Can You Be Gay and Christian?

Westboro Protest

Michael Chiavone is correct in his assertion that the ecclesiology of the 21st century looks much different than centuries of past, largely in part due to the success and increase of alternative church’s arrangements. Through the use of technology, specifically multi-site and streaming churches, it is now extremely challenging to offer an all-encompassing universal definition of the church. At the forefront of controversial topics regarding the church’s relationship to the state is homosexual marriage, which continues to be an area of much debate. This topic leaves many people with a poor perception of the church, and in many settings serves to demonstrate more what the church is against than what she is for. As the boundaries of religious freedom continue to be tested, Michael Brown offers perhaps the most appropriate response to the question, “Whether one can truly follow Jesus and practice homosexuality at one and the same time” (Brown 2014, xi).

In chapter ten, Brown attempts to balance grace with the truth of God’s Word, illustrating, for “gay Christians,” there is often an experiential claim associated with their argument, which attempts to justify the homosexual practice being perfectly acceptable because a committed relationship exists between two individuals. The biblical response recognizes it is possible to be a devoted follower of Christ, while also having same-sex attractions, as long as those thoughts and attractions are not affirmed. The problem arises when those attractions are acted upon making it then impossible to live a holy life.

To God, sin is sin, but humanity takes the process one step further and ranks various sins, much like crimes and classifies them as misdemeanors or felonies, with each having various degrees of offense and penalties or judgments. For many Christians, the very thought of being gay or acting upon those attractions would be equated to a crime of premeditated murder, but to God, homosexuality is no different than idolatry. Idolatry, by definition is anything placed before God in one’s life, and this can be a person, place, or thing that comes before God. In the Old Testament, certain sins required specific sacrifices and some sins affected the individual and/or the community. To advance this thought, a few of the texts that speak of homosexuality use the term תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה (tôʿēbâ) to mean abomination, which indicates, “That these sins are not simply something that God peevishly objects to, but that produces revulsion in Him” (Erickson 2013, 526). The result of any sin is separation from God, but Erickson furthers this thought and illuminates, “We are not simply sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners [and] sin is any lack of conformity, active or passive, to the moral law of God. This may be a matter of act, of thought, or of inner disposition or state. [Ultimately,] sin is failure to live up to what God expects of us in act, thought, and being” (Erickson 2013, 528-529). Jesus, in Matthew 5:28 clearly establishes the mere thought of a sinful act is the same as committing it, which demonstrates the effect desires have over the propensity to sin.

In recent years and through various human rights groups, the paradigm now perpetuated is God versus gays, meaning homosexuals must either be condemned or affirmed. Currently, as this assignment is being written, members of the Westboro Baptist Church are across the street waving “God hates fags” posters in the air as the people are gathering in the church for Sunday morning service. A much more accurate sign should read, “God hates sin.” Just as sinners should not be defined by his or her past/present sin, the universal church should not be defined by the actions of extremists like those outside telling homosexuals a fiery-hell awaits them. Brown demonstrates, “The problem is many gay-affirmative people will say their sexuality is ‘who they are’ and ‘essential to their being’ and ‘very core’” (Brown 2014, 205-206). Humanity’s fallen nature leads to one’s inclination to sin, so as Brown suggests, “Rather than saying, ‘I am gay, and Jesus died to help me fulfill my sexual identity,’ they should say, ‘I struggle with the sin of homosexuality, but by God’s grace I will not be defined by it or ruled by it’” (Brown 2014, 209).

Homosexuals should not be defined by their actions, nor should their desires enslave them to feeling as though change is impossible. Brown asserts, “You can [abstain from sex,] be single, but you cannot live without God” (Brown 2014, 221). Instead of focusing on one’s sexuality or allowing sin to define someone, the emphasis must always be trying to redirect the individual’s focus back to Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior. Some churches shun people for being gay, while others make it known gay people are not welcome, but acting on homosexual desires, in God’s eyes, is no different than gossipers who gossip or thieves who continue to steal. The right does not belong to humans to say homosexuals are not welcome in the house of God and it surely does not instruct followers of Christ to treat homosexuals with disdain and demoralizing insults. When God says something is wrong, and despite His warning and commandment, the individual still chooses to sin, the body of Christ should come alongside and stake themselves next to the lost sheep until Jesus Christ, through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit produces such a radical encounter, that the person repents and turns away from a life of sin. This “God, and by default the church versus homosexuals” rhetoric must stop. We all are children of the Most High God, and Jesus Christ gave His life for everyone, regardless of what sin someone struggles with.

Another major issue that must be addressed is whether homosexuals should be ordained or serve in a ministerial capacity. Millard Erickson asserts, “While a homosexual orientation combine with a celibate lifestyle, does not seem to be sinful, the consistent biblical proscriptions of homosexual practice (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:27-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10) seem to disqualify practicing homosexuals from holding such positions” (Erickson 2013, 1007-1008). Reading about Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, and home of the largest “gay Christian” denomination was bizarre. This lifestyle choice was very reminiscent of the book of Judges, where each person did what was right in his or her own eyes. Perry’s early homosexual childhood encounter was surely traumatizing, but as Brown proposes, “Could you imagine a heterosexual Christian leader describing his first youthful sexual encounter with a little girl as being an ‘innocent time of religious and sexual discovery’” (Brown 2014, 215). While the Bible does say, “It is not good that the man should be alone,” this does not justify homosexual relationships. God promises to neither leave nor forsake His children, just as He promises in Him one will find escape from the corruption of the world and everything needed to live a life of godliness. Brown rightly concludes, “[God] will either satisfy you with His presence, He will provide you with godly friends and companions, or He will help to bring change in your attractions, so you can marry a fitting, lifelong companion” (Brown 2014, 219). The message of the gospel must not be watered down, but the church needs to embrace people despite the presence of sin. If church were only for those without sin in their life, the chairs or pews would be empty, so to cast judgment on homosexuals, and not others living in sin is hypocritical and ungodly. So, can you be gay and be a Christian? In this writer’s opinion, yes, but only by recognizing those attractions being contrary to God’s design and resisting them as sinful” (Brown 2014, 213). Being a disciple of Christ begins with dying to oneself daily and denying sinful desires because being gay and a Christian does not work when those sinful attractions are acted upon. God loves us just the way we are, but He loves us too much to leave this way, regardless of what area of sin attempts to sever the relationship between God and His children. If we, the church, the body of Christ are not a part of the solution, then we are a part of the problem and this is not a place anyone wants to find themselves when he or she must give an account to God during final judgment. Love, acceptance, and forgiveness must be the motivation to reach those in need of God’s grace, mercy, and truth.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brown, Michael L. Can You Be Gay and Christian? Responding With LOVE & TRUTH to Questions About HOMOSEXUALITY. Lake Mary, FL: FrontLine Publishing, 2014.

Elwell, Walter A. ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2001.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2013.

Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ – Book Critique

Believer's Baptism

Shawn D. Wright, professor of theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and member of the Evangelical Theological Society[1] teams up with Thomas R. Schreiner, Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary[2] to co-edit a compilation of scholarly and theological essays on the history and doctrine of baptism. Using exegesis of Scripture, a detailed history of the theology and practices of early church, and with the ultimate goal of restoring baptism to its rightful place as a central liturgical act of Christian worship, the authors set out to advocate credobaptism (the doctrine that Christian baptism should be reserved solely for believers in the Lord,) over the beliefs and practices of Reformed paedobaptists (those who practice infant baptism).[3] This critique will largely agree with the author’s conclusions that credobaptism is biblically supported and will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses behind the authors’ claims, which assert baptism must be reserved strictly for believers and how baptism remains relevant to the church today.

SUMMARY

The main premise of Believer’s Baptism is to clearly articulate the history and practice of baptism and to affirm: who should be baptized, when he or she should be baptized, and what the act of baptism actually accomplishes in the life of the believer. Schreiner and Wright set out, with the aid of an additional eight highly esteemed Baptist theologians and scholars to demonstrate baptism should only be reserved for those who have believed, repented, and maintained his or her faith. Each of the author’s conclusions and findings presented are rooted in rich biblical truth, and offer practical application for the believer today, while also presenting potential reasons for how and why paedobaptists came to believe infant baptism should be linked to the covenant relationship, specifically found in the Old Testament, and early church practices.

Schreiner and Wright further seek to show how paedobaptists associate the covenant of grace with the Abrahamic Covenant, in an attempt to reduce the Abrahamic Covenant to its most basic spiritual components. While this argument presents no middle ground, Schreiner and Wright successfully demonstrate baptism must be reserved for believers who have received Christ as his or her personal Savior, have turned away from a life of sin, and seek to make a public profession of faith, thus fulfilling the command found in Scripture. While the doctrine of baptism has increasingly become a topic of debate in denominational circles, the secondary objective of Schreiner and Wright is to provide pastors and leaders with a practical resource when faced with many of the questions surrounding the practice of baptism e.g., Does baptism save the believer? Does baptism forgive one’s sins? Does baptism have an age requirement? And how should one respond when challenged with any of the above questions?

A tertiary goal of Schreiner and Wright is to cultivate a greater sense of unity within the body of Christ. To many, how, when, or why someone should be baptized may seem like a minor issue but as Timothy George demonstrates, “Baptism is important precisely because it is tied to the gospel, and to the saving work that Christ accomplished in His death and resurrection.”[4] Within Christianity, there are doctrinal hills worth dying on and the practice of baptism is one of those hills, as Paul Jewett demonstrates, “To baptize infants apart from faith threatens the evangelical foundations of evangelicalism.”[5] Believer’s Baptism combines biblical exegesis, history and theology, and practical application to provide a powerful argument for credobaptism.

CRITICAL INTERACTION

Beginning with the Gospel accounts, Andreas Köstenberger provides concise historical context into the practice of credobaptism. While there are not a great deal of passages that deal with baptism, the ones which do clearly establish the rite of baptism: “Is designed for believers who have repented of their sin and have put their faith in God and in His Christ, is an essential part of Christian discipleship, most likely consisted of immersion in water, and presupposes spiritual regeneration as a prevenient and primary work of God in and through the Holy Spirit.”[6] The Gospels each clearly demonstrate the believer’s baptism is the intended teaching and A.T. Robertson further demonstrates, “the Gospels provide no evidence or support for the baptism of infants, the notion of baptismal regeneration, nor does the principle of believer’s baptism enunciated in the Gospels allow for such a practice.”[7]

Robert H. Stein then analyzes Luke and Acts, illustrating God’s intimate role in the process and counters claims of baptismal regeneration and belief that the act of baptism forgave sins. Despite household conversions and baptisms taking place, Stein answers the question, exactly who can be baptized, by asserting “Those baptized… have heard the gospel preached, as responding with repentance and/or faith, and proceeding on their own to the place of baptism.”[8] Robertson further illustrates, “Baptism, as taught in the New Testament, is the picture of death and burial to sin and resurrection to new life, a picture of what has already taken place in the heart, not the means by which spiritual change is wrought. It is a privilege and duty, not a necessity. It is a picture that is lost when something else is substituted in its place.”[9] Stein adequately advances the position for credobaptism, but in a climate where many congregations are seeking to go back to an early church model, some practical and modern-day application of the credobaptism principles would have been a nice companion to this chapter.

Next, Schreiner examines the epistles and reveals how, “Baptism relates to washing, to sealing, to redemptive history, and [answers] whether baptism should be confined to believers.”[10] Schreiner’s main emphasis is on the act of baptism only being for those who have confessed his or her sins and trusted in Christ for salvation. Paul, in Ephesians 4:5 asserts there is one baptism, which unifies all believers. Paul’s emphasis here is to bring balance to the rite of baptism, with his primary focus being on unity within the body of believers, while also making it known baptism is not restricted from any ethnic or social group. Galatians 3:27 is a prime example, illustrating, “Believers who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” This verse denotes the close connection between one’s faith and the practice of baptism. Ronald Fung further demonstrates, “Baptism is here regarded as the rite of initiation into Christ, that is, into union with Christ, or, what amounts to the same thing, of incorporation into Christ as the Head of the new humanity.”[11] These passages counter the singular claim of paedobaptists regarding God’s grace and illuminates how God’s grace must be combined with the human response.

Despite there being no record or command of infant baptism in the canon of Scripture, Stephen J. Wellum explains, “At the heart of the doctrine of infant baptism is the argument it is an implication drawn from the comprehensive theological category of the covenant of grace.”[12] To address this claim, Wellum looks at the relationship between the covenants and explains, “[Only] if the interpretation of the covenant of grace, along with its understanding of the continuity between Israel and the church can be maintained do we have a strong case for infant baptism.”[13] Despite paedobaptists’ argument for infant baptism, Wellum verifies the key problem is rooted in a, “Failure to understand correctly the proper relationship between the biblical covenants, [since] a truly covenantal approach to Scripture… demands an affirmation of believer’s baptism.”[14] Another important contribution is Wellum’s response to paedobaptist assertion that, “Circumcision and baptism carry essentially the same spiritual meaning and that in the new covenant era baptism is the replacement of circumcision as a covenant sign.”[15] Ultimately, baptism and circumcision carry two very different meanings and Paul could not be clearer that circumcision was no longer a covenant sign. Wellum rightly concludes, “[Baptism] signifies a believer’s union with Christ, by grace through faith, and all the benefits that result from that union.”[16] Wellum’s contribution for the defense of credobaptism was a key component.

