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Apple Tree

“Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God;”

– 1 Thessalonians 4:1

 

One of my friends says that he, who has been in church all his life and saved for most of it, always tries to pay attention to gospel presentations during sermons, because it is so good to be reminded of these truths, to agree with them still, that we are great sinners undeserving of our Great Savior, who is nevertheless our Redeemer, Friend, and King.

 

Many of my friends, and I am often among them in this, feel that when speaking happens at church gatherings, it is rarely that satisfying, thought-provoking, insightful teaching that we long for.  We are honestly bored, and also get this puffing feeling that others might need the simple and lowly instruction offered in these messages, but we are beyond that.  I still see this in myself even though it has been some years since I realized that not all speech in church ought to be intended to teach (1 Corinthians 14:26).

 

In the New Testament, it is shown that there are multiple speaking giftings to be used for building up the Church.  Among them is teaching.  But there is also prophecy, exhortation, word of wisdom, word of knowledge, tongues and their interpretation.  In Hebrews, when we are commanded not to forsake assembling together, this comes as part of an admonition to consider one another to stir up love and good works, and that when we gather, we are to “exhort one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25).  Paul tells Timothy to “Preach the word! …Convince, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and teaching,” and also to “Give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.”  This seems to have been a model in at least some synagogues at the time as well, that after reading from Scripture, they offered a time where those present could offer exhortations to the congregation (Acts 13:15)

 

John the Baptist, the great prophet, “with many other exhortations, preached to the people.”  Judas and Silas, prophets in the book of Acts, “exhorted and strengthened the brethren with many words.” (Acts 15:32) Prophecy, though sometimes an otherwise unknown revelation including foretelling and rebuke, is sometimes associated with timely and relevant exhortation: “But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men.” (1 Corinthians 14:3)

 

When we read Paul’s letters, he often says that the congregations that are recipients of his letters have already been instructed, and do not need a repetition of the lesson.  But he still speaks to the topic.  Why?  I think it is likely that Paul was exhorting them.  Peter explicitly says, “For this reason I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth. Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding [you],” (2 Peter 1:12-13)

 

What is exhortation?  First the Greek, parakaleo, often translated, besides “exhort”, as “comfort”, “encourage”, and “beseech”.  The English dictionary defines “exhort” this way: “strongly encourage or urge someone to do something”.

 

I know for me that I need reminded.  I benefit a lot from hearing people agree that doing the right thing is worthwhile.  “[B]ut exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:13) So I want to receive exhortation, not being discontent because I hoped for a stimulating teaching, but rejoicing that I am in company with people who support me in good works, good words, and good attitudes.

 

Jesus exemplified this in His letters to the churches, as dictated in Revelation (chapters 2-3). Not much of it is introduction of new doctrines or ways of doing things.  He is, rather, comforting them with encouragement about what they are doing well, and pleading for them to do what they know to do.

 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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Made by a young pair of brothers, Divided the movie is the film version of the Family Integrated Church propaganda.  Careful oversight was given by Scott Brown, of the NCFIC, and he was also interviewed extensively in the documentary.  The film follows the research of Philip  Leclerc into the fruits, philosophies, and history of the youth ministry church model.

Divided consists mostly of interviews.  It begins by talking to the authors of Already Gone, Britt Beamer and Ken Ham, who discuss the statistics about youth leaving the Church and at what age they stopped believing orthodox Christianity.  One problem they identify with modern youth ministry is the lack of substance being presented in lessons and sermons at events.  This leads to man on the street shots of students after a Christian concert, and surveys of various youth leaders and conference directors for youth pastors, showing the pervading philosophies of being relevant and giving the students an emotional experience – intentionally not dealing with points of Christian doctrine beyond Jesus’ love and sacrificial death.

