by Tim Jack
The years 2020 and 2021 will be remembered in history as a season of ‘the great disruption’. Lives lived in a ‘normal’ world had to adjust to life in lockdown, a life of upward pressure on fear, hospitalisation and death lived contemporaneously with downward pressures on personal freedoms, certainty and, oftentimes, incomes.
The local and denominational church, not immune to these pressures, now stands at the beginning of a post-pandemic world and, by the decisions it takes and the attitudes it displays, will determine its future in the short and medium terms. (It is, and must be, acknowledged that the church in its universal sense is the creation and possession of Christ who has already determined its future. He is also its functioning head and has committed to using the church for the extension of his kingdom on earth and preserving it through thick and thin to its ultimate glorification.)
While it has not always been true that every local church or every denomination has been truly aligned with the character and interests of the church universal, it is likely that only churches that are so aligned will pass through this transitional season into fruitfulness in the post-pandemic world.
The church was apostolic at its birth as is clear from its doctrine and practice, and declared to be so by the early fathers. Its apostolicity was declared (though inconsistently practised) for much of the two millennia of its life, but its apostolic nature and practice were reactivated in the early years of the twentieth century. This reactivation emerged in a small pocket at first but grew to be a significant, if not major, influence by the end of the century.
Our ACUK fathers were the first in the world (as far as I am aware) to both grasp and be grasped by apostolic understanding which so drove the church in its early days. They taught it, lived, it, practised it and passed it on. As often happens, however, things caught carry a greater weight than things taught. Trying to codify apostolic understanding proved to be a challenge beyond human ability and leads, eventually, to a system of management rather than a life force that has been birthed in revelation and embedded with power. Like a brand that cools by degrees when removed from the fire, even a revival-born revelation can become the stuff of a mere institution when reduced to a written code.
Given the widespread use and misuse of the word ‘apostolic’, some thought about its ‘anatomy’ may be appropriate. In my view, the key elements of apostolic understanding can be identified but not reduced. Like the wind which blows where it will, they are Spirit-led and recognisable in principle, practice and outcome but cannot be limited to a code without damaging their essential nature.
[Editor’s note: a 2019 discussion with Tim Jack and Steven Anderson, expanding on the following five apostolic elements is available here. Apologies for imperfect sound quality.]
The fundamental, irreducible and unchanging elements (in my view) are that apostolic understanding necessarily includes all the following:
1 Christ-centric: the Person of Christ and his glory is central to all we believe and do.
2 Theocratic: Christ is present in, and leads, his body, the church.
3 Relational: members of his body are one with Christ and, therefore, one with each other.
4 Pentecostal: the church is empowered by the Holy Spirit.
5 Missional: the church has a mandate, mission and message for all creation to be expressed through and demonstrated by the church.Apostolic Understanding
While an apostolic understanding may wear the ‘cultural garments’ of its location, it is not apostolic if it does not, at its core, contain each, and all, of the foregoing elements. Apostolic is not primarily denominational; it is a revelation of Christ, the Head of the Church who is present in his Church, maturing it through discipleship and growing it through mission. Dare I say, a small part of this is what we often call the five-fold ministry. ‘Apostolic’ is not only about denominational government! It is about much more. It is irrevocably fixed on Christ, Head of the Church who leads his body in the communication of truth that restores all creation to its proper condition and function.
I suggest that these values must not change as they are biblical, foundational and essential to the identity and, therefore, the future of the church.
Equally, however, there are some things that must change.
THREE THINGS THAT MUST CHANGE
1 Breaking the Building-Meeting Nexus
The pandemic period has the potential to bring much of the church to a place where, to a significant extent, it sees itself as more than a building and more than a meeting. I suspect that the postmodern world sees the church only as real estate, a Sunday service and, perhaps, as providers of some social/welfare services. Even in the pre-pandemic church, there was a tendency to see ourselves in a similar, diminished way. The church may have seen itself as a remnant of the past or a seed to be realised in the future – either perspective relegates our relevance to another time. While the footprint of the church extends to both past and future, the church must also see itself as the primary means of revealing the Kingdom of God in the here and now, while laying the foundation for a dynamic, multi-generational and multi-cultural future.
