessarily means “having Communion.” Most obviously it means “sharing meals together.” We see this clearly in verse 46: “they broke bread together at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” Yet, though we don’t have lots of evidence for early Christian ways of celebrating Communion, it’s highly likely that this happened in the context of an ordinary meal (see 1 Cor 11:17-34). So, “breaking of bread” in Acts 2, though pointing primarily to shared meals, may also suggest the intentional remembering of Jesus’ death in the mode begun by our Lord himself at the Last Supper.

Is the breaking of bread essential to the church? Let me “break” this apart into two questions. 1) Must Christians share food together? 2) Must Christians share Communion together? I’ll tackle the second first.

Yes, Christians must share Communion together, because Jesus said so. That clinches the argument. But church history also bears witness to this basic fact. Though Christians celebrate Communion in different forms and with varying theologies, they always do it (with very few exceptions).

In recent years cutting-edge churches have found some new ways to experience Communion. Putting off older wineskins of tradition, like the passing of bread and wine along pews in silver trays, these churches have made new wineskins which, in many cases, have led people to a fresh and deeper experience of God’s grace in Christ. But, in some cases, churches have inadvertently celebrated Communion in ways contrary to its essential meaning. I’m especially concerned about the individualistic practices in some churches, whereby people serve themselves privately, communing with the Lord as if completely alone. Stripping away the community from Communion is exactly the problem Paul tried to solve in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. Individualistic communion illustrates one potential problem in the search for differentness: it can lead a church away from the core truth of the gospel. (At some point in the future I’ll say more about this whole issue of individualistic communion.)
A picture is worth a 1000 words. Here's a brilliant example of what Christian communion is really all about.

Question 1) was: Must Christians share food together? I’m almost tempted to say “yes.” I’ve been in many, many different churches over the years, and every single one eats together. Moreover, though we don’t follow the Old Testament ceremonial law, it’s not an accident that God instructed his people to eat together in many different ways when they gather together in his name. The point isn’t just getting nutrition, but the deeper meaning of shared food. Even in Western culture, but so much more in Middle Eastern culture, sharing a meal is a way of sharing life. It’s a context for intimacy, celebration, laughter, and discussion. A church that never ate together would be missing out on so much that makes church wonderful and meaningful . . . not to mention just plain fun!

One of my favorite pictures of my church, enjoying a potluck supper together.

So, though I don’t think we can put sharing a meal together in the same category as sharing Communion together, I’d argue that any church would be well-advised to make shared meals a central part of its corporate life. Naturally there will be great differences, both in the way food is produced (potluck, pizza delivery, catering, church cook, etc.) and in the kinds of food consumed. I’ve had great BBQ in a Lutheran Church in Wisconsin, spicy kimchee in a Korean church in California, and endless amounts of chicken casserole in my own Presbyterian churches. More importantly, in all of these contexts I’ve enjoyed face to face interaction with my sisters and brothers in Christ as we share, not just food, but life together.  

Eating with other believers also reminds us that the Christian life isn’t merely some mystical and transcendent experience, though it certainly might be. God created the world good, and invited us to enjoy it. And when the world needed saving, God didn’t stand back from a distance and fix everything, but he became a part of the world in Jesus, the Word Incarnate. This Jesus, God in the flesh, not only ate food, often in fellowship with others, but he sometimes created food so that people wouldn’t be hungry. When we eat together we remember that God wants to be part of our day to day lives, our everyday relationships.


Part 7 in the series “Church . . . What Really Matters?”
Posted on Friday, July 30, 2004

So far, by using the model of Acts 2, I have identified the follow core components of church: teaching, fellowship, and breaking bread. Today we come to the next component: prayer.

In Acts 2:42, the earliest Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” Prayer always lies at the heart of Christian discipleship and community. Jesus both invited and commanded us to pray, and so we have as Christians, right from the start of the church.

Once again, commentators differ on exactly which prayers are meant in this verse. In all likelihood they include the official Jewish prayers offered in the temple (see Acts 3:10) as well as the prayers of the Christian community (see Acts 4:23-31). For those of us inclined to see the Christian life through individualistic eyes, it’s worth noting that the prayers of this text are surely corporate, even though individual Christians would also have prayed privately.

Wherever Christians gather, there you’ll find prayer. The forms vary widely, but the heart of prayer is shared among Christians of all denominations, ethnicities, and other variations. Certain segments of Christians seem to have particular strengths in prayer, for example: Koreans with intensive intercession, Roman Catholics with silence, and Eastern Orthodox with reflective meditation. Leaders of particular churches would do well, not only to consider which forms of prayer might be stressed in their own churches, but also how they might learn from other communities and traditions.

As we grow in prayer, we realize that it is less about getting God to do what we want, and more about being with God. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t bring our needs before the Lord. Jesus himself tells us to do this (Matt 7:7-11), and promises that God will bless us in return. But, as wonderful as answered prayers can be, nothing surpasses the delight of being in God’s presence and sharing that presence with your brothers and sisters in Christ.

It’s rather like another kind of “presents,” if you’ll pardon the play on words. When I was young, I loved Christmas. Yes, I was fascinated by the birth of Jesus. And, yes, I loved it when my relatives would visit from out of town. And I liked the music, and the food, and the lights. But, most of all, I liked getting presents. Christmas, bottom line, was about the bottom line: what I would get.

