Relational Ministry

 

In our human struggle for purpose and place, society has spent much thought on our relationships.Our attempts to explore our relationships to each other have brought us sociology.Our desire to know where we fit in the universe has created science.From our search for our relationship to God sprang religion. God is intensely relational.Community is tied up in his nature and expressed throughout his revelation.In our search for an expression of ministry that is true to God, we cannot depart from his nature as our foundation.

Foundation: Relationship in God�s Character

 

Oh most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,

may we know Thee more clearly,

love Thee more dearly,

and follow Thee more nearly,

day by day.

Amen.

�Richard of Chichester[i]

 

All that existed in eternity past was in the Trinity.The only relationship was God to himself.God�s revealed inner working is relational. C.S. Lewis notes that without a Trinity, God could not be love.�The words �God is love� have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons.Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.�[ii]

God is love.Love itself exists because of how the Trinity relates within itself.�Where did relationship begin?� in the hidden inner workings of God himself.Our look at relationships is essentially a theological question.The lovingkindness, and tenderness of our God is apparent throughout all the scriptures.Centuries past when God�s people rejected him repeatedly, when covenants signed in blood and sworn by the name of the greatest in the realm lay broken and desolate, when the bride of Jehovah flees and leaves an Asherah pole in her place, when they deserved hatred, God is Love.In Hosea, God�s wrath is being outpoured, yet it is written in the language of lovers. Glowing, we uncover the intimacy of husband to wife, and the tenderness of father to child. Hosea is instructed to marry a prostitute, to show God�s love for adulterous Israel. In obedience Hosea named his children Lo-Ruhamah, not loved, and Lo-Ammi, not my people.God said, �Say ye unto your brethren, Ammi; and to your sisters, Ruhamah.Plead with your mother, plead: for she is not my wife, neither am I her husband: let her therefore put away her whoredoms out of her sight, and her adulteries from between her breasts�� (Hosea 2:1-2).Even the intimacy of sex was created to demonstrate the relationship of man to God.

As God turned to his creative work he made and expanded relationship. �So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them� (Genesis 1:27).In this way man was the imago Dei. �What [Karl Barth] has helped us understand is that relationship is at the heart of what it means to be �in the image of God� and that the relationship between male and female is the human expression of our relationship with God.�[iii] One of the greatest demonstrations of the relational nature of God is found here. It is profound that in creating man to reflect his own nature, God created a need in him for relationship.�It is not good for the man to be alone�� (Genesis 2:28). No companion was found for Adam, so God created. Then was man complete imago Dei -- the very image of the eternal trinity, made to commune with God, spouse, and the world around him.

Soon all of that was to be interrupted.Man fell.This single calamity has impacted the world in ways beyond comprehension. It changed the laws of physics, the order of the animal kingdom, and most importantly man�s relationships.The fall broke Adam�s communion with God.�And they heard the sound of Jehovah God walking up and down in the garden at the breeze of the day.And the man and his wife hid themselves from the face of Jehovah God in the middle of the trees of the garden.�[iv] (Genesis 3:8).God came �at the breeze of the day.� This is a rich expression.It harkens us back to cool summer evenings, front porch conversations, Fourth of July fireworks, and sweet dreams of love. As the crooners croon, �Night breezes seem to whisper �I love you.��[1] Matthew Henry observes, �He came in the cool of the day, not in the night when fears are double fearful, nor in the heat of the day, for he came not in the heat of his anger.�[v]Tradition tells us that this visitation was a common experience for Adam.[2] Josephus tells us, ��when God came into the garden, Adam, who was wont before to come and converse with him, being conscious of his wicked behavior, went out of the way.This behavior surprised God��[vi] Now the visit is marked by fear and guilt. Communion is broken.

Communion is broken between the first couple as well. We are told that God created woman so Adam would have a companion, when no other creature would do. God made Adam and Eve co-regents over the world, dependant on one another. Eve ate the forbidden fruit and gave some to her husband; Adam blamed his wife for his choice to eat, and perhaps most telling of the ruin is that they were both naked and ashamed. They created crude coverings to hide their nakedness from each other and God. Suddenly the nature of their relationship had changed.

The fall separates lovers. God in his justice allows death to make permanent that division. In his mercy, he creates a plan, a whole history to bring man back into beautiful and right relationship with Himself and each other. Mercy is not opposed to justice in it�s concern for relationship, both exist to make relationships right. Mercy begets grace and grace begets relationship � relationship between the Resplendent Sovereign and dust.