Some former pastors and youth leaders are interviewed about why they left the youth ministry model (much as the filmmaker’s parents had chosen to do).  An enlightening testimony suggested that teaching the “right things,” worldviews and Christian theology, still resulted in a majority of students leaving the faith by the end of high school.  This presents a contrast to the first segment, where the flawed worldview of average youth ministry was uncovered.  One church planter stated that if you just read the Bible, you would not think of doing church the way we do it today; his church is trying to function more biblically, and one aspect of that is to eliminate youth ministry.

Next is what I see as the strong point, the most useful part of the documentary, dealing with the history of age-segregated church, beginning with the origins of Sunday school classes for children.  The rest of the movie seems unlikely to enlighten or persuade anyone, as the philosophies of each side (pro-youth ministry and pro-family-based discipleship) are not tested against a biblical standard.

Afterward, Philip Leclerc interviews a series of leaders in the FamilyIntegratedChurchmovement, who point out that the Bible’s prescription for discipling children is that their parents train them up, and that youth ministry – separate from the main meetings and activities of the church – is never mentioned in the Bible.  Questions are brought forward, like the argument that since parents are not taking responsibility for training their own children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, if the Church doesn’t, the youth will fall through the cracks.

I found a few things lacking in Divided.  At the end of the movie, I felt that the criticism against youth ministry was directed at its fruit: people who abandon belief in God and the Bible.  But the alternative put forward is not judged by the same measure.  I remain curious how successful family-centered discipleship and family-integrated churches are at retaining the next generation.  The filmmaker’s mentors are full of ideals which they claim are biblically based.  If the fruit is different from what statistics show for youth in the past several decades, this gives us hope.  If the fruit is the same, perhaps more is going on than negligent parenting and segregated churches.

The movie relies on the worldview of its audience to refute the postmodernism of most youth ministries which is put on display in the first half of the film.  Though presented as the unwanted results of age-segregated ministry, we are left to judge what is wrong with the youth interviewed based on our own notions – whether we would judge them for their style of music or dress, for their poor communication skills, for holding to false doctrines about creation, for caring about authenticity and relationship, for lacking discernment, for laziness, for postmodern relativism.  And if we only notice a couple of these, perhaps we are absorbing the rest of their subtle messages as true – or maybe we are judging everything they say as wrong because of the other things they are packaged with.

This highlights the next difficulty I had with the movie: some of the youth and youth leaders made really good points about what is valuable to people, what they expect – even need – to find at church.  When a student says he is looking for people who will tell him the truth and be real with him, and that he values a mentor for being involved in his life, surely the Church could learn from those needs.  A woman who leads training for youth pastors points out that they need to be relevant to the everyday lives of kids.  True – who has more relevance to the ins and outs of a young person’s life than the family he lives with?  Who is more real to him than his own parents?  But this point was not made, this challenge not extended to parents who are choosing to take up the biblical mandate to be spiritual leaders to their children.  Also, those concerns recognized by the representatives of youth ministry are really universal needs, not applicable just to teenagers, but also to adults.

Throughout the movie, the experts skirt the issue that the way we do church is fundamentally unbiblical.  We have not sought God’s design for our gatherings and Christian life.  The Church that was intended to be a community has become an institution full of programs, and people fill slots and categories and statistics instead of being directed by needs and gifts in the Body.  Perhaps parents are abdicating their spiritual roles because the Church isn’t allowing discipleship to happen among its members, leaving parents ill-equipped to train their children – but also leaving pastors ill-equipped, unsupported by the edification they are supposed to receive from the rest of the Church.