Steven A. McKinion looks to the early church fathers and patristic writings to conclude, “Baptism had less to do with the age of the baptized person than with the role of repentance, profession of faith, and entrance into the full life of the church.”[17] The main issues facing those in the third and fourth century were the high infant mortality rate and debate over whether infants needed forgiveness of sins. Despite these issues, McKinion demonstrates why early church fathers like Tertullian rejected the defense of infant baptism on two counts: “First, infants are innocent, guiltless, and not in need of forgiveness; second, faith alone is sufficient for salvation. [Thus,] baptism should follow faith, and since young children do not need forgiveness and cannot possess faith, baptism is unnecessary.” Despite few supporters, the early centuries of the church are often cited in defense of paedobaptist belief, predominantly since it was the practice of some churches, but it was never universally practiced and those in favor of paedobaptism seemed to have a more refined view on the doctrine of original sin.

With the rise of Anabaptists, Jonathan Rainbow contrasts Ulrich Zwingli and Balthasar Hubmaier’s views explaining, “For Zwingli, baptism was a mere sign, [while] for Hubmaier it was more than a sign. [Ultimately,] Baptists consider, on the basis of an open and personal confession, that the person coming to the water believes in Jesus Christ, and that there is an inner reality to which baptism corresponds… This was the heart of Reformation Anabaptists…”[18] Rainbow offers profound insight between Zwingli and Hubmaier’s viewpoints by illustrating, “There is a fear of allowing water baptism to come too close to the work of grace in the sinner’s heart; there are raised eyebrows and puzzled looks at the New Testament texts that closely associate baptism with salvation; and many would rather not baptize at all than leave room for the impression that baptism is an integral part of the conversion experience.”[19] This assertion is exactly what paedobaptists have done in their departure from biblical doctrine. Making too much or too little of baptism are both dangerous roads to travel, so Rainbow is correct in his word of caution. With this word of warning, Timothy George highlights, “It is important to [remember] and recognize that in the Reformation tradition of believers, baptism was forged in the context of persecution and martyrdom.”[20] Looking back in time at the formation of doctrine and tradition, it can be easy to forget exactly what was going on at that time to warrant the beliefs and practices, which resulted. Rainbow does a great job advancing the credobaptism position in this section.

Shawn D. Wright presents the logic of Reformed paedobaptists in an attempt to examine and understand their logic. Calvin, Murray, and Marcel all hold to the covenant of grace, but as Wright demonstrates, “Their biblical exposition is oriented toward the Old Testament with a lack of attention to the New Testament’s teaching. [Further,] by using the Westminster Confession of Faith as evidence for infant baptism… it is neither ‘good’ nor a ‘necessary’ deduction.”[21] Each of these Reformed paedobaptists seemed to believe God regenerates the infant at baptism, but without faith, this process cannot begin. Another doctrinal error in this vein of theology occurs by paralleling circumcision with baptism, which Wellum has previously covered in depth.

Duane A. Garrett then looks at the Israelite traditions and shows Meredith Kline’s “Error is in taking Old Testament events that are retrospectively and metaphorically called ‘baptism’ and enlisting them as guides to the ritual mode of actual baptism. [Ultimately,] by interpreting baptism under the rubric of a suzerainty treaty means that a Christian must require all persons under his authority to be baptized, [which] validates the Constantinian vision of Christianity.”[22] In Cornelis Bennema’s critique of Believer’s Baptism, he cites, “Kline’s defense of paedobaptism being closely connected with the idiosyncratic theology of the covenant and whenever historic divergences exist within the church, it is best to engage the arguments that have historically been most influential and decisive; this can hardly be said to hold true for Kline’s formulations.”[23]

Baptism was a source of division amongst early Christians, as Ardel B. Caneday explains, by using Paul’s letters to the churches at Corinth and Galatia to show, “All who have put on Christ with all who are baptized into Christ, as though the two are fused into one. To be baptized into Christ by submission to the symbolic foot washing called for by the gospel is to be clothed with Christ Jesus.”[24] Paul seems to be equating those who are baptized into Christ Jesus share in part with the redeeming effects of His death. Caneday further demonstrates, “While Paul warns the Galatians that submission to the ritual act of circumcision would be to sever oneself with Christ (5:2-6), he identifies Christian baptism as the ritual act that marks one as clothed with Christ.”[25] This is a significant contribution to the difference between the ritual acts.

In the context of the local church, Mark E. Dever illustrates, “Only forty percent of baptisms in cooperating churches are ‘first time’ baptisms of converts, [attributing this trend to:] confusion, ignorance, prejudice, and a misplaced and distorting cultural conservatism that besets most churches today in their practice of baptism.”[26] Dever successfully brings together the culmination of previous chapters to answer questions like: Who should baptize? How is baptism to be done? Who is to be baptized? When are baptisms to be done? And should unbaptized individuals be excluded from: the Lord’s Supper, church membership, and should baptisms from other churches be accepted. Bennema adds, “Though it may well be that many Reformed churches have not lived up to their covenant theology, it is hardly the case that this theology diminishes the obligations of faith and repentance in respect to the children of believers. On this point, the claims of several authors in this volume seem to be overstated.”[27] Overall, the predominant Baptist background of the authors limits the scope of this work. Had other denominations of faith been included, the book would become more relevant to a larger number of people, but Schreiner and Wright are quite clear their goal was simply to promote credobaptism over paedobaptism, and this goal was adequately accomplished.

CONCLUSION

Schreiner and Wright have also clearly established baptism requires the public profession of faith, which acknowledges one’s salvation and honors Christ’s atoning sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection. In a time where the world seems to know more what the church is against than what she is for, Believer’s Baptism is a treasure-trove of wisdom and practical application, which has the ability to bridge the gap and produce unity and love within the body of Christ. Baptism plays a pivotal role in the fulfillment of the Great Commission and is vital in advancing the kingdom of God. Ultimately, God wants His followers to live in unity and love, but as Timothy George demonstrates, “Unity in love must also be unity in truth, else it is not genuine unity at all.”[28] Upon this premise, Schreiner and Wright are to be commended for producing a work that brings clarity to the practice of credobaptism over paedobaptism and this work would be well suited for anyone interested in understanding not only the history of baptism but also how this practice should be applied to the church today.

 Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. Edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, Series Edited by E. Ray Clendenen, B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2006, 364 pp. $29.99 (Hardcover).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bennema, Cornelis P. A Review of Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ., by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, ed. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52, no. 3 (September 2009): 655-61, (accessed June 12, 2017).

Elwell, Walter A. ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2001.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2013.

Fung, Ronald Y. K. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

George, Timothy. “The Reformed doctrine of believers’ baptism.” Interpretation 47, no. 3 (July 1993): 242+. Academic OneFile (accessed June 12, 2017).

Jewett, Paul K. Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978.

Robertson, A. T. “Baptism, Baptist View,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Edited by James Orr (Chicago: IL, Howard-Severance Co., 1915), 1:416-417.

Schreiner, Thomas R. and Shawn D. Wright, ed. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. Series Edited by E. Ray Clendenen. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2006.