God wants us to know him.The initiative is his. We do not have the faculties to begin to know God.We are creatures, he, the creator. To suggest that we can pry away from God knowledge that he does not wish us to have, is to deny the substance of God.He is infinite. He is omniscient. He is omnipotent. He is sovereign. It must be his determination that we know him, if we will, or he could no longer be sovereign.If we could contain the knowledge of him he could be neither omniscient nor infinite, for we would need to be wiser and greater.If we could force his hand to our bidding, he could not be omnipotent. The great mystery is that it is his will that we know him and commune intimately with him.[vii]His desire reaches to individuals, placing within them a desire to know him whom they cannot know.Thankfully God, in his relational nature, seeks self-disclosure.Most amazing is that God, in his grace, has revealed himself and his plan to fallen, hateful man.

The scriptures are a powerful gift of love, for they reveal the nature of the Mystery himself. �The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us� (John 1:14).The scriptures are incarnational. They are the revelation of God embodied in words, as Jesus was God embodied in flesh.�� �God�s love tells us that He is friendly and His Word assures us that He is our friend and wants us to be His friends.�[viii] Throughout the scriptures God shows himself to be chiefly concerned with His relationship to His people.God in truth loves people. This is the mystery of grace.


Philosophy: Relationship Expressed in Community

Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.

What! is it she which on the other shore

Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore,

Laments and mourns in Germany and here?

Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?

Is she self-truth and errs? now new, now outwore?

Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore

On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?

Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights

First travel we to seek, and then make love?

Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,

And let mine amorous soul court thy mild dove,

Who is most true and pleasing to thee then

When she is embraced and open to most men.

����������������������������������������������� �John Donne[ix]

Where is the Bride of Christ today?Who is she?Today, the question that plagues us is not which tradition constitutes the church, but can the church truly be found behind the garb of tradition, division and form. The first startling revelation as we consider the true nature of the church is that we are the church.Startling in that we have always known this.The truth is clear to us. We talk about it and teach it.Yet.In all of our knowledge we confuse the living body of Christ with the institution we have come to know.

We are the body of Christ, declared to be so. �Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it� (I Corinthians 12:27 NIV). Paul makes this as a declarative statement describing a truth.We are a body already, even if our unity may not be anything more than a declared state of being.Peter has another metaphor for the church. �You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood� (1 Peter 2:5). Stone upon stone we are being fastened into a new temple. In this temple we each serve as priests in communion with God and fellow man.Today, the Shekinah of God is not clothed in the ornate temple, hidden behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies, resting on the Ark of the Covenant. No, instead, he makes the fleshy hearts of man his dwelling. The temple of God is now his people.

Ecclesia, the Greek word that we translate as church, means to be called out.�� In ancient times this word was used for any meeting of people whether civil or religious.God, from the beginning, has been calling out people to meet with him.Adam and Eve made up the first church, before any liturgy or institution. The fall changed that relationship. A sacrificial liturgy was instituted and a temple made the way to intimacy with God.Peter and Paul used metaphors as they did to make it clear that the church is the body of Christ, not a building, and we are the priests who share intimacy with God by merit of Christ the cornerstone, rather than a methodology.

A united body is not just the description of the church; Christian community is an important part of our personal growth.There is much more to this togetherness than simply networking, support and the joy of friendship.In the Spirit, there is a mystical connection, a binding together with cords of the Spirit and love. In the act of corporate worship and seeking, we are bound together. Our spirits are honestly open to each other in a way unknown to others. In fact it is this openness of love that needs to be the hallmark of Christian community.

Thomas Kelly writes: �A quickening Presence pervades us, breaking down some part of the special privacy and isolation of our individual lives and blending our spirits within a superindividual Life and Power.An objective, dynamic Presence enfolds us all, nourishes our souls, speaks glad, unutterable comfort with us, and quickens us in depths that had before been slumbering.�[x]

It is difficult for a society so focused on individuality to fully grasp the spiritual dynamic of community.We believe and have been taught that our salvation is a private matter. While it is true that our relationship with Christ exists in a world of private conversations, inward obedience and silent, daily decisions, that relationship also exists in a very public world of social interactions.When the private silent world is open, exposed and naked to the social world utter transformation is possible.