Finally, there is the question of whether people who are middle school, high school, and college age ought to be considered adults, invited and expected to contribute their spiritual gifts (if they are believers*) to the unity and edification of the whole church just as the rest of adults ought to be (but often are not).   I say “the rest of” because until the last hundred years, people in their mid-teens and beyond were counted adults.  In the very least they were not considered children.  And on the assumption that youth ministries are dealing with children rests the crux of the argument made by the Family Integrated Church proponents.  They argue that parents own the responsibility for the spiritual growth of their kids.  But if they’re not kids, in the biblical sense to which the commands would apply…

And even if they are children, if they are saved*, they are members of the body of Christ and the instructions about Church should apply to them.  They ought to receive instruction and admonition from any believer who is so gifted and led.  Parents are responsible, and not to shirk their duties towards the children God has entrusted to them, but they are not alone, and do not own exclusive rights to their child’s discipleship.  Perhaps they ought to do “catechizing” and “worldview training” at home instead of expecting it to be done at church.

I appreciate the call Divided puts out to parents to fulfill their God-given roles in the family.  The documentary shows the variety of people who believe in family integration, and the different reasons people practice it.  Exhorting the Church to be unified by ending age segregation is a great start.  When asked about children whose parents are not believers (the original target of Sunday schools), Family Integration proponent Scott Brown suggested an intense, personal solution: sound families should bring those children into their home during the week to witness to them and disciple them (sending them back to their own families with deference to the parents’ authority), and have those children sit with their family during church meetings.  The family is upheld as an important player in education and morality.  Ultimately, Divided exalts God for designing well, however dismal the results of man’s corruptions of church and family.

*If a child is not yet a professing follower of Christ, should he be required to attend Church gatherings with his parents?  Should he be allowed to participate if he is there?

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In collecting, reviewing, and publishing these articles on ChurchMoot, I’ve been reminded of an idea that has been flitting on the edge of my mind.  The institutional church that I’m trying to refute is full of ritual.  Evangelical versions of rituals are so mundane that most of us don’t even notice.  Little things like shaking hands with the pastor as you leave the sanctuary, like bowing heads and closing eyes to pray are the protestant version of ritual.  Communion Services (or the Lord’s Supper) are some more obvious examples.

I cringe at ritual.  Christmas celebrations in church are famous for it.  Light this candle.  Recite this verse.  It makes me want to stay home.

But one must admit there is a lot of ceremony in the Bible.  The Temple regulations were specific about how to offer sacrifices, where to sprinkle blood, when to wash.  And this isn’t confined to the Old Testament.  In Revelation, John’s heavenly vision is of creatures throwing themselves repetitively at the feet of the King, crying the same praises.  A scroll is brought forth and they have to find the one who can break the seal.  Then the scroll is brought to Him.  When God could just speak and the plagues of the tribulation would come, He instead has angels with bowls and trumpets administering His judgment.

I wonder if our perspective isn’t off, though.  Maybe a whole lot more of our lives are ceremonial.  And maybe the things we do are figures of a reality we should be mindful of, but have forgotten.  Perhaps we have forgotten because we drew a line between ritual and everything else, between sacred and secular.  We got caught up in being ceremonious, and thought that was the point, and that the means didn’t matter.  When the means are everything.

Take the Lord’s Supper.  There is not likely anything else in a Christian’s practice with more significance.  Christ’s body is broken for us.  His blood seals a covenant.  Eating His body and blood brings life.  Jesus isn’t sharing this meal again until He shares it with us in the kingdom of God.  Do this as memorial for Him.  One loaf symbolizes and advances unity.  The Church is renewing a covenant of betrothal.  Jesus, the Husband of the Church, loves us as His own body, and gives Himself for us.  And we learn, we practice, we experience these truths in Communion.  All without scripts and choreography.  Without special plates or cups or robes.

But we have scripted it, choreographed it, and contained it in special plates and cups.  For the sake of reverent ritual, or convenience, we have mastered something that isn’t an art; it’s a child’s connect-the-dots.  Being so careful what we say and where we step, we’ve forgotten what we feel and what we believe.  Instead of a living parable, a stage drama of the Feast of Feasts, we’re living stick-figures.

I want to try living the metaphor, not just representing it.