[1] The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Website, http://www.sbts.edu/academics/faculty/shawn-d-wright/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[2] The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Website, http://www.sbts.edu/academics/faculty/thomas-r-schreiner/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, ed. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Series ed. by E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2006), 6.

[4] Timothy George, Believer’s Baptism, 1.

[5] Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 162.

[6] Andreas Köstenberger, Believer’s Baptism, 32-33.

[7] A. T. Robertson, “Baptism, Baptist View,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Chicago: IL, Howard-Severance Co., 1915), 1:416-417.

[8] Robert H. Stein, Believer’s Baptism, 65.

[9] Robertson, “Baptism, Baptist View,” 417.

[10] Thomas R. Schreiner, Believer’s Baptism, 68.

[11] Ronald Y. K. Fung, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 172.

[12] Stephen J. Wellum, Believer’s Baptism, 68.

[13] Ibid., 124.

[14] Ibid., 160.

[15] Ibid., 153.

[16] Ibid., 159.

[17] Steven A. McKinion, Believer’s Baptism, 186-187.

[18] Jonathan H. Rainbow, Believer’s Baptism, 206.

[19] Ibid., 205.

[20] Timothy George, “The Reformed doctrine of believers’ baptism,” Interpretation 47, no. 3 (July 1993): 242. Academic OneFile (accessed June 12, 2017).

[21] Shawn D. Wright, Believer’s Baptism, 254.

[22] Duane A. Garrett, Believer’s Baptism, 281.

[23] Cornelis P. Bennema, Review of Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, ed. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52, no. 3 (September 2009): 660, (accessed June 12, 2017).

[24] Ardel B. Caneday, Believer’s Baptism, 285.

[25] Ibid., 286.

[26] Mark E. Dever, Believer’s Baptism, 329.

[27] Bennema, “Believer’s Baptism,” 661.

[28] Timothy George, Believer’s Baptism, XIX.

Case Study for Growing Churches in America

churchgrowth

Measuring growth and success in churches is not something new, but given the major shift currently taking place in Christianity’s center, moving from America to nations like: Africa, South America, and parts of Asia, there has been a special emphasis on what is working and what is not working in churches in the United States. Additionally, as Joe Carter illustrates, “Mainliners may try to comfort themselves by claiming that every denomination is in decline, but it is simply not true. While conservative churches are not growing as quickly as they once were, mainline churches are on a path toward extinction. The mainline churches are finding that as they move further away from biblical Christianity, the closer they get to their inevitable demise.”[1] Growth and success can be misleading words, so a proper definition must be established for both. In many cases, growth is assigned to the numerical attendance, while success points more towards community impact, spiritual formation/development, and reproducing disciples. For the purposes of this case study, three of the top five churches, when looking at numerical growth will be evaluated, compared, and contrasted.[2] By looking at the vision and mission of each church, core doctrines, and values, special areas of ministry will be highlighted and gauged to see if one’s numerical growth is representative of their success.

EVALUATION OF CHURCHES

Gateway Fellowship Church, in San Antonio, Texas is the fastest numerical growing church in the United States with an average attendance of 2,332 people, up 187% over the previous year. Virtually doubling in size over the course of a year is not the norm, but Gateway’s senior pastor; John Van Pay attributes this growth to their passion for discipleship. Van Pay says, “We follow a simple process of discipleship, in which friends are encouraged to belong to a small group so they can grow and be sent to start new small groups where disciples are made.”[3] Small group ministry appears to be the primary focus of Gateway Fellowship Church because small groups present the best environment to form friendships, spiritual formation, and reproducing disciples. At the core of Gateway’s vision is love because, “Love finds a need and meets it.” Other areas to serve center around meeting the needs of: single parents, first responders, the poor and elderly, inner-city ministries, and orphan/foster care programs.

Gateway’s website is very well organized, especially for the first time visitor. In addition to stating their doctrine of faith, their core values center on being: “Spiritually Engaged by Walking With Jesus, Having Passionate Purpose, Through the Making of Disciples, and Being Relationally Connected by Resolving Conflict Biblically.”[4] Getting people plugged into ministry, meeting the needs of others, and serving are the driving forces of their marketing efforts and this is likely one of the primary reasons for their tremendous growth.

Red Rocks Church, in Littleton, Colorado ranks fourth in terms of numerical growth. Current attendance is 9,624, up 26% over last year. Founded in 2005, senior pastor Shawn Johnson credits the church’s growth to, “Pursuing God, Making Him Known, Living in Gospel-Centered Community, Serving with Purpose, and Multiplying Disciples.”[5] What makes this church stand out from any other was their choice to use a run-down theme park to plant the church. Pastor Johnson gives God the complete glory for, “Turning this remote and awkward location into a place where people are able to pray, sacrifice, serve, give, and go for the sake of making heaven more crowded.”

Red Rocks Church, “Exists to make Heaven more crowded.”[6] Getting people plugged in and involved in ministry seems to be the primary focus and intent of the website. Their motto is: “One church, with four ways to get involved: Group Life, Sports, Care, and Serving. Pastor Johnson says, ‘Authenticity and transparency are vital for forming relationships and making the Word of God come alive.’”[7] This mindset is not the norm in many churches or pulpits, but this writer believes it is vital for the congregation to know they are not alone in their struggles, trials, and temptations.

Church of the Highlands, in Birmingham, Alabama is the fifth fastest growing church in America, with attendance of 38,346, up 24% over last year, making them the second largest church in America. Pastor Chris Hodges explains, “Our story begins with the dream of planting a church with a simple goal: ‘help people connect with God in a church without letting structure and programs get in the way.’”[8] The main focus of Church of the Highlands is: “Relevant teaching, heartfelt worship, honest friendships, constant prayer, and compassionate care for others. These focuses help Church of the Highlands line up every ministry with the vision and mission, to make sure all efforts maximize people in becoming fully devoted followers of Christ.

Church of the Highland’s website is easy to navigate and despite the large size of the church and multiple campuses, it was not overwhelming finding a growth track or area of ministry/fellowship to get plugged into. Pastor Hodges, “Co-founded ARC (Association of Related Churches) in 2001, which has launched hundreds of churches all across the USA. He also founded a coaching network called GROW, which trains and resources pastors to help them break barriers and reach their growth potential. Hodges is also the founder and President of the Highlands College, a ministry training school that trains and launches students into full-time ministry careers.”[9] These endeavors, coupled with the Highland’s Growth Track, “Guides you to discover your redemptive purpose and live the life God created for you. The Growth Track is made up of four steps that equip you to 1) connect to the church, 2) discover the strengths of your purposeful design, 3) develop your personal leadership, and 4) use your God-given gifts to make a difference in the lives of others.”[10] In addition to the great growth track, Highland’s Small Groups have one, simple purpose: “To bring people together. We believe God created us to live in relationship with others and only then can we live the full life He intends for us. Sharing life through community is part of our design, but meaningful relationships are not always easy to find. That is why small groups exist—to make these life-changing relationships relevant and accessible to you.”[11] Training, equipping, and empowering their members to do the work of the church is one of the primary reasons for this church’s numerical growth and spiritual health and vitality. The one area that really stood out, when looking through the website was not only their commitment to those who called Highlands their home church, but also to pastors and leaders in other churches, who are looking for resources and/or training.[12] In a climate of church versus church or denomination versus denomination, it was truly refreshing to see a body of believers committed to fulfilling the Great Commission, in partnership with other churches.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

