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Thursday, June 7, 2012

What makes a church unique? (part 2: the glory of uniqueness)

In my last post, I tried to establish that, given the consumer culture in which all churches find themselves and the accompanying temptation to 'play that game,' many if not most churches promote not simply Jesus making them unique, but Jesus + something else -- after all, every church gets to claim Jesus (so he doesn't 'set them apart'). I even took time to throw under the bus myself and my favorite church in the world - Sunrise Community Church of Grand Cayman. I want to exhort us to be insistent to trust our God enough to "billboard" to others what He says is unique about the gathering of His people (yes, ladies and gentlemen, you just witnessed grammar history as 'billboard' was used as a verb). 

What does God's Word say ought to make a church unique? I've often communicated to others that God's grace makes our church unique. But even God's grace, which is often expressed through a church's ethos in a welcoming, come-as-you-are atmosphere, is a means to God himself. Grace is the gift that allows us to know God, to be reconciled to God when we sin, and is described as the strength to serve God. The pattern being that the beginning and end of grace, the beginning and end of the gospel is God Himself. So also it is with the church - the people part is great. But the people part is especially great because it is in the entire people we more clearly see God - each person made in God's image with various gifts that reflect the entire Person of our Heavenly Father.  Thus, what makes a church unique is God's Himself, God's presence, which is ultimately expressed through Jesus Christ.

5 images that appear across the storyline of the Bible that reflect God's purpose to give His presence to a people He has set apart as His own 
(1) A Garden (Genesis 2: 4-17). The Hebrew word for "Garden" infers "to protect, to enclose." Eden means "delight" or "pleasure." It was a place of relational harmony - various, plants, animals, and, of course, a couple of humans co-existed without strife. The protection existed for relationship with God and the pleasure existed to reflect the gracious character of God. In other words, God designed this to be a place where man & woman might freely enjoy fellowship with God. Genesis 3:8 infers this was a place of direct fellowship with God: "And [Adam & Eve] heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day." God is pictured here with the familiarity of a neighbor, going on His daily walk. Leviticus 26:12 pictures fellowship with God as a walk: "And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people." Not coincidentally the Book of Ephesians uses the Greek word for walk (peripateo) on six different occasions to describe times one's relationship with God.
(2) A dwelling (Exodus 25:1-8). In addition to being rescued from slavery (first half of Exodus) and being issued God's law (second half of Exodus), Israel is promised God's presence. "And let them make me a sanctuary, that I might dwell in their midst" (Exodus 25:8). From now on it won't be their athletes, a national anthem, their natural resources, the pride & toughness of their nomadic peoples, but God's presence that sets them apart. This makes a profound impression upon Moses. Upon being promised a great land, listen to the interaction Moses then has with God: "Moses said the YHWH, 'See, you say to me, Bring up this people [into the land I am giving you],' but you have not let me know whom you will send with me...' And YHWH said, 'My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.' And Moses said to him, 'If you presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?' " (Exodus 33:12, 14-16). Consider how bold this statement truly was in Moses' life and relationships. He's leading a people who have been enslaved and then nomadic for generations . They just want to have land and have peace like all these other nations they've heard of and grow up around. And yet, Moses is bold enough to request: Don't give us any of those things if you don't give us Yourself. I'd rather stay poor, destitute, wandering and enslaved but have You with me
(3) A person (John 1:14). "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Literally, Jesus "tabernacled" or "sanctuaried" among us (see direct connection with Exodus 25:8 above). Jesus is Emmanuel, "God with us."
(4) A people (II Corinthians 6:16-17). "What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, 'I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore, go out from their midst and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you'" (II Corinthians 6:16-17). Here we find that, through trust in Christ, we (the church) become the temple in which God dwells. We also see the near direct quotation of Exodus 25:8 and that God's presence provides us the motive to be different, to be separate, to be other than the world around us.
(5) A city (Revelation 21:1-4, 9-22). At the end of the Bible, we find a surprise. There is no more temple. Because, as in Genesis 2, God's presence is once again immediate, direct, unhindered and unclouded by sin, pain, & decay. "And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb" (Revelation 21:22).  

That's pretty much the whole Bible there. So while we might be tempted to display something else more novel, more edgy, we must insist that it is the presence of God Himself through Jesus Christ that makes we His people unique.

So What? Two Pictures. Let me give you a couple pictures of how God's presence practically sets us apart. The first picture is an evening I spent with one of our church's Community Groups a few weeks ago. This particular group had asked me to come in and help conduct a Spiritual Gifts Discovery Seminar, which is something I've enjoyed immensely in the past and knew I would again. The third of four parts is probably my favorite part of the seminar. Recognizing that, because of sin, we all have blind spots, members of the group endeavor to go around and affirm certain gifts that each individual thinks he/she has and suggest certain gifts that perhaps he/she had never before considered having. The Lord used this as an exhilarating time of encouragement. I walked out that night with my friends Rob and Bianca - we started to talk and we all agreed: "Where else would people go out of their way to make such sincere and personal encouragements than as part of a church - where we all have Jesus in common?" (In fact, you could add: "Where else other than church would people even make this kind of statement or observation?").The presence of God had practically set us apart from others gathering that same night to watch a movie, play a game of cards, to participate in a Rotary Club, or even to do a charitable work. 

The second picture is my attendance yesterday at Georgetown Primary School's Outreach Program for at-risk youth. Last September our church Adopted a local Primary/Elementary School at which to volunteer and invest time, talents, and resources. Many in our church find a time slot to go each week and spend time mentoring at-risk youth. I happen to go for an hour on Wednesdays, during which time we have a wonderful Aerobics/Athletics instructor lead. At the end of the hour, the instructor was searching for something impactful to communicate to the twenty at-risk children. Getting to know her a bit, I could tell she was searching. So she decided to incorporate as part of her stretches us hugging ourselves and saying, "I love myself" and then "I will be a good student and not talk back to my teacher the rest of the year." In other words, messages these students had heard before from speakers, children's books, positive videos that a teacher popped in the player during a slow day. Just after this, we did another stretch or two. At my age, I was clearly lacking in flexibility so a couple of the kids inquired: "Mr. Ryan, here's how you do it. Like this." I explained: "My body is no longer able to do that. But because I've trusted my life to Jesus, one day I will get a new body. In fact, because I trust Jesus, I know that no matter how bad or good my life is going, it will always get better than it is now." That is real, genuine hope. And I could tell as the kids all stared at me that it was a message that set was unique, set apart. That's what happens when we bring ourselves, when we bring the church to an onlooking world that is desperate to hear and experience something unique - the possibility of God with them. 

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