Jesus calls us to follow Him.
The Church Without Walls Report was presented to the General Assembly in 2001. The Report is an attempt to look for fresh ways of encouraging and supporting congregations in the twentieth-first century. The Report invites all of us in the Church to think about where we have come from, where we are and where we ought to be heading.
The Church Without Walls does not seek to impose a single, detailed pattern on every congregation. This point is emphasized in the opening summary of the Report’s contents:
‘We place into the hands of God’s people the opportunity to live out our faith, each according to our own uniqueness, made in the image of God. It is our hope and prayer that the Report, together with the many initiatives within the Church at present, will stimulate the Church to face the future in faith and hope’ (9).
The Report begins with the words of Jesus, ‘Follow Me’ (9). Christ calls us to follow Him. He invites us to be changed by Him. He calls us to move forward with HIm. Moving forward with Christ and being changed by Him will involve listening to His voice. Encouraging us to listen to Christ’s voice, the Report recommends ‘congregations’ to ‘study, reflect on and live by one Gospel for one year in the first instance, and let Jesus shape the life and structure of the congregation’ (18).
The change which is being called for is spiritual change. This is the change Christ is looking for. The Report emphasizes this point: ‘The heart of reform is the reform of the heart. The first proposal for reform is a call to prayer’ (37).
In one of ‘the many initiatives within the Church at present’, the Board of National Mission has produced a thirty-four page booklet entitled ‘Lord, Help us to Pray!’. With this booklet, as with the eighty pages of the Church Without Walls Report, it is possible to feel overwhelmed – ‘This is all too much for us!’. Like the Church Without Walls Report, the booklet on prayer recognizes the uniqueness of each congregation:
‘Go at your own pace. You should not imagine that you are expected to implement all, or even most, of the ideas in this booklet. What you will find contained here are simply guidelines and suggestions’ (‘Lord, Help us to Pray!’, 16).
Beginning with the Kirk Session emphasizes the important part elders play within the life of the congregation. We are to follow Christ. We are to help others to follow Christ.
The booklet, ‘The Eldership: A Training Manual’ lays the foundations for following Christ and helping others to follow Him. By emphasizing ‘The Biblical Basis for the Eldership’ (9), it strikes a similar note to the Church Without Walls Report with its emphasis on listening carefully to what God is saying to us in His Word. Its emphasis on ‘Spiritual Leadership’ (34) is strikingly similar to the Church Without Walls Report’s statement: ‘The heart of reform is the reform of the heart. The first proposal for reform is a call to prayer’ (9).
When we lay the right foundations – ‘We will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word’ (Acts 6:4) – we can move forward with God, confident that He will lead us in His perfect way.
We may be very uncertain about how God will lead us forward. If, however, we are serious about following Jesus Christ, we will know the truth of these words from Susan Brown’s booklet, ‘Church Without Walls: Working it out Together’ – ‘People at prayer learn to live within the purposes of God with patient hope’ (27).
We have thought about important matters. Now, we must pray about them. We have spoken about important matters. Now, we must speak to God about them. This is not only a conversation among ourselves. We must bring God into the conversation. We must listen to what He is saying to us. We must speak to Him, seeking His help.
Let’s join together in a final prayer taken from Susan Brown’s booklet, ‘Church Without Walls: Working it out Together’:
‘Lord Jesus Christ, you call us to follow You into the familiar and into the unknown, to places we find easy, and others we find difficult, to follow You tirelessly to the ends of the earth. We need Your strength, Your courage. We need the help of Your Holy Spirit to fill and inspire us, drawing us closer to You, and to one another in You, for Your sake. Father God, You have always gone before Your people, and You go before us. Grant us the courage to follow closely, to walk where You walk and do what You do. May Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord’ (7,28).
“When the road is rough and steep, fix your eyes upon Jesus.”
It is entirely appropriate that we should lay a strong emphasis on the important role that elders must play in the life of the Church. We must, however, stress that, as elders, we are called to be servants. Our work as elders is concerned with the growth of faith within our congregation and community. The question, ‘What kind of elders does God want us to be – as individuals and as a group who are called to serve God?’ is vitally connected with the further questions, ‘What kind of Church is God calling us to be?’ and ‘How can we serve Him best in our community?’.
We must focus on Jesus by studying, reflecting on and living by one of the Gospels. What will it mean ‘to be shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ’? It means this – ‘the lives of individuals and congregations being shaped by the “mind of Christ”‘. We are encouraged to look beyond our own local situation, to see the broader picture of what God is doing as He calls His Church to live in obedience to the words of Christ – ‘Follow Me’: ‘The shape of the Church in each village, town and city of Scotland will emerge as we take time to “follow Jesus” through a saturation in the Gospel stories’.