It was very enlightening looking at the various similarities and differences among some of the fastest growing churches in America. While numerical growth was the determining factor used in the survey, it seems evident the spiritual formation and discipleship for all churches cited are on point with their numerical growth. In recent years, there has been a much-needed shift from focusing on church membership to getting people plugged into ministry and serving. When this occurs, there is a transformation that happens in the life of the believer as he or she taps into their God-given potential. There also seems to be a common thread in all of these churches using small group ministry as the primary place where discipleship, spiritual formation, and relationships are formed. These three areas are vital when assessing the health of a church and also contribute to the spiritual/numerical growth of the church. Each of the churches cited above also offer Española as a ministry and service offered, which is something many new churches have identified as an important outreach. Ultimately, understanding the demographics in one’s area is critical when determining what areas of ministry will be offered. In addition, each of the churches had a clear vision and mission and every area of ministry offered either supported or helped achieve the specific vision or mission. Much of the ministries listed were laity led, which is another trend in many churches and points back to equipping the body of the church to do the work of the church. The sad reality is twenty percent of most church attenders are doing eighty percent of the work, and without a paradigm shift, many leaders and volunteers will burnout because others either refuse or feel ill-equipped to serve. In each of the growing churches, the growth track helped identify the areas of service people were suited for and serving was made a priority for all churches listed. The problem many churches face is how to get the remaining eighty percent of seat warmers to become actively engaged in serving in some form of ministry. For churches that have been around for over five to ten years, this is an ever-increasing dilemma, but one that must be addressed if growth is going to occur. It is all about getting the right people on the bus and in the right seat, and sometimes that means there are people that need to get off the bus because he or she is limiting progress and growth.

CONCLUSION

As Ed Stetzer demonstrates, “Growing churches are showing a great commitment to multiplying themselves, as we see in the development of multiple campuses, and this commitment to multiplication often creates a need for sacrifice. Sacrifice is inherent to the experience of every growing believer—and every growing church.”[13] Sacrifice is also needed for church growth and kingdom growth and churches that understand this principle are poised for God to do great things in and through their congregation. It is sad to say many congregations have the mindset that everything should be about them, while the exact opposite is true. Every service and every ministry must be geared towards the first time visitor and to the people who are not yet serving. The missing catalyst to growth in many churches is helping people discover and refine their areas of spiritual gifting and then plugging them into ministry where he or she can reach their God-given potential in advancing the kingdom of God. This assignment is something every church leader should research and then determine if the vision and mission of their church lines up with the various forms of ministry and fellowship being offered. For some, it will be a wake-up call, while for others, it will help refine and correctly target where God is leading them.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Carter, Joe. “Are All Christian Denominations in Decline?” March 17, 2015. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-are-all-christian-denominations-in-decline (accessed June 8, 2015).

Christianity Today Website. “Trends Among Growing Churches.” September 24, 2013 http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/september/sacrifice-is-trending.html (accessed June 8, 2017).

Church of the Highlands Website. https://www.churchofthehighlands.com (accessed June 8, 2017).

Gateway Fellowship Church Website. https://mygateway.tv/ (accessed June 7, 2017).

Outreach Magazine Website. http://www.outreachmagazine.com/outreach-100-fastest-growing-churches-2016.html (accessed June 7, 2017).

Red Rocks Church Website. http://www.redrockschurch.com/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[1] Joe Carter, “Are All Christian Denominations in Decline?” March 17, 2015. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-are-all-christian-denominations-in-decline (accessed June 8, 2015).

[2] Outreach Magazine Website, http://www.outreachmagazine.com/outreach-100-fastest-growing-churches-2016.html (accessed June 7, 2017).

[3] Outreach Magazine Website, http://www.outreachmagazine.com/view-2016-top-100-church.html?id=101 (accessed June 8, 2017).

[4] Gateway Fellowship Church Website, https://mygateway.tv/ (accessed June 7, 2017).

[5] Outreach Magazine Website, http://www.outreachmagazine.com/view-2016-top-100-church.html?id=40 (accessed June 8, 2017).

[6] Red Rocks Church Website, http://www.redrockschurch.com/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[7] Red Rocks Church Website, http://www.redrockschurch.com/learn-more/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[8] Outreach Magazine Website, http://www.outreachmagazine.com/view-2016-top-100-church.html?id=2 (accessed June 8, 2017).

[9] Church of the Highlands Website, https://www.churchofthehighlands.com/about/pastor (accessed June 8, 2017).

[10] Church of the Highlands Website, https://www.churchofthehighlands.com/connect/growth-track (accessed June 8, 2017).

[11] Church of the Highlands Website, https://www.churchofthehighlands.com/groups (accessed June 8, 2017).

[12] Church of the Highlands Website, https://growleader.com/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[13] Christianity Today Website, “Trends Among Growing Churches,” September 24, 2013 http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/september/sacrifice-is-trending.html (accessed June 8, 2017).

Role of Christ and Spirit in Salvation and Security of Believer

salvation_is_found

The distinctive work of the Son of God and the Spirit of God in the procurement of salvation begins with an understanding of the oneness and unity, achieved between Christ and the new believer. Millard Erickson demonstrates, “All that the believer has spiritually is based on Christ’s being within. Our hope of glory is Christ in us [and] our spiritual vitality is drawn from His indwelling presence” (Erickson 2013, 878). Christ Himself came into the world and took on human nature (John 1:1, 1:14). He then paid the ultimate sacrificial price for all of humanity, with His life, and through His vicarious atoning death on the cross. Christ’s sinless life, His suffering, and His death satisfied the demands of God’s divine justice (1 Peter 3:18) and restored the severed relationship between God and His children (Romans 5:10). Humanity’s problem was, “Our sinful acts have alienated us from your God; and our sins have caused Him to reject us and not listen to our prayers” (Isaiah 59:2). However, “God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Christ’s death ultimately provided salvation and as Erickson shows, “Christ: (1) gave us a perfect example of the type of dedication God desires of us, (2) demonstrated the great extent of God’s love, (3) underscored the seriousness of sin and the severity of God’s righteousness, (4) triumphed over the forces of sin and death, liberating us from their power, and (5) rendered satisfaction to the Father for our sins” (Erickson 2013, 729). The satisfaction theory or atonement as compensation to the Father best encapsulates the role Christ played in procuring humanity’s salvation.