Discipleship occurs between believers when they are honest and transparent with each other.Community allows each member of the body to be strengthened by the others.The weaker disciples are mentored by the open sores of the stronger ones.[3]The weaker ones can minister unto the stronger ones as well.God in his mercy uses the weak to confound the wise.As the stronger ones serve the weaker they put themselves under the discipline of the spirit and grow. Community strengthens each of us.

Worship is another community expression that transcends individualism, or at least it can. The open hearts Thomas Kelly writes about have a direct connection to worship. The worship of a single heart is made complete when joined by another.Worship ranks among the most intimate expressions we have. True worship is rare in our corporate settings because that level of intimacy is uncomfortable to express with another.At best, we express ourselves oblivious to those around us, but open transcendent worship is the jewel of our corporate spiritual experience.

The mystic side of community relationship is not simply a matter of observation. The scripture bears witness that there are spiritual elements to the community of believers. Every time Paul references the gifts of the Spirit, they are in the context of the body.Sandwiched in the middle of his discussion on the manifestations of the Spirit is a treatment of unity.Central to Paul�s understanding of the work of the Spirit is its work in the body. �Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good� (1 Corinthians 12:7 NIV).God gave gifts of the Spirit, manifestation gifts and office gifts alike, to edify the body of believers. The work of the Spirit is to glorify the Son.In the community of believers, this mystical spiritual working draws them to intimacy with Christ both individually and in single-hearted unity.

The Eucharist has long been recognized to have a mystical significance. Even in traditions that see the emblems as strictly symbolic, there is a recognition that there is often healing or salvation during a communion service.Paul places the Eucharist squarely in the context of unity as well.�Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf� (1 Corinthians 10:16-17 NIV).Likewise, sharing in Christ�s baptism baptizes into the body. �There is one body and one Spirit�just as you were called to one hope when you were called � one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all� (Ephesians 4:5-6). These statements are more than romantic ways of seeing our initiation into one body. They are mystical realities. These are just a couple sacraments, in a whole world of sacramental living, that the Spirit uses to bind open hearts to one another. They are the blood that flows through the shared veins of the community.

Authentic Christian community is much more than a gathering of Christians on a Sunday morning. It reaches to every place they interact with each other and the world around them. It is, in fact, a collection of informal Spirit energized friendships. The informal nature of authentic community begs the question: �Why do we have church?� This is a valid question; the contrived community within the walls of the church often opposes authentic community.

The ideal spiritual life is integrated and incarnational.Most churches and Christians experience a life of great dichotomy. We live in the two worlds of spiritual and secular. From every pulpit preachers attempt to show people how to live their lives in light of the gospel. It is our concern that people take to work-a-day Monday, what they see as fitting for sacred Sunday.The seventeenth century cook, Brother Lawrence was known for his continual �Practice of the Presence of God.� He would say, �That our sanctification did not depend upon changing our works, but in doing that for God�s sake, which we commonly do for our own.�[xi]He found God�s presence most sweetly as he endeavored to think on him every moment while he was at work in the kitchen.

It is not necessary for being with God to be always at church. We may make an oratory of our heart wherein to retire from time to time to converse with Him in meekness, humility, and love.Every one is capable of such familiar conversation with God, some more, some less. He knows what we can do. Let us begin then.[xii]

 

Instead of the spiritual ideal of the integrated life, we experience a sharp divide between secular and sacred.The world sees it when they speak of hypocrisy.They see �the church as a place for �perfect� people, or more realistically, a place where hypocrites go to feel good about themselves . . . They never see the �church� because its activities are largely confined to a building.�[xiii]The idea that church activities only happen on Sundays and Wednesdays has crept in on the coattails of our programs.If we are the church, going to work is a church activity, a man playing golf with his son is a church activity, having neighbors for dinner is a church activity.Without knowing it, the church has perpetuated the concept of a separate secular life as an act of institutional self-preservation.