But as I grew, my priorities began to change. Now, though I’m perfectly happy to get presents, I’d have a delightful Christmas without them. What I love most of all in Christmas are the relationships. I cherish just being with my wife and children on Christmas morning, sharing in their joy and wonder. And, even though I’m exhausted after doing three services on Christmas Eve, including one at midnight, I love going to be with my family on Christmas day. But, I can truly say that the most special part of Christmas for me today is worship. When I come before the baby Jesus, awed by God’s presence in such a tiny, helpless child, I can’t help but weep for wonder and thanks. I wouldn’t trade all the presents in the world for the delight of being with Jesus at Christmas.
Christmas afternoon at my mother's house. Plenty of presents; and plenty of "presence."

So it is with prayer. Don’t get me wrong. I still ask the Lord for plenty of things in prayer, just like he told me to do. But there are times when I my needs and desires fade into the background, and I simply delight in the Lord. Sometimes this happens when I’m alone in prayer. But often it comes when I praying with fellow believers, either in worship or in intercession. Prayer in church is rather like being together as a family on Christmas morning, except in God’s presence I’m not the father, but the child delighting in God’s generous gifts.


Signs and Wonders
Part 8 in the series: "Church . . . What Really Matters?"
Posted on Saturday, July 31, 2004

What really matters in church? So far I’ve been using Acts 2 as a paradigm. And so far what I’ve come up with has been pretty uncontroversial. Most all Christians would agree that church must comprise teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. But now we come to a more debated element. Should church today include signs and wonders? Or were these manifestations of power reserved for the apostolic age?

According to Acts 2:43, “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” Ah, now here’s something to divide the house. For much of my early life, I was taught that signs and wonders were supposed to be part of the early church experience, but not a part of ours today. As this verse from Acts says, the miracles were being done “by the apostles.” So the miracles were for the apostolic age, not ours. Therefore it would be a theological error to insist that signs and wonders are essential to the church today. In fact, they shouldn’t even be expected, or, in some cases, permitted.

I now believe that what I was taught in my youth was wrong, for many reasons. I’ll mention three.

First, it’s a theological error to identify as signs and wonders only physical miracles (like healing). When God changes a heart, or heals a marriage, or calls a sinner to repentance, these are every bit as much signs and wonders as physical healings. Many churches that deny the presence of signs and wonders today have lots of signs and wonder. They just don’t call them that.

Second, I believe that if one reads the New Testament with an open, discerning mind, it’s impossible to come to the conclusion that signs and wonders were only for the apostolic age. Yes, I know many Christians believe this, but I attribute this to a biased reading of the Bible. (In fairness, I should note at this point that many of the most passionate advocates of the apostolic-age theory for signs and wonders come from my own theological tradition, conservative Presbyterianism.) Even if you bracket the church in Acts as something not to be repeated throughout church history, you still have to contend with the rest of the New Testament. If you consider Jesus’ example and teaching of the kingdom of God, combined with the writings of Paul (especially 1 Corinthians 12-14), I believe you’ll be persuaded that signs and wonders are an essential part of the experience of the kingdom of God on earth, today as in the apostolic age.

Third, it’s impossible to deny the reality of miraculous signs in the church today if you pay attention to what’s going on around the world. Throughout the globe, especially but only in the Southern Hemisphere, God’s power is being poured out upon the church in the form of signs and wonders, both the material and the immaterial kind. (Curiously enough, I’ve known many Christians over the years who claim that signs and wonders aren’t for today. Yet most of these people have stories of God doing amazing miracles, even physical healings and the like. If you’re looking for a trustworthy book on signs and wonders today, I’d recommend When the Spirit Comes With Power: Signs and Wonders Among God’s People, by John White.)

From a theological point of view, the reality of signs and wonders has to do with the presence of God’s kingdom in the world. Since this kingdom isn’t yet fully present, God’s power isn’t yet fully experienced. Hence we still experience sickness, injury, depression, and death. At times our prayers for healing, like all others prayers, receive a big fat “no.” But since God’s kingdom is already present, though not completely, we can and do experience his power in many ways, including those we associate with signs and wonders.

Kathryn Kuhlman, one of the most illustrious Christian "healers" of the last century. A very sober Christian friend of mine once attended one of Miss Kuhlman's meetings. Skeptical, he sat far back from the stage. During the meeting he was healed of a chronic back condition.

Of course I am well aware of the hucksters and impostors, purported Christians who make up miracles to hock their spiritual wares. And I’m also familiar with the human tendency to exaggerate. Yes, I have also seen cases where churches get so wrapped up in the miraculous that they completely lose balance, sometimes even orthodoxy. Nevertheless, the example of the early church in Acts, combined with the theological teachings of the New Testament, suggest that signs and wonders of all kinds will be part and parcel of the Christian church.

Once more, I’d urge church leaders not to focus on the distinctiveness of their church in the matter of signs and wonders. The point is not to decide which miracles God is welcome to do in any church and which are forbidden. Rather, we’re to seek the Lord and his power, and to be open to all gifts he wants to give us for his purposes (1 Cor 12-14, esp. 12:4-11 and 14:1).

In my next post in this series, I’ll look at the issues of generosity and justice. For now, the blog (really the blogger) is going to take a couple days off.









Dare to Be True:
We need it now more than ever!

Basics for Worship: A Theological and Practical Statement of Irvine Presbyterian Church

An outstanding new album of worship music by Matt Redman