At the moment of salvation, there is a union the new believer attains with Christ, one made up of several parts, and one in which can never fully be comprehended, due to the union being a profound mystery (Ephesians 5:32). Erickson defines the act of salvation as, “The application of the work of Christ to the lives of humans” (Erickson 2013, 826). The first part of this union is of a judicial nature and recognizes believers as being righteous because Christ dwells within. Erickson illustrates, “God does not say, ‘Jesus is righteous but the human is unrighteous.’ [Instead,] He sees the two as one and says in effect, ‘They are righteous’” (Erickson 2013, 881). As the parable of the vine and branches demonstrates, one’s union with Christ is also vital (John 15:4). Leon Morris explains, “The two ‘abidings’ cannot be separated, and ‘abiding’ is the necessary prerequisite of fruitfulness. No branch bears fruit in isolation. Every fruitful branch has vital connection with the vine. So to abide in Christ is the necessary prerequisite of fruitfulness for the Christian” (Morris 1995, 595). In this union, the life of Christ flows into the life of the believer providing both spiritual strength and renewing the believer’s inner nature. The final union is spiritual in nature and in large brought on by the Spirit of God, as Erickson reveals, “Not only is our union with Christ brought about by the Holy Spirit; it is a union of spirits” (Erickson 2013, 881). The union with Christ, as a result of salvation, seems to have the most impact with regards to justification or how God views sinners as now being righteous in His sight. While justification is a single act, occurring at salvation, sanctification and regeneration are an ongoing exercise of faith, with the ultimate goal of becoming more like Christ in one’s thoughts and actions.

The Spirit of God or Holy Spirit plays a major role with conviction of sin, which leads to repentance (John 16:8-11). This divine call or prompting that leads to salvation is an act of God, and is called efficacious grace since it is an effective operation of grace. Charles Hodge explains:

There are three classes into which all events of which we have any knowledge may be arranged. First, those, which are produced by the ordinary operations of second causes as, guided and controlled by the providential agency of God. Secondly, those events in the external world, which are produced by the simple volition, or immediate agency of God, without the cooperation of, second causes. To this class all miracles, properly so called, belong. Thirdly, those effects produced on the mind, heart, and soul, by the volition, or immediate agency of the omnipotence of God. To this class belong, inward revelation, inspiration, miraculous powers, as the gift of tongues, gift of healing, and regeneration” (Hodge 2011, 683).

To this third class belongs the work of efficacious grace, so while the Spirit of God plays a major part in pre-conversion, the Spirit is also the driving force behind regeneration. Erickson describes this process as, “God’s transformation of individual believers, His giving a new spiritual vitality, and direction to their lives when they accept Christ” (Erickson 2013, 872). The Spirit of God facilitates God’s renewing work in the life of the believer and this is a never-ending process. After conversion, the Spirit of God continually works to sanctify the believer (Galatians 5) and Erickson describes this process as, “The Holy Spirit’s applying to the life of the believer the work done by Jesus Christ” (Erickson 2013, 897).

When looking at the assurance, evidence, and security of believers, there are several key components to each of these terms. The assurance of salvation refers to the question, “How do I know I am saved/rescued from my sin.” This is rooted in God’s ability to see the heart of His children and there is no middle ground; He is either Lord of one’s life or He is not. 1 John 5:11 says, “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” This is a propositional truth, meaning we are saved by grace, through faith, based upon on our own beliefs/faith. I. H. Marshall explains, “The question whether we accept God’s testimony or not is not a merely academic one. On our answer too it changes the question whether or not we participate in eternal life. For what God’s testimony means is that he has given us eternal life; but this life is given only in His Son” (Howard 1978, 241). Assurance also is reflected in one’s behavior, meaning, “Do we look like and act like out Father?” One’s faith must be rooted in the blessed assurance of salvation and no amount of good works will ever satisfy.

When referring to evidences of salvation, the key difference between this and the assurance is now the focus is placed on whether someone else is saved. The book of James, specifically 2:17 establishes faith must be expressed and lived, by walking the talk. Frank Gaebelein explains, “James states the proposition he intends to demonstrate in the following verses: ‘Faith… not accompanied by action is dead. Action is the proper fruit of living faith. Because life is dynamic and productive, faith that lives will surely produce the fruit of good deeds. Therefore, if no deeds are forthcoming, it is proof that the professed faith is dead” (Gaebelein 1981, 183). The distinction James is making is not to deny faith; rather, he is indicating it is not the right kind of living faith, which does not possess the power to save. Only by inspecting the fruit in other peoples’ lives can the evidence of salvation be determined, but one must be careful not to solely base the assurance of salvation on what he or she does, but instead on what Christ Jesus has already done in their lives.

The security of the believer answers the question, “How secure is one in his or her salvation?” This is a highly debated subject matter amongst theologians and has become dogma and/or doctrine for many denominations of faith. In this writer’s opinion, an adopted child of God cannot be disowned. Paul, in chapter 5 of his letter to the Romans says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Douglas Moo explains, “By believing in Jesus Christ, the divine agent in God’s climactic act of deliverance, Paul and the Christians of all ages and places, have been declared innocent of all charges justly brought against those who sin and fall short of God’s glory. Paul presents this declaration of justification as a past act, which brings to the believer a new and permanent status and acquits the sinner” (Moo 1996, 298). A more reformed theology views justification as God’s declaration of one’s righteousness on the merits of Jesus Christ. Proponents of Arminianism warn falling away from Christ is possible citing passages such as: Hebrews 6, 10, Matthew 24, and 1 Corinthians 10. Ultimately, as Erickson illustrates, “It is possible to fall away and by relying on our own strength we surely will. However, if we are secure in Christ it is because of the work of the Holy Spirit, and the work of God in our lives that keeps us from falling” (Erickson 2013, 919-922). Essentially, this means a true follower of Christ we will not fall away despite the warnings that a believer can fall away. The warnings in Scripture serve in many ways like a fence, to keep believers committed to serving the Lord, without removing their free will to choose.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Elwell, Walter A. ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2001.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2013.

Gaebelein, Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981.

Marshall, I. Howard. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978.

Moo, Douglas J. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Morris, Leon. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995.

Why Do We Say the Long Ending of the Lord’s Prayer?

Great explanation of where the doxology found at the end of the Lord’s prayer comes from:

Tim LeCroy - Vita pastoralis

A leaf from the Codex Alexandrinus, a 5th century copy of the Bible in the Byzantine textual tradition.

This question came to me from a parishioner: “In the Lord’s Prayer, why do we say, ‘For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever,’ if it is not in the Bible?”

I thought it was such a good question, I wanted to share my answer here for everyone’s benefit.

There are basically two issues at play. One is pretty simple and the other is a little more complicated.