A recent ‘Church Without Walls’ video and accompanying booklet deals with five of the Report’s major themes. The first theme – ‘The Spiritual Journey’ – provides an apt description of what we are seeking to do in our Sunday morning studies of the Gospel of Luke. We are travelling with Jesus, going where Jesus goes, observing what He says and does as He travels from place to place, learning from Him as we accompany Him on His journey. It is also an apt description of what we are seeking to do with the distribution of ‘Daily Bible Readings’ . This is the point that is made in the ‘Introduction’ to these notes:
‘Welcome to an exciting three-year journey of discovery. On this journey, you will visit places you know well. You will also travel to places you hardly know at all. They will be places of blessing – places where you will meet with God and be blessed by Him … May God bless you richly as you journey with Him to the many places of blessing found in His Word’.
The Daily Bible Readings refer to ‘a three-year journey’. The Church Without Walls recommendation speaks about spending ‘one year in the first instance.’ The time-scale is not the important thing. It is the journey. It is travelling with the Lord. This is a life-long journey. We will never reach a point where we can say, ‘I’ve reached the end of my journey. I’ve travelled far enough’. In this journey, there will be times of joy and times of disappointment, times when we are aware that the Lord is very near to us and times when, it seems to us, that the Lord is very far away (the truth is that He is near to us even though we have wandered away from Him). On this journey, we must keep our eyes on the Lord. If we take our eyes off Him, we will stumble and fall. When you are tempted to take your eyes off Jesus, remember these words of encouragement:
‘When the road is rough and steep, fix your eyes upon Jesus.
He alone has power to keep. fix your eyes upon Him.
Jesus is a gracious Friend, One on whom you can depend.
He is faithful to the end, fix your eyes upon Him’.
I close by reading words from the part of Luke’s Gospel which we have reached – the parable of the sower (8:1-15). They are words of realism. The seed of God’s Word does not always fall on good soil. They are words of hope. Sometimes, the seed of God’s Word will fall on good soil. Sometimes, the seed of God’s Word will bear much good fruit. They are words of challenge. We must keep on sowing the seed of God’s Word into the hearts and lives of the people of this community. There will be no spiritual harvest if we do not keep on sowing the seed of God’s Word. Without the faithful sowing of His seed, there will be no fruitful gathering in of His harvest. May God help us to be faithful to Him. May God give us the privilege of being fruitful for Him.
Be a friend to others – and lead them to the greatest Friend of all, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Bringing Christ into the centre, keeping Christ at the centre – What will this mean for us? This is the question that concerns us now. We are to serve our local community for the sake of Jesus. We are not here just for those who are regular worshippers. Our worship is to strengthen us for the task of being Chris’s witnesses in our own community. We must never lose sight of God’s purpose for the local congregation: ‘The local congregation is the space where Christian life is nurtured in practical discipleship, earthed in the concrete realities of local life. The congregation shows the way by serving alongside the community and inviting others to become followers of Christ’. Alongside this ‘challenge of becoming a missionary congregation’, the Paper issues a warning: ‘We must take care that we do not ‘develop a fortress mentality of isolation’. If we allow ourselves to slip into this kind of attitude, we will be ‘no longer a servant of the Kingdom of God’. We are to be ‘a worshipping, witnessing community’, ‘a real community of faith’, ‘a Gospel community’. Without the deepening of our faith in Christ as we build upon His Gospel, there can be ‘no communication of the Gospel’ to others. When we worship God, we must always seek His strength so that we can more effectively fulfill our calling to be His witnesses in our local community. At the heart of the ministry of the local congregation, there is to be the ministry of friendship. We are to pray that, through our friendship, others will find the greatest Friend of all, our Lord Jesus Christ. People will come to Christ as they catch a glimpse of Him shining through our friendship. In Christ, there is ‘faith, hope and love’. If these things are real in ‘the Bible of our lives, the only ‘Bible’ many people ever read, we will be Christ’s witnesses with the power of a changed life, a life that is centred on Christ, a life that is seeking His glory and the advancement of His Kingdom. When people begin to see Christ in us, ‘the Word made flesh’ in our lives, they will sit up and take notice. They will be drawn to us and – more importantly – they will be drawn to the Saviour.