The post-pandemic church, in my view, must discover not just how to resurrect a meeting and have a nicely turned-out building; it must raise selfless and generous disciples who raise equally passionate disciples. The nexus between the local church and its influence being only in a building and only in a meeting must be broken. Like the early church, the post-pandemic church must find its voice in the community it serves; it must use its feet to be where people are and extend its hands to touch those near at hand, as well as those far away. Buildings and meetings are not containers; they are the base from which we do our ‘together’ work and the place to which we bring and connect those who are interested in discovery and who are responding to the ministry of the church in the community it serves.
2 Every-Member Mission
I suspect that our near future could look very much like our distant past. The Kingdom of God, introduced by Jesus with the words ‘the Kingdom of God is here’, was first revealed to two brothers, fishermen who were using nets, who followed Jesus, to be joined by two more, fishermen who mended nets. God’s kingdom on earth would expand through ‘fishing’, ‘the net’ being maintained by those who tended to it. These disciplines, evangelism (fishing) and discipleship (net mending), lie at the heart of Kingdom expansion. The church tends to be good at one or the other, but rarely both.
The kingdom, invisible and indivisible, grew, at first, by the ministry of Jesus and, subsequently, by those who followed him. This ever-expanding kingdom was described by Jesus’ teaching and demonstrated by his miraculous works. It came with Jesus and its growth was exponential when the Holy Spirit empowered believers who began to see themselves and, therefore, work, as the body of Christ, assuming the mantle of bringing the Kingdom of God to their world by continuing to do the work that Jesus commanded.
It was later generations which relegated mission to specific individuals or agencies, in the mistaken belief that someone else can do the task personally entrusted to ‘me’, or the idea that committees can better fulfil the glorious privilege of making Christ known. (There is, of course, a place for coordinating our work and maximising our reach by working together, but when individual hands are washed of the personal responsibility of sharing our faith, our committees quickly lose their power and become shadows of what they otherwise might be.)
My prayer is that we will capture again – and be captured by – the compelling truth that God’s heart has fashioned good news for all humankind, that God’s mission has an ‘every-member’ church to fulfil it, and that life exists beyond the visible world in which we live.
3 Equipping Disciples
I think that the pandemic season has been akin to a birthing unit, one where true ministry is once again, quite properly, vested in the members of the body of Christ – all of them/us. To achieve this, I believe that we must rediscover the pathway of discipleship. I suspect that our ‘building-meeting’ focus has tended to raise compliant attenders and followers. It has not, in large measure, raised leaders with courage, daring, capacity and boldness.
The New Testament picture of generous believers sharing their faith as they communicated the Gospel, and by sharing their possessions as they met the needs of their community is one that still inspires and resonates. They were like that because they were discipled to be like that. Early Christians shared their faith at the risk of their lives. They often suffered and even died for the privilege of making Christ known. Their stories are inspirational but are confined to the pages of history books (at least, in the Western world).
The role of the Ephesians 4 ministers has never been more important. Raising mature believers is a critical function of those who carry the giftedness given in grace by the ascended Christ. That believers are prepared and equipped to do the work of the ministry, it has never been more necessary for the body to be built up to maturity and fully formed (grown). For ascension ministers who read this, I say, this is our task, the one for which you are called.
To conclude, I echo the words of the early fathers: ‘The church is … apostolic.’ This value, along with its function, is vested perfectly in the Head of the Church and, therefore, is vested in his body, though in the body it is yet to be fully realised. Our understanding of ‘apostolic’ with five irreducible elements demands of us that we add value to the heritage of the church while it is in our hands, and that we pass to our successors a mission more closely resembling what we see in the Gospels than the one we inherited.
The post-pandemic world awaits!