Reforming church, culture and our city

Reforming church, culture and our city

I came, I saw, I conquered

with 3 comments

This morning I spent some time speaking to one of our denominational leaders who shared with me a book he’d been reading on ancient paradigms of leadership in the Greek speaking world. When Caesar won the battle of Zela he described the victory to the Roman senate in these words, ‘Veni, vidi, vici‘ which means ‘I came, I saw, I conquered!‘.

I find that the same holds true of churches when they start. Much of church planting work begins because there is a pioneering spirit in its leaders. They go with a vision to grow the ministry, to reach people, to do church differently, to bring the gospel to new groups of people, to start churches in new neighborhoods. One could say that many churches that have been planted go out with a ‘kingdom’ vision. They take risk, they are prepared to fail, their structures serve the mission, they are prepared to change as they go along.

Their vision for the ‘kingdom’ or the mission of Jesus shapes their ministry practice. Decisions are made from a kingdom and mission perspective. Structures are easily built and demolished, as they are built around the kingdom and mission. The way church is run and done serves the kingdom and mission of Jesus. I was reading one of Brian McLaren’s book this morning on doing church in a rapidly changing culture (whether you call it post-modern or post-Christian, I really don’t care). The title of the book was The Church On The Other Side: Doing Ministry In The Postmodern Matrix.  The reality is that society and culture is changing faster than the church can keep up with.

One of the problem he highlights is the obsession church’s have with their structures and traditions. In a previous generation or even a few years ago these structures and traditions might have served the kingdom and mission of Jesus (I believe they were even relevant). The problem is that often what began as a church with a mission, becomes a church obsessed with their structures and traditions, rather than the kingdom and mission of Jesus. From looking out, they start looking within; protecting, guarding, promoting, selling their structures and tradition. McLaren points out that eventually their ministry is only relevant to those within their four walls, where the focus is more on us, and less on the kingdom and mission of Jesus. A good start, a poor finish or better still, a painfully long finish for many churches!  I’m quite sure many of the dying or stagnating churches I see were once vibrant, thriving, missional, kingdom seeking churches.

The truth is what began as a kingdom vision and a focus on the mission of Jesus ends up memorialized in a piece of stone. Instead of hearing the words time and time again as new ground is broken, as new ministries developed, as new churches planted: ‘I came, I saw, I conquered!’, over time we hear these words instead, ‘I came, I saw, I concreted!


Written by eugenehor

October 9, 2007 at 12:08 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Nice one. I like it. Some random thoughts in addition:
    1. A denomination is of course not a ‘church’ (nor is a local church for that matter). But a legal, sociological construct. So the problem is that denominations often try to maintain the institution (of which buildings is a part of).
    2. Institutions are useful things. They are formed sometimes intentionally and sometimes not to serve certain purposes. And sometimes, they are good in and of themselves, e.g. marriage is an institution that is good in itself as well serving a good purpose.
    3. But they can be unhelpful things as well. It’s not good to spending all your efforts maintain the institution of marriage when you spend no effort loving your wife.
    4. I guess what I’m thinking of is that institutions (like denominations, which unlike marriage is not divinely ordained) might be good to maintain if they are true to their nature and purpose.
    5. I wonder whether the creation and maintenance of institutions is one of the roles therefore of leadership. Leaders take others from one place to another place, but it presupposes that there is a place to get to.


    October 9, 2007 at 1:17 pm

  2. Totally agree with you that the denomination is not a ‘church’ but a legal, sociological construct. One could even say it’s Christian ‘tribe’ with its theological and cultural distinctives whether Sydney Anglicans or Presbyterians. I have certainly seen the denomination trying to maintain the institution.

    Take for example the whole issue of ‘parish boundaries’ and church planting. In a previous generation, parish boundaries were probably a good thing … in an age when people saw themselves as part of a ‘local’ community. The suburbs have change, the city has evolved, and the denomination is still working on a out of date paradigm for ministry. And so we debate whether parish boundaries should stay or go … for it’s ‘sinful’ isn’t it to plant a church in someone else’s backyard (as if they weren’t enough unreached people to go around for more churches to be planted). How long did it take the Anglicans and Presbyterians to do away with parish boundaries? How many synods and general assemblies before the ‘walls’ came down? Too many to count.

