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Letter to a Church Leader

By Jon Zens

July 2, 1998

Dear ___________

In the past month I’ve met with _________ on several occasions, and he has shared with me some of the things the Lord is doing in the assembly. Along with the areas of rejoicing were also some areas of concern. Since I have been through some church experiences (1968-1982) that generally parallel what you are going through, I would like to encourage you with respect to several key areas. My concerns, based on what I’ve seen over the years, are that if you do not deal soon with some key issues in an up-front way, you run the risk of losing even the good things that exist now.

First, I sense that you are in somewhat of a tension, and therefore in a predicament: you don’t want to be the center point of ministry, yet the traditional pastor-role you are now expected to fulfill forces you to be the center point. Since you are seen as a traditional pastor by many in the assembly, it seems to me that the burden falls on you to take concrete steps to diffuse the focus that the unscriptural pastor-role brings upon you. [1]  If you allow yourself to be squeezed into the traditional mold, then the assembly will expect the bulk of ministry to fall upon you, and the New Testament concept of every-member ministry will never be realized or practiced.

You need to think through, therefore, whether you are going to lead the flock in the context of the unscriptural expectations of “the pastor,” or lead in a manner informed by the New Testament where you purposely decentralize yourself and encourage the brethren to practice the 58 “one-another” ministries given by Christ. [2]

Secondly, I would encourage you to evaluate the clamor for “preaching in the church.” The traditional view not only says that the one who is supported must do most ministry, but also asserts that he must “preach” every Sunday behind a pulpit. But any study of the Greek words used for “preach” in the New Testament will reveal that this proclamation occurred in the presence of unbelievers, outside the meetings of the saints. For example, Noah is called a “preacher (or ‘herald’) of righteousness” in 2 Peter 2:5. Yet his preaching was obviously to the scoffing, unbelieving culture around him. The centrality of preaching in the church arose in a very suspect context: where church and state were joined together, and the citizens of a city had to be in church or face punishment by civil authorities. Clearly, in this setting the churches would be filled with unbelievers. But the meeting described in 1 Corinthians 14 is for the edification of believers. [3] “Preaching” in the New Testament relates to the activity of evangelism, not to a “sermon” in a church building.

If the above remarks are true, then you need to model something other than a replication of the errors of tradition. Since 1977 I have tried to deflate the sermon tradition by teaching in a dialogical manner. I teach from God’s Word for 20-40 mm., and then have an open discussion by inviting those present to give their insights, ask questions, seek clarification, express disagreement, etc. This method allows for serious teaching, but also involves the congregation in the teaching/learning process. It is no secret that communication studies have shown that the absolute worst way for people to learn important things is a monologue (sermon). The meeting in 1 Corinthians 14, on the other hand, is multifaceted, participational, not focused on one person, and resulted in the mutual edification of the body.

Thirdly, it is vitally important for any new congregation to learn how to work through kingdom issues together. Discerning the mind of Christ on any given issue requires everyone’s commitment to search the Scriptures until there is a common understanding, and then to act together accordingly. At a minimum, the process should include these important steps:

Pray, fast and seek the Lord together as a necessary prelude to understanding and growth.

Pray specifically that the Holy Spirit will enlighten and direct the study of his Word.

Thoroughly study all the relevant passages together in a setting of mutual submission, openness and humility.

After searching the Scriptures together, summarize what has been clearly discerned, what is still gray, and where any disagreements still remain.

If necessary, pursue follow-up studies together which focus on clarifying and resolving gray areas and points of divergence.

When the congregation has peace about the mind of the Lord on an issue, then — and only then — is it ready to put it into practice.

For example, if a congregation had different opinions about how important sermons were in the body, what would happen if they studied the New Testament together in light of this question: “Can we find in the New Testament by example or precept the traditional notion that ‘the pastor’ must preach a monologue behind a pulpit every Sunday?” If the six steps above were followed with this question in mind, would you expect healthy change to take place? People would be exposed to God’s Word, and would have to be willing to alter their opinions New Testament if they were not substantiated by Scripture. If they concluded that the New Testament knows nothing about sermons given by the same person every Sunday, then they would be free to follow what the New Testament does say about teaching and edification in the body meetings.

I suggest that it would be beneficial for you to lead the assembly through a mutual study on something like “The Priesthood of All Believers,” or “The 58 ‘One-Another’ Duties of Believers.” Traditions of men block obedience to Scripture (Mark 7:9). Such traditions will only be confronted, jettisoned and replaced by obedience to Christ if believers practice in-depth Bible study bathed in humility. The reason why ungodly traditions march on unchallenged is because few take the time to scrutinize the status quo inherited from the fathers.

Lastly, I would encourage you to stay away from the impulse to buy a building. Meet in homes, rent a building, rent an existing church building, but don’t at this point sink a bundle of Christ’s money into another ecclesiastical structure. Much time needs to be spent developing and deepening edification in the body of Christ before using a cent to purchase an edifice. [4]  Purchasing a building in your current circumstances sends all the wrong messages, and perpetuates an emphasis on “place” that is contrary to the New Covenant that Christ established (John 4:20-24).

