Do you ever feel like this whole Jesus thing should be working better?
We have all these tools, all these books. In the West we have seminaries and church campuses and cool programs, or if we’re not into that we have house churches and intentional communities and urban renewal. In Central Asia we have a collectivist culture that is inherently supposed to make everyone better at spiritual community (right?), cultural norms closer to those of the Bible so we can “get it easier”, and persecution, which just magically makes the church grow (right?). All over the place we have really great people trying really hard over long periods of time. So, why is it not happening, on the whole?
It’s happening in pockets, I know, and in some beautiful ways. And some good things are happening everywhere. But on the whole, we aren’t seeing what we’d expect to see if the gospel really is like a mustard seed that, though small, grows into a mighty tree that blesses the nations. Some people who follow Jesus are becoming like their master, and are becoming fishers of men. But most, if we are honest, really aren’t. At least, not in the ways or to the degrees the Scriptures would lead us to expect. We are not actually discipling the nations we live in.
I’m not being critical, here. I’m being reflective. If anything, I’m trying to give voice to something that’s been nagging at you – and that should be nagging at you. You’re right. Spiritual leaders, pastors, shepherds, church planters – you love the people you care for and you really want this to work. You want fruit. You want transformed people, and transformed communities. And you want to see those communities heal the world. And you’re putting a lot of effort into it, and wha’s coming out often doesn’t make sense to you. You’re right – something is off.
Disciples, parents, students, folks – you’re following Jesus and you’re not seeing the transformation in you that you know is yours in Jesus. You are sometimes, and in some ways. But you can sense that something, somewhere is off. Good news! You’re right! There is more than this.
Across the next few posts I want to share with you some thoughts from Colossians (and some other supporting passages) that might help here. To do that, I want to start with a statement Paul makes 1Corinthians 3:10-11. Paul is talking about his work in Corinth, starting a church there, saying, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Fo no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
The foundation of the church at Corinth (and of every city church) is a person, not a dogma or confession, not a plan or a program, not a philosophy of ministry or a rule of life. The foundation is Jesus Christ. And Paul says he laid Jesus Christ as the foundation of the church at Corinth.
Huh. So, how do you do that? How do you lay a person as a foundation? Seriously, what does it mean that Jesus is the foundation of the spiritual-social-kingdom unit called â€œthe churchâ€, and how does that play out practically? Can you explain what, exactly, that means? Have you experienced what that means, and can you lead another into it?
And, perhaps more apparently, what happens when Jesus isn’t the foundation? Or, when we’re not rooted in Jesus, what happens? And how do we re-direct our roots into Him?
Because here’s the thing. A building’s foundation sets the limits for that building, and it determines the shape the building can take. And system errors in the building – places where things look like they should be working, but aren’t – are often faults in the foundation. A tree’s roots determine the limits of that tree’s growth and fruitfulness.
To borrow another metaphor, a body’s health, function and ability to affect the world around it is limited by how efficiently it’s connected to the brain. Brain-body connection. What we’re after is a healthy, robust, agile, athletic connection between the Head (Jesus) and the Body (the church), including all its members (you and me).
So where can we turn for some coaching on how to lay Christ as foundation for new churches, how to reinforce that foundation or reset the structure onto that foundation? Is there Scripture that lays out for us what it means to be rooted and grounded in Jesus, and how to see that play out in transformed lives, transformed spiritual communities, and transformed geographic communities?
I’m glad you asked.
Paul’s letter to Colossae is exactly that. From the city of Ephesus Paul had trained other workers, who had spread all over Asia Minor, preaching Jesus and growing churches. One such church was at Colossae. In this letter Paul does a little bit of corrective work, but (unlike many of his other letters) on the whole this letter represents what an apostle concerned with foundations would write to saints he cared about, but whom he did not know personally. In other words, when given an opportunity to say whatever he wants to people he does not know, Paul says the letter to Colossae.
This letter is intensely Christological – it talks A LOT about Jesus. But it’s less a letter about orthodoxy (right belief), and more a letter about orthopraxy (right practice). It’s a letter about how to live into Christ, and how to live Him out, individually and together. It’s a letter in which a master architect reinforces this church’s Christ-foundation, which his a friend of his had laid. It’s a letter in which a master gardener helps the saints sink their roots deep into Jesus, and not some other good thing.
In the next couple of months I hope to unpack this letter, specifically as it reveals to us what it means – in real life – that Jesus is the foundation of the church. Along the way, we’ll be giving some thought to how this speaks to some of the most frequently asked questions I have faced as an elder and shepherd in the United States, as an apostolic worker in Central Asia, and as an apostolic worker seeking to train new workers and to architect ways and means that will help all of us everywhere live from our hearts and heal the world. Questions like:
- What is the gospel? What kind of communication is it? What are the non-negotiable content pieces, and how does it change across cultures?
- Why do so many believers’ discipleship crash or go way off course? Or, more commonly, just sputter out?
- What is the Christian walk really all about? What defines a Jesus-follower’s life? Under all the noise, the rules, the programs, what is discipleship really all about?
- How does transformation really happen? What is the mechanism of change?
- Why does the practice of spiritual disciplines sometimes seem to make us better, and sometimes worse?
- Why is the church so fractured? Is there a way to see oneness again?
- Who should I gather with?
- How should we gather as believers?
- What are we after when we gather as believers? What’s the goal, here?
- Why is it that sometimes we get together and we’re better for it, sometimes worse for it, and most often largely unchanged for it?
- What is the role of family in all of this?
- What are the structures of church life that we want to work with? Or, what is the goal for folks looking to build carefully on the foundation, which is Christ? What do we build with?
You may have asked some of these questions before. You might be wrestling with one of them now. You might not. But for all of us, it is critical to know how to practice Christ.
For those of you whom God has called to lead the church structurally (elders and deacons) or catalytically (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers), I’ll be giving some attention to how to root people and groups into Jesus, and I’ll be trying to raise some questions about how to do that so we can all help each other get better at this. For those of you whom God has called to practice Christ in other ways (the other 90% of Body of Christ), I’ll try to give practical, concrete ways to live into Christ and to live him out. For all of you, dialogue (posting comments) will only help the process. None of us have this down perfectly, and we are smarter together than any one us is alone.
In this, you’ll have a job to do, too. To prevent this from becoming another exercise in consumer-Christianity, where I produce something for you that you “buy” by reading it, I’m going to ask you to do something simple. Before each post, I’ll ask you to read a bit of Colossians and to think about 3 questions:
- Where do you see Christ in this passage?
- What is Paul doing (what is he trying to accomplish by writing this particular stretch of text)?
- So what? (How might this affect our practice of life, or of ministry?)
Do we have a deal?
If so, before you read my next post in this series (the “Rooted” series), please read the whole letter to the Colossians once quickly, and then read Colossians 1:1-23 slowly, asking the 3 questions above.
In my next post, we’ll explore Christ and the Story, and we’ll see how Paul orients us in this journey-into-Jesus.