First the simple one. Though our modern bibles tend to omit the phrase, “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever,” it has a very long history of being used in worship in the church. For example, the Didache is a Christian text written in the first century AD (around the year 90AD) shortly after the…

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Small Group Leadership

small group leader training

As Rod Dempsey asserts, “Anyone who knows Christ can be a leader, since being a leader is all about influence.”[1] Within the framework of small groups, Dempsey and Dave Earley identify three key leadership positions. The first is the small group leader who, “Understands their job is to serve and empower [the attendees] to ‘be all they can be’ for Christ. The small group leader [also] selects the curriculum, finds a good location to meet, and chooses an apprentice who will be trained to start a new group.”[2] The second leadership position in a small group is the apprentice who is basically a small group leader in training, with the goal of leading his or her own small group within several months. The apprentice is involved with all areas of planning and leadership, to provide the best chance for success when facilitating his or her own small group. The third leadership position in a small group is the host, who are primarily responsible for making attendees feel welcome. Dempsey and Earley illustrate hosts are, “Vital to making the small group experience a good one for everyone who comes to their home and [when these three positions are] involved in the planning, preparation, and execution of small groups, the groups have a much better chance for healthy growth and multiplication.”[3]

In addition to the three leadership positions, Dempsey and Earley cite three components/streams that when employed combine to form one powerful, moving force. The first is the biblical stream, made up of the qualities found in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, which relate to the leader’s values and being blameless. This “Means that he [or she] does not have any major spiritual area that could come into question or attack from the enemy.”[4] The second component is the spiritual stream, which is rooted in an understanding and execution of the first stream. This stream is composed of: prayer, spiritual gifts, fruit of the Spirit, armor of God, and Spirit of God. Dempsey and Earley explain, “Many leaders are one the front lines of the battle, but they may not be aware of the [spiritual] weapons and armor that they have as soldiers of the King. Another challenge is that many leaders may be aware of the tools they have at their disposal, but they may not be skilled in using the spiritual arsenal.”[5] The third component is the practical stream, which as Dempsey and Earley demonstrate allows, “The small group leader to receive a vision from God and communicate it clearly to the people entrusted to his or her care.” This stream is made up of: planning, organizing, communicating, training, mentoring, multiplying and vision casting.

Dempsey and Earley provide eight habits, which will enhance the effectiveness of small group leaders and will, “Create a path that leads to fruitfulness, and multiplication, helping leaders, and those under them, experience greater fulfillment in ministry.”[6] They are as follows:

(1) Dream of leading a healthy, growing, multiplying group. (2) Pray for your group members daily. (3) Invite new people to visit your group weekly. (4) Contact your group members regularly. (5) Prepare for your group meetings. (6) Mentor an apprentice leader. (7) Plan group fellowship activities. (8) Be committed to your own personal growth.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dempsey, Rod and Dave Earley. Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups. Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016.

Dempsey, Rod. “How to Develop Leaders,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 6:35. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196596_1 (accessed June 5, 2017).

 

[1] Rod Dempsey, “How to Develop Leaders,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 6:35. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196596_1 (accessed June 5, 2017).

[2] Rod Dempsey and Dave Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016), 66.

[3] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 67.

[4] Ibid., 69.

[5] Ibid., 70.

[6] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 115.

Definition and Focus of Small Groups

small-group

Small groups are playing a major role in the advancement of the gospel and the spiritual formation of believers. Relationships are key in this process and are extremely difficult to form during weekly services, making small groups the ideal venue for discipleship and ministry efforts. Groups can vary in size, they can be open or closed, and they can meet at the church or off campus. The beauty of small groups is the fluidity of each group’s dynamics. Ideal groups will stay under forty people; otherwise, the group members will not be able to fully express his or her views and each member’s spiritual gifts cannot be utilized when the group gets too large. The overreaching goal of small groups is to function as the body of Christ, essentially becoming His hands and feet in various forms of ministry, by serving both the community and each other.

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A CLIQUE AND A SMALL GROUP

According to Jeffrey Arnold, “A small group is intent on participating with Christ in building His ever-expanding kingdom in the hearts of individuals, in the life of the group, and through believers, into the world.”[1] Conversely, cliques are characterized by the inward, unfocused, and random nature of undisciplined groups, which are scattered throughout the church, with no emphasis on the Bible or biblical living. Arnold then stresses the importance of small groups saying, “If we do not focus on returning to our biblical roots by building intentional community, we will miss the greatest lessons that our faith offers. As we observed with Jesus, disciples are best made in community. Unlike cliques, these communities are intentionally small, outward in focus, and intent on participating with Christ in the building of His kingdom.”[2] Over time, if small groups do not stay focused on kingdom living and godly principles, they will crystallize, making it difficult for anyone new to join the group, which ultimately turns what used to be a small group into a clique. These cliques are like cancerous cells within the church and can wreak havoc if not brought under the umbrella of God’s grace and realigned to fulfill the Great Commission by enacting the Great Commandment.

DEFINITION OF G.R.O.U.P.

Dempsey and Earley use the acrostic G.R.O.U.P. to demonstrate the necessary components small groups must possess. Guided by a leader is the first objective as, “Everything rises and falls on leadership…[And] in order for a group to be successful, the leader of the group needs to view their role as drawing out the new creation God has in mind for every individual in the group.”[3] Regular meeting times are vital to the success of small groups and Dempsey believes, “Meeting weekly is best, so people can gather to serve and share God’s love and gifts with one another and with the world.”[4] Opening God’s Word is mandatory in small groups due to the Bible’s power to change people’s lives from the inside out (Hebrews 4:12; Romans 12:2). Dempsey illustrates, “Studying and applying the Word of God has the power to change us from what we are into what God has in mind for us.”[5] United in service is rooted in the Great Commandment (John 13:34-35). Dempsey explains, “Spiritual gifts are designed to strengthen the body of Christ and to serve the world… [And] every believer has at least one spiritual gift to build up the body of Christ and to minister and serve others.”[6] Prayer for one another is what separates a Christ-centered group from a civic club. As Jerry Falwell so brilliantly put it, “Nothing of eternal significance ever happens apart from prayer,” making this a necessary component to any successful small group ministry. In addition, as Joel Comiskey emphasizes:

To continue to lead a group, multiply that group, and care for the new leaders as a coach, you need Christ’s light and easy yoke. Avoid the common cell leader sins that will damage or even kill your ministry. Make feasible goals; use your team; discover where God’s working, and persist until you see breakthroughs. With this kind of ministry, you will be able to avoid burnout and continue a fruitful cell ministry throughout your life.[7]

FOUR QUESTIONS RELATED TO GROUPS AND CHURCH

Are we introducing Christian disciplines into our small groupings? This is an area many small groups fail to fully utilize because Christian disciplines are more caught than taught and small groups present the best opportunity to learn these disciplines because the members of the group typically spend more time together. If Christian disciplines are not being introduced in small group settings, this is huge missed opportunity to instill key traits in the lives of the other members. Behavior is often emulated, so there must an intentional focus on mentoring and training members of a small group in biblical disciplines.