Perhaps you have a fear of losing some people if you were to pursue certain issues in light of God’s Word. But the truth is that the longer an assembly goes on without oneness of mind on key issues, the worse will be the explosion that occurs down the road. Better to have 20 people united around a common vision discerned from the Word, than to have 100 steeped in various traditions who are unwilling to have their cherished sacred cows scrutinized by Christ’s truth. I hope we are horrified at being identified with the scathing words Christ directed to the Pharisees: “Full well you reject the commandment of God in order that you may keep your own tradition” (Mark 7:9) [5]

Thank you for considering these points. I hope you will give these important matters the prayerful study they deserve. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but in God’s providence over the years I have been involved in a number of church situations. I am trying to help you avoid the deep heartache that comes when traditions instead of Christ’s Word shape people’s church-life. The longer one goes down the wrong road, the harder it is to get back to the right road. If you have questions, a desire for clarification, etc., please feel free to contact me. I am open to meet with you, or talk with you any time.

Your friend in Christ’s bonds,

Jon Zens

_____________________________________________________________________

 

Notes from “Letter to a Church Leader”

[1] “My friends and I assembled for our first church meeting. I had tried to prepare them, but they were not ready for God to use them. I was keenly and uncomfortably aware that these people were looking to me to do something. I was not doubtful that God would move if I taught. The people had heard me teach and wanted more, but I was looking for God to do something else. This was not going to be my teaching meeting. I warned to do everything possible to create an environment where each one would feel comfortable in sharing anything from God as they were inspired. I thought the most I could do to effect this was to do nothing at all. As we worshiped I encouraged all to look to the Lord for inspiration for something to share. It was a new idea to most. I knew they were still looking to me. In the fear of God, I knelt on the floor of the living room and covered my face. I knew some felt foolish looking to me when I had Just buried my face in the carpet.“ (Timothy Sheaff, “The Law of the House,” unpublished manuscript, 1998, p. 12)

[2]  “I am convinced that before the plurality of elders will make sense to believers, they must first see that they have responsibilities as priests. A functioning eldership is simply an extension of a functioning priesthood. For example, all Christians are encouraged to ‘admonish one another’ (Romans 15:14, 1 Thessalonians 5:11, 14). But elders have the specific responsibility — because of proven maturity — to ‘admonish’ the flock (1 Thessalonians 5:12) …. There is no evidence anywhere in the New Testament for the primacy of one man’s gifts. There is evidence 58 times in the New Testament for the importance of mutual care and multiple gifts…. Why are our churches marked by an obvious emphasis on ‘the pastor,’ but very little — if any — concern for the cultivation of mutual relationships? We have exalted that for which there is no evidence, and neglected that for which there is abundant evidence.“ (Jon Zens, The Pastor, 1981, pp. 4, 5, 6)

[3]  “The sermons in the New Testament were usually directed to people outside the Christian community, on an irregular basis as need arose, rather than at regular intervals. Even when outsiders came to Christian meetings, there is nothing to suggest that they heard or were converted through sermons (1 Corinthians 14:23-25)…. The use of dialegomai (Acts 19:8 f.) suggests discussion and debate. A lecture may have been involved but there is suggestion here of audience participation.” (David C. Norrington, To Preach Or Not To Preach? The Church’s Urgent Question, Paternoster Press, 1996, pp. 99, 100)

[4]  “Church buildings attest to five facts about the church today. First, church buildings are a witness to our immobility. What is more immovable than a church building? And yet Christians are, supposedly, wayfaring pilgrims. Christians are to be a mobile people…. Second, church buildings are a witness to our inflexibility. As soon as we erect a church building, we cut down our options by at least seventy-five percent…. Third, church buildings are a witness to our lack of fellowship. Church buildings may be worshipful places, but usually they are not friendly places They are uncomfortable and impersonal…. Fourth, church buildings are a witness to our pride. We insist that our church structures must be beautiful and well-appointed — which usually means expensive — and justify this on the grounds that God deserves the best…. Finally, church buildings are a witness to our class divisions. The early church was composed of rich and poor, Jew and Greek, black and white, ignorant and educated. But our modem church buildings advertise to the world that this is not true today. A sociologist can take a casual look at ten church buildings and their denominational brand names and then predict with high accuracy the education, income, occupations and social position of the majority of their respective members.” (Howard Snyder, The Problem of Wineskins, IVP, 1975, pp 69, 70, 71, 72)

[5]  “In Mark 7 some key observations can be isolated regarding detrimental traditions. Jesus’ remarks about traditions are as relevant today as they were in the first century:

1. The Pharisees were offended and puzzled when Jesus’ disciples did not conform to their longstanding traditions (7:5)

2. These traditions originated from the religious experts — ‘the tradition of the elders’ — and had taken the force of law over time

3. Such traditions tend to multiply and become the focus of attention instead of more important issues (7:4, cf. Matthew 23:23 f.)

4. When the worship of God is rooted in man-made rules it becomes vain (7:6, 7). Hence the crucial importance of discerning what is of God and what is of man in our worship together.

5. When traditions are elevated as a standard, the commands of God take a back seat (7:8).

6. The commands of God will be flagrantly violated when zeal is directed toward observing traditions (7:9-12).

7. The Word of God is made of no effect when people are fixated on traditions handed down from previous generations (7:13).

8 Fixation on traditions tends to permeate all of one’s existence — “you do many things like that” (7:13). (Jon Zens, “Priesthood, Eucharist & Ordination A Review Article,” Searching Together, 20: 1-3, 1992, p. 24)

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