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“The only other big changes seem to be encouraging meeting throughout the week for fellowship, study, and prayer.  I hope to see a portion of our weekly meetings dedicated to praying together, not being led in prayer as has usually been the case.”

“I have a question,” a young man from the committee spoke.  “How do you expect to evangelize if you are not preaching or offering an invitation?”

“The way it says in 1 Corinthians and in Acts and the Gospels, too.  In 1 Corinthians, when the church met together, if an unbeliever happened to be there, and he heard the truth of God’s word taught clearly, the Spirit could convict him then and there and he could repent.  Church in the sense of gatherings of believers, in the New Testament, was not for evangelism.  It was for the strengthening and equipping of the body.  Unbelievers could see how they treated each other and how they lived.  That was a strong testimony that something supernatural was going on.  Then the Christians would go out with boldness.  Go out.  That is something of which our churches do too little.

“Now they won’t have an excuse.  Church will be a place to teach Christians to share their faith, and how to do it.  We’ll encourage them.  We are eager to hear testimonies in church of how God worked through a member to spread the gospel.  But we won’t do it for them.”

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“Will and I have always been people who think.  Our greatest struggle is to keep from judging, and our greatest challenge to effect a change when we identify a problem.  But over the years we’ve identified more and more things wrong with our culture and the American church.  It is very discouraging.  Things like divorce, or the rate at which kids leave the church after high school.  Theological trends, too, like ‘seeker sensitive’ churches and the acceptance of women in church leadership.”

Will continued.  “Once we were married, we discussed all these things.  And our number one object, what we believe is our calling, is to take a stand against these things.

“We are both Christians who have a stubborn reliance on the Bible for our doctrine and practices.  This has been a personal commitment for us.  But it suddenly occurred to us that we should look to the Bible to solve these problems in the church as well.”

“Yes,” Anne said.  “It became clear that many of these symptoms were connected.  We learned as we looked at them and as we began searching the Bible for references to them that they are just symptoms of a culture’s unwillingness to accept God’s plan.  People who give high amounts of time and respect to the Bible have more successful ministries.”

“I took her aside after we finished a study we had been doing together, and I said we were going to start from scratch.  I wanted to throw out anything about church that was not taught in the Bible.  So we set about studying.”  Will looked at his wife.

“Our main books were Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, and Titus.  But we cross-referenced a lot,” said Anne.

“There is a big push about worship in the evangelical community these days.  We have studied worship from a New Testament perspective, and in some ways we’re getting closer.  I’m the first to admit, though, that the church tends to pick and choose which verses to which they want to adhere.  It was hard for us not to do that.”  A faint smile flickered across Will’s face.

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“What about offerings?” asked the head of the stewardship committee.  Anne smiled.  This was one she had asked.  After all, her husband’s salary came from offerings.

“Here’s the deal,” Will said in the manner that revealed he hadn’t been out of high school all that long.  “If God lays on our hearts a need, we’ll take a special offering.  Other than that, there will be envelopes as always in which you can mail your check.  You may also leave it in the office.  If our funds suffer, we’ll have to take a good look on Sundays at what God says about money, both in your personal accounts, and in the church’s.  There’s a lot to study.  I’ll be busy.  I hope you will too.  I almost forgot.  If in your study during the week you have a question that you can’t answer, Sundays will be a good time to ask those.  I’d appreciate the head of a household presenting the question.”

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“For example, the Bible doesn’t really talk about preaching in church.  What did it say?  When you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a prophecy, has a tongue.”  Everyone shifted uneasily in their seats.  “This passage and others tell us that it is only the men who stand up and speak in church.  Women should ask their fathers or husbands if they have questions.  I’m talking about changes.  Changes not only here on Sunday mornings, but in your life during the week.  We all know how many questions women have.  We’re going to have to make time during the week to listen to those.  And men, we may not always have the answers.  We may have to do some personal study to find them.  But you know, I believe it will build your families.  I believe God knew what He was doing when He gave that instruction.”

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