While the scriptures teach us to be in the world and not of it,[4] many Christians are of the world but not in it.Not only do we experience a spiritual dichotomy instead of the integrated ideal, but also we experience a Christian sub-culture rather than authentic community.Christian community is not predicated on similitude but in diversity bound by One Spirit.[5]So it is that the community of believers is not confined to the walls of a church or the bubble of culture that we have created. To be integrated spiritually means that we are not constrained by the inversion of being of the world while not in it. We can recognize beauty in the art and music around us, we can participate in the activities of the wider community, and we can develop relationships with each other outside the walls of the church while we are divorced from the affections of the world.The teachings of Jesus were always directed to the thoughts and attitudes in the hearts of his hearers. �The jagged line dividing the sacred and the secular becomes very dim indeed, for we know that nothing is outside the realm of God�s purview and loving care�[xiv]

The church does not exist to provide a Christian atmosphere as an escape from the world.The goal is not to reproduce community and social functions within the walls of the church building to make them acceptable.If, then, the authentic Christian community has little to do with the building we call the church, why do we gather on Sunday mornings and at other times?Are these formal ceremonies necessary today?

The church�s mission is threefold.The church exists: �To be an agency of God for evangelizing the world� To be the corporate body in which man may worship God � To be the channel of God�s purpose to build a body of saints being perfected in the image of His Son.�[xv]Of the three, evangelism and discipleship can easily be done outside the walls of church; Sunday morning may not be even the best place for those activities of the church. Corporate worship requires the body of believers.Sunday morning and other services exist to provide a liturgy for our corporate adoration of God.The other facets of church ministry can be done without the formality of a service or the structure of liturgy, but authentic worship requires more. The community must be brought together into a single unified heart and corporately focused on the Majesty. The primary reason then for the formal meeting of the congregation is liturgical. The true church must never be confused with the act of �having church.� The reason we �have church� is worship, but the church is the body.

 


Family Model: The Family in Community

 

Domestic happiness! thou only bliss

Of Paradise that hast survived the fall!

Thou art the nurse of virtue: in thine arms

She smiles, appearing, as in truth she is,

Heaven-born, and destined to the skies again.

����������������������������������������������� William Cowper[xvi]

 

The church is a �household of households.�[xvii]The family is in effect a micro-church.It is a united community of believers in its simplest form.From the smallest family of two individuals to the largest, it is the most intimate of societies. �This is the basis upon which the communion of the household is founded; it is the fellowship of blood.�[xviii]

The family is the perfect ground for practicing the incarnational life. �The most basic place of our sacramental living is in our marriages and homes and families.�[xix]It is in the family where we learn how to relate to other people.We practice loving, explore new ways to show God�s grace, to make him real and, of course, we learn the meaning of conflict.It is the laboratory of human relationships, infused with the Spirit.

The incarnational life is played out in the realms of the mundane and every day.Our domestic responsibility epitomizes drudgery for many of us.The chores we do around the house as a family, afford us the opportunity to practice remembering God�s presence the whole day through.Children then learn to make their bed, do the dishes and clean their rooms out of their love for God, above all else.

Family, �Thou art the nurse of virtue.�Discipleship is the greatest succor offered by constancy of the family. The charge for the spiritual training of children was placed squarely on the parents.

These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:6-9 NIV).

 

The family was not only created by God to be the �matrix in which the language of grace should be cast,�[xx] but was also specially designed to fulfill the task.Time is the powerful constant that the family possesses.Discipleship is change.Change is the sister of time. From the time of birth, parents, more than any other, have the opportunity to spend time with their children. God built the significant bond of time into the family structure and has revealed his desire that we use it to make him known to our children.

Today the home remains the �nurse of Virtue.�The home is the place of salvation for many.Even for adult converts, the greatest influence has been determined to be family members.[xxi]With the tremendous weight of people who are saved as children, it is easy to see the remarkable influence parents have in the salvation of their children. �If family members are indeed the most important relationships in reaching the Unchurched, should churches not provide resources and strategies for reaching people through these relationships?�[xxii]

The church must think creatively to affirm God�s design for the family.�If we believe in family solidarity, we had better find ways to help families to be together in the evenings . . .�[xxiii] In our commitment to simplicity in our Christian community, we must say what we mean and be consistent in our actions.Too often we express our catch phrases and rhetoric about being a friendly family church and our programs do not support them.

Let our talk about commitment to Christian community lead us to authentic experience.A church committed to authentic community will learn to integrate every member into the body.Community must be held high as the mandate of God�s relational nature.For our families� sake and for God�s sake, it must be so.

The family ministry model is simply looking creatively for ways to integrate children into the community of the church. There is a danger of believing that the needs of children spiritually are not as great as those of teens or adults.Many churches around the world ignore their children until they come of age.To these churches, I affirm that children can experience depth in Christ.If they are allowed to come unto Christ, children are by him counted part of the fellowship.So must we.