The pattern for Christ’s first disciples is still the same for us. First, they became disciples. Later on, they became apostles. They were lifelong learners in the school of discipleship. They became the messengers of Christ, carrying His message of love to many people and places. We become disciples – followers of Christ – and, as part of our discipleship, our lifelong commitment to following Christ, we are called, by His wonderful grace, to the privileged responsibility of leadership.
In his ‘Preface’ to The Eldership: A Training Manual, David Searle emphasizes the important part to be played in the life of the Church by the particular type of leadership which we call ‘the eldership’: ‘this office in the Church is of the utmost importance and could well hold the key to the Church’s future growth and fruitfulness’ (5). The first chapter of this booklet is entitled ‘The Biblical Basis for the Church and the Eldership’. By beginning with the Church – ‘What is the Church?’ – before moving on to the next question – the role of the eldership within the Church – , this opening chapter underlines its answer to its initial question: ‘Which is more important – the eldership or the Church?’. To each of us, the answer is clearly given: ‘The Church is more important than you are’ (9). The role of the eldership is summed up in a single sentence: ‘Their aim is to produce a fellowship of people who love God’ (15). If we are to help others to love God, we ourselves must love Him. ‘Love the Lord your God…’ (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30) – This is our first calling as followers of Christ and elders within His Church. Those who truly love the Lord will do all that they can to encourage others to love Him also.
The second chapter – ‘Qualifications’ – begins by emphasizing that the work of the eldership is ‘high and holy work’ (17). In this work, we must always remember that ‘our competence comes from God’ (2 Corinthians 3:5). We must not try to do God’s work in our own strength. We must look to the Lord to give us the strength that we need to do His work. It is emphasized that the ‘Biblical Qualifications for Elders’ focus our attention on the quality of our godly living rather than our capacity for efficient administration. We are to be enthusiastic – ‘eager to serve’ (1 Peter 5:2). This enthusiasm is much more than just being an outgoing personality who is good at organizing other people. The enthusiasm which is appropriate to the work of the eldership is a spiritual commitment to serving the Lord. This commitment comes from our faith in Christ and His Gospel – ‘hold firmly to the trustworthy message’ (Titus 1:9). We are to serve the Lord because we have committed ourselves to living a life that is pleasing to the Lord – ‘Keep watch over yourselves’ (Acts 20:28). When we are committed to Christ, living a life of faith and obedience, our enthusiasm will come from the Lord and it will bring blessing to the people we are called to serve.
Before we become leaders, we must become disciples.
We look now at two even larger circles – the created world and the worldwide mission of the Church. As we look at the various circles of the Christian life, we must never forget to keep Christ at the centre. The Church Without Walls Report emphasizes this point when it speaks about being ‘shaped by the Gospel’, ‘living out the story of Jesus’ and ‘living out the spirituality of grace’. Christ is to be at the centre of our work as elders in this congregation and parish. As we look out to the created world and the Church’s worldwide mission, we are to look out with the eyes of Christ. The change which Christ makes in those who love Him is a far-reaching change. It begins with our personal response to His love, but it does not end there. Personal experience of Christ’s love leads to a deep appreciation of the world that God has created for us. The hymn, ‘Loved with everlasting love’, makes this point very well. It begins with our personal experience of Christ’s love:
‘Loved with everlasting love, led by grace that love to know …
… In a love, which cannot cease, I am His, and He is mine’.
It goes on to emphasize that knowing Christ’s love changes our view of God’s creation:
‘Heaven above is softer blue, earth around is sweeter green;
something lies in every hue, Christless eyes have never seen:
birds with gladder songs o’erflow. flowers with deeper beauty shine,
since I know as now I know, I am His, and He is mine’ (Mission Praise, 452).
The same principle also applies to our commitment to the support of the Church’s worldwide mission. The more we rejoice in Christ’s love for ourselves, the more we will appreciate His love for all people everywhere: ‘Christ died not for our sins only, but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1 John 2:2). The Church Without Walls Report emphasizes that our concern for the created world and the Church’s worldwide mission is to be an act of friendship. All of our relationships are to be ‘Shaped by Friendship’. The Report develops this theme under the following headings – Friendship with fellow members; Friendship with the next generation; Friendship with the searcher; Friendship with the community; Friendship with fellow leaders; Friendship with other Churches; Friendship with rich and poor; Friendship with the World Church; Friendship with God’s creation. Where are we to learn such friendship? If we are to be ‘Shaped by Friendship’, we need to be ‘Shaped by the Gospel’. When we think of friendship, we think of Jesus:
‘What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! …
Can we find a Friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share?’ (Mission Praise, 746).