    I am thankful to God that the early church didn’t operate denominationally. Imagine the implications for the Pauline mission had the Jerusalem council mandated parish boundaries! I am being facetious at this point, but you get the point. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t knocking our denominations, after all I am a Presbyterian pastor. In fact, I chose to be part of the denomination because I value what it stands for as an institution, which if true to its nature and purpose will grow and further the cause of the gospel and the kingdom (… and I should know having seen how independent Chinese churches run). As far as my denominational commitment goes, it’s a tried and tested system, with sound Reformed doctrine, Biblical governance, and when combined with good leadership works well for both the kingdom and mission of Jesus.

    My main concern was really not the denomination, though the points I raised also applies to the denomination. The observations I had was mainly to do with leadership and the actual gathering or community of believers … the ‘local’ church. It’s in our nature to institutionalize. The problem as you highlighted is when maintaining the institution overshadows the God given vision and mission of the institution. Let me stretch your analogy of the institution of marriage. You pointed out – “what’s the point of maintaining the institution of marriage, when you spend no effort loving your wife?”. You live in the same house, you share the same bed, you share a bank account, but there’s no passion, there’s no communication, there’s no relationship. The same holds true of many of our local Christian gatherings or ‘churches’. What’s the point of maintaining the particular structures and traditions of a church i.e. running and doing church a certain way when it’s not fulfilling the kingdom vision and mission of Jesus? As an institution it’s running fine meeting the needs of those within (or maybe not … stagnating perhaps, declining perhaps), but there’s no passion for Jesus, no love for the unreached, no relationship. From starting as a missional, kingdom seeking church, willing to change and adapt it’s structures, willing to take risks, we now have a proud ‘local’ institution only interested in bricks, keeping people, and making sure no one rocks the boat. It’s the start of a dying church, no matter how healthy it looks.


    October 9, 2007 at 3:28 pm

  3. One of my great concerns is the reality of stagnation in the Christian life you have mentioned. I think of the great churches of the first century such as Jerusalem, Antioch and Ephesus and wonder how they fared now they are gone. Did Ephesus ever recover it’s first love? Once martyred in the coliseum in Rome, Christianity took over the very empire that persecuted it only to see the Holy Roman Empire it became fall into corruption over time. Great reforming movements such as the Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits began with great zeal but also at times became instruments of oppression. The protestant reformation birthed a host of vibrant communities but over time, many have become anything but reforming. Semper Reformanda, indeed.

    My own experience within the local church has allowed me to observe how the humble become great and influential. With the radical becoming established, a form of wealth, power and recognition enters the picture. These temptations are very hard to resist as they lay siege to the human soul. There is little wonder as to why two of the monastic vows are poverty and obedience. When we measure the success or failure of a church or a person by a wrong-headed standard, the values shift. Darrell Johnson once shared with us, “Some churches are more interested in preserving themselves than in serving the Kingdom of God.”

    The story of King David is relevant. The humble shepherd boy rises to prominence and slays the proud giant Goliath, eventually becoming the great king of Israel. It is at the pinnacle of his worldly success that he becomes Goliath himself and crushes and oppresses others with an act of adultery and murder.

    My question is: how do we avoid such a fate? If my humble doings lead me to a place where I become great in my own eyes, I am undone. Indeed, how do we maintain that passion for Jesus you speak of, that missional, dynamic Spirit-filled life? Perhaps that is the wonderful point to the Jesus prayer taught in the Orthodox parable, “The Way of the Pilgrim.” My passion , my sin, my desperation for Jesus grows when I meditate upon the words of that publican’s prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The Christian and the Church must pursue a cruciform pilgrimage or become Goliath.

    ted ng

    October 10, 2007 at 8:06 am

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