The other danger is in not understanding that children need the community of faith.Missing their need causes us to split them from the rest of the body. The intentions are honest and good; they want their children to learn at their own level.The community of faith is uniquely equipped to connect people cross-generationally.�The church is the only agency in Western civilization which has all the members of the family as part of its clientele.It is the only organized group which reaches persons through the complete life cycle from birth to death.�[xxiv]There is great value found in the diversity of community.Children need that diversity.They need the wisdom and input afforded by older Brothers and Sisters.They need to see the Christian life incarnated in the lives of adults around them. They need to see their parents and other adults worshiping, and mold their own smaller hearts to that model.

When dismissing children to children�s church my father once said that it was a service designed to meet their needs.Children�s pastors have done much good, creative work in the past decades to make the Gospel available to children.We need to apply the same creativity in examining our churches and their structures to craft a community designed to meet their needs.Every aspect of church life, worship, evangelism and discipleship must be made to conform to our theology and biblical mandates. In everything being simple of speech and action.

 



[1] �Dream a Little Dream of Me.�

[2] Moses only notes this one walk in the cool of the day before the fall. We must deduce from its context in the whole of scripture that this is an example of Adam and Eve�s relationship with God.

[3] It is the dark night of the soul that brings the disciples to strength.It is through transparency that they pour life to the other members of the body.

[4] Cf. John 17:14-19

[5] Cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13



[i] Richard J. Foster. Prayers From the Heart(San Francisco: HarperSanFancisco, 1994.) 46.

[ii] C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity. (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. 1980.) 174.

[iii] Richard J. Foster. The Challenge Of The Disciplined Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFancisco, 1994.) 92.

[iv] J. P. Green, Sr. A Literal Translation of the Bible. (Lafayette: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1985.) 3.

[v] Matthew Henry. Commentary of the Whole Bible. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971.) 9.

[vi] Flavius Josephus. The Works of Josephus. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 1987.) 30.

[vii] Simeon The New Theologian in the tenth century taught that �Since God is beyond comprehension, we must be caught up in the �light� � God�s self-communication or divine energy, which flows from him and is uncreated.�Richard J. Foster. Streams of Living Water. (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. 1998.) 363.

[viii] Tozer. The Knowledge of the Holy. 106.

[ix] This is one of the preacher/poet�s �Holy Sonnets.� This sonnet addresses the quest of the day to determine which denomination had claim to being the true church.�Neither the painted woman (the Church of Rome) nor the ravished virgin (the Lutheran and Calvinist churches in Germany and England) seem very much like a bride.� His quest to find the bride of Christ behind the cloud of the institutional church is ours as well. (John Donne, Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. [New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 2000.] 1271-72.)

[x] Richard J. Foster. Celebration of Discipline. (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. 1988.) 164.

[xi] Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. The Practice of the Presence of God. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc. 1999.) 9.

[xii] Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God. 25.

[xiii] Eric Wallace. Uniting Church and Home. (Lorton, Virginia: Solutions For Integrating Church and Home. 1999.) 45.

[xiv] Foster. Streams of Living Water. 272.

[xv] Minutes Of The 47th Session Of The General Council Of The Assemblies Of God With Revised Constitution And Bylaws. (Springfield: The General Council of The Assemblies of God. 1997.) 109.

[xvi] B. M. Palmer. The Family in its Civil and Churchly Aspects. (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications. 1991). 179.

[xvii] I am indebted to Eric Wallace for the image of a household of households. For a deeper treatment of the family as the germ of the church and society see Wallace, Uniting Church and Home and Palmer, The Family in its Civil and Churchly Aspects.

[xviii] James W. Alexander. Thoughts on Family-Worship. (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications 1991.) 270.

[xix] Foster. Streams of Living Water. 263.

[xx] Palmer. The Family in its Civil and Churchly Aspects. 234.

[xxi] 42% surveyed say that a family member was the greatest influence in their coming to church it was the top response. (Thom S. Rainer. Surprising Insights From the Unchurched. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2001] 82.)

[xxii] Rainer. Surprising Insights From the Unchurched. 82.

[xxiii] Richard J. Foster. Freedom of Simplicity. (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc. 1981.) 149.

[xxiv] Margaret Sawin as Quoted by White. (James W. White. Intergenerational Religious Education. [Birmingham: Religious Education Press. 1988.] 13.


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