This is the Friendship which is to shape all of our life. Getting to know Jesus, the greatest Friend of all, our life is ‘shaped by His Friendship’. This will happen as we learn to pray:
‘Fill Thou our life, O Lord my God, in every part with praise …
… Not for the lip of praise alone, nor even the praising heart,
We ask, but for a life made up of praise in every part’ (Church Hymnary, 457).
If we are to be devoted followers of Christ, we must ask Hin to teach us to pray. Here’s a short quotation which emphasizes the vital importance of prayer: ‘There must be a revival of praying before there can be a reaping of the harvest’ (Sammy Tippet). This call to prayer is an important reminder to us that ‘Without Christ we can do nothing’ (John 15:5). If the Church’s worship and mission is to be blessed by God, we must bring it before Him in prayer.
Looking at the Church Without Walls Report together with the booklet, The Eldership: A Training Manual, we have noted the important part which must be played by the elders if there is to be a revival of God’s work in our congregation and community. The third and fourth chapters of this training manual focus on ‘Biblical Teaching on Ordination’ and ‘Spiritual Leadership’. The first of these chapters makes reference to the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has produced a study manual on the Westminster Confession of Faith – Firm Foundations: A Faith for Today’s Church. We are to be today’s Church without losing contact with the firm foundations upon which our faith is built.
Being today’s Church will not mean change for change’s sake. It will mean being changed by the God who has given us firm foundations for our faith. It will mean rediscovering the biblical and spiritual priorities which have too often been forgotten. We must build on God’s Word. We must learn to walk with God’s Spirit. This is the kind of change we must seek. We must not search for superficial novelty when God is looking for real change, a change in our attitude towards Him. The Church Without Walls Report invites us to think about what it will mean for us to follow Christ in today’s world. The Report invites us to do this through a careful and attentive study of one of the Gospels. In our study of Luke’s Gospel, we have noted that Jesus ‘calls sinners to repentance’ (5:32). If we are to be changed by Jesus, we must learn to see ourselves as ‘sinners’ who have fallen short of God’s perfect plan for us. We must pray for real change. We must ask God to give us a spirit of repentance. We must pray that God will give us the strength to turn to Him with our whole heart.
Seeking the right kind of change will mean recognizing where truly spiritual change comes from. It comes from God. It comes from listening to God’s Word. It comes when we are obedient to the voice of God’s Spirit. The fourth chapter of Eldership: A Training Manual emphasizes the importance of ‘Spiritual Leadership’. It begins by pointing out that ‘the Church is a spiritual fellowship’. It is different from any other organization. When we begin our meetings with the reading of God’s Word and prayer, we are not simply going through the motions of religious ritual. We are recognizing our need of God’s help. We need to hear what God is saying to us through His Word. We need to receive God’s strength as we call upon Him in prayer. We are acknowledging that our meeting is much more than a conversation among ourselves.We are bringing God into the conversation. We are letting Him be the most important Voice in the conversation. Before we listen to any other voice, we are listening to the Voice of God. Before we speak to one another, we are speaking to God. If there is to be a real input from God into our meetings, into our congregation and community, our worship and mission, our reading from God’s Word and our speaking to Him in prayer must lie at the very heart of our life. We are to follow Jesus. In our study of Luke’s Gospel, we have seen that Jesus’ whole life was steeped in God’s Word and prayer. We do not live by bread alone but by every Word of God (4:4; Matthew 4:4). Like Jesus, we are to find ‘a solitary place’ (4:42) – a place where we can be alone with God.
Our meetings have begun with a much more definite concentration on what God is saying to us concerning His Church and our place within it as elders. This is beginning to be a very special time. It shapes our thinking, giving us a real concentration on our true purpose as God’s people and God’s servants. I hope that these times will be times when the love of God reaches us and the glory of God becomes our great aim. When this happens, we will receive strength from the Lord. We will be equipped by Him for the privileged responsibility of providing true spiritual leadership within our congregation and community.
Our desire to see people of all ages brought into the fellowship of God’s people will grow as we ourselves are learning to love the Lord more. Our commitment to this work of bringing people into the fellowship of God’s people will increase as our own commitment to serving the Lord grows in strength. In Jeremiah 24:7, we read, ‘I will give them a heart to know Me that I am the Lord’. Let us pray that this promise of God will be fulfilled in our own lives. Let us pray that it will be fulfilled in the lives of more and more of the people of our community.
Let us look to Christ for a better and brighter future.
We become what God wants us to be as we build on the Gospel.
Let us serve the Lord with gladness.
Christ at the Centre