Are our small groupings building the kingdom or hindering the kingdom? This should be the question one must answer in every form of ministry the church is involved with. If an event or ministry does not line up with the vision and mission of the church, it should not be done. With this mindset, small groups only hinder the kingdom when they crystallize and are merely cliques or when the small groups do not receive full endorsement from the lead pastor. A church of small groups or a church that is small groups will be much more impactful than a church with small groups. Small groups are essentially a mini-version of the larger body of Christ, so the vision and mission of the larger body should be portrayed in the small group DNA as well. However, as Comiskey illustrates, “Small groups and cells have become commodities in today’s church. When someone mentions a cell, what registers is a Bible study, a social gathering, a Sunday school class or anything else (small and a group). And many cell models are even adding to this thinking by liberally sprinkling the word cell over all groups in their church.”[8] This paradigm must change for biblical small groups to have the most impact in advancing the gospel.

Are we training leaders who bring Christian disciplines into small groupings? The sad reality to this question is no. Unfortunately, there are a great many opportunities being missed by not training the younger generations up and mentoring them, so they then too can mentor those who will become leaders one day in the future. Age segregated ministries is detrimental to this process, as many generations have little to no interaction. However, in the small group environment, there is an opportunity to become multi-generational and intentional in training future leaders.

 Is our entire congregation working to develop a disciplined small group mentality? If there is not congregational buy-in, especially as it pertains to developing a disciplined small group mentality, any model will ultimately fail. Churches of small groups and church who are small groups stand a better chance to develop this healthy mentality because it is a major indicator of the church’s health as well. A strong case can be made that churches with an emphasis on small groups stand a much better chance of developing a disciplined small group mentality.

INWARD, OUTWARD, AND UPWARD CONCEPTS AND CONTEXT

Arnold presents one of the best models this writer has come across when looking at the role and dynamics of small groups, especially when one takes into consideration the 80/20 principle he highlights. In many churches, it is probably closer to 85/15, where fifteen percent of the members are doing eighty-five percent of the work, and this generally translates to giving as well. The interesting principle Arnold illustrates is, “As members of the body, we are reliant on one another and on Christ, and mutually responsible to use whatever contribution we make to grow the body into maturity.”[9] If a part of the human body is dead, it is surgically removed, but in the church, the eighty to eighty-five percent of people who sit idly by taking up passive roles are not treated like a dead or diseased appendage would be. This illustration is profound and to ultimately engage those who are not currently serving or active in the church, small groups are the answer, as long as the groups are healthy, by reaching inward, outward, and upward.

When a group reaches inward, the focus is on group care. Arnold demonstrates how, “Groups provide love and care for their members in many ways [and] a loving community offers members a positive body life experience by engaging people in the discovery of their spiritual gifts, developing the lay leadership of the church, and caring for its members.”[10] There is something so empowering about finding one’s gifting and then engaging in ministry fulfilling the role God has called the person to. However, without an environment to first define and second to refine the areas of spiritual gifting(s), many people never reach his or her full potential. In addition to equipping individuals with various giftings, the spiritual maturity of the individual is also a byproduct, which further refines his or her discipline and produces great future leaders. For large churches especially, this inward focus is vital because congregational care, unknown, and unmet needs are a daily occurrence. With a focus on small groups, this is an amazing step in making people truly feel cared for and also provides an area of ministry for other members with the gift(s) of prayer, comfort, love, and compassion.

As groups focus on reaching upward, this cultivates an attitude of nurture and worship. Nurturing allows members to not only get to know one another better, but it lays the foundation and vision for the group to help people get connected to God. Doing life together is an amazing experience and this sense of community is hardwired into humanity. God created His children with this desire to love and be loved by. As small groups develop times of fellowship and walk through trials and circumstances, opportunities to pray and grow their faith are presented. As a result of answered prayers and faith in God’s plans, thanksgiving and praise are the appropriate response. Arnold demonstrates, “When enough people in a congregation start experiencing these worship moments, the entire church begins to change. Spiritual renewal that begins in groups can begin to create revival in the larger body of Christ.”[11] However, neglecting the power of worship is one of the main reasons Dempsey and Earley cite for groups failing to reach their full potential, stressing, “Worship is a moral obligation and a natural response to the absolute worth of God. Worship completes us, is transforming, puts life back into perspective, and intensifies the presence and therefore the activity of God.”[12] Dempsey and Earley could not be more correct on the power of prayer, as they illustrate, “God often manifests His presence in proportion to our expressed recognition of our need and love for Him.”[13]

When groups begin to reach outward through acts of service and evangelism, they reach their full potential. As Arnold explains, “One of the inherent weaknesses in any small grouping of people is the natural tendency to maintain an inward focus (care), ignoring the outward focus (service and evangelism)… [making] the outward focus the most difficult group discipline to cultivate.”[14] Arnold clarifies how evangelism then leads to both spiritual and numerical growth as healthy groups work to attach people deeply to their God and show them how to minister to the world. Ultimately, as Arnold explains, “Biblical evangelism is not a program but a person-to-person process of sharing the good news about forgiveness of sin and new life in Jesus. Because small groups are likely to be the most personal setting offered by a church, they are natural places for this kind of evangelism to take place.”[15]

CONCLUSION

Leading healthy small groups is the key to building the church. Much can be learned from the early church model, as people regularly met together in each other’s homes, sharing meals together, providing the apostles and early church teachers the perfect environment to fulfill the Great Commission, by encouraging one another to live their lives with love for one another, and faith and obedience to God. The process of making disciples largely rests on making relationships a priority and this means putting the needs of others ahead of our own. This outward focus is the ultimate goal every individual and small group should be working towards in their walk with Christ.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Arnold, Jeffrey. The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Comiskey, Joel. Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church: New Testament Insights for the 21st Century Church. Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2016.

_______. “What is a Cell Church?” http://www.joelcomiskeygroup.com/resources/cell_basics/en_leader_deadlysins.html (accessed June 2, 2017).

________. “What is a Cell Group?” http://joelcomiskeygroup.com/resources/cell_basics/en_whatisacellgroup.html (accessed June 2, 2017).

Earley, Dave and Rod Dempsey. Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups. Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016.

Dempsey, Rod. “What is a Group?” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Three Video Presentation, 7:08. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196591_1 (accessed June 2, 2017).

House, Brad. Community: Taking Your Small Group Off Life Support. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2011.

[1] Jeffrey Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016), 31-32.

[4] Rod Dempsey, “What is a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Three Video Presentation, 7:08. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196591_1 (accessed June 2, 2017).

[5] Earley and Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 32.

[6] Ibid., 33.

[7] Joel Comiskey, “What is a Cell Church?” http://www.joelcomiskeygroup.com/resources/cell_basics/en_leader_deadlysins.html (accessed June 2, 2017).

[8] Joel Comiskey, “What is a Cell Group?” http://joelcomiskeygroup.com/resources/cell_basics/en_whatisacellgroup.html (accessed June 2, 2017).

[9] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 31.

[10] Ibid., 34.

[11] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 37.

[12] Earley and Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 45-46.

[13] Ibid., 46.

[14] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 38.

[15] Ibid., 39.