Christianity in Our Current Cultural Context

In March 2019, noted church leader Tim Keller delivered this keynote address at The Hendricks Center Gala. In this address Keller identifies some of the ways that ministering in our present cultural context may be different from ministering in the past. Whether one agrees with Keller’s assessments or not, all would be wise to at least consider the issues he raises, while considering the particular contexts in which we each live and serve.

Illustration of a Healthy Church

Church on Mission

If our congregation were to be a church with the gospel, plus a group that enjoys being together in community, but we were not on mission to reach out to our neighbors and the Nations, for the sake of advancing Christ’s Kingdom, then we would just be another social club for people to attend.

Gospel + Community – Mission = Club

If we were to be a church with the gospel, and we were actively engaged in mission to our neighbors, but not together in community, then we would  be like a bunch of silos that aren’t truly showing off the body of Christ. We could not be considered like a city on a hill.

Gospel + Mission – Community = Para-Church

If were to become a church actively on mission, serving together in community with one another, but we had no gospel, or we were careless about the truths of the gospel, we would then merely be just another non-profit organization.

Community + Mission – Gospel = Non Profit

To be the church, to be what Jesus calls us to be, what he created us to be, is a Gospel-centered, missional, gathering of people living life together, sharing one another’s joys and pains, serving together in various ways for the good of our city, expecting nothing in return, all for the glory of Jesus, the joy of being together, and love for our neighbors.

We must be a church that is gospel centered, on mission in community so that we can be the organism, the family, the church that Christ gave the Spirit to empower, and of which he said could not be stopped. (Matthew 16.13-18)

Gospel + Community + Mission = Church

Authentic Church: Road to a Re-newed Reality

Celtic Transformation

I have been mulling on something the late Francis Schaeffer said:

“There are four things which are absolutely necessary if we as Christians are going to meet the need of our age and the overwhelming pressure we are increasingly facing.”

No doubt that the Church, in our culture as well as other cultures, faces increasing and overwhelming pressure.  Pressure to cave. Pressure to capitulate. Pressure to compromise.  These pressures come from both  subtle and overt threats from the culture and from the government, as George Orwell predicted in his classic 1984.  Perhaps even more devastating is the subversive seductive pressure. The craving of the church to be “relevant”, to fit in, to be liked, so people will come in great numbers, so we can be considered successful, has seemingly replaced a commitment to faithfulness and fruitfulness.  This mindset seems in line with Aldous Huxley‘s “nightmarish vision of the future” in his opus Brave New World.  And while there is certainly nothing wrong with a desire to be liked, nor to see our churches full, these consuming desires are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, and consequently, I fear, resulting in an increasingly impotent Church.

So what are Schaeffer’s four things?

Schaeffer labeled them Two Contents and Two Realities.

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Small Church, Big Church

Small Self Righteous

In a post yesterday I indicated a disappointment with the prevailing tendencey to use size of  a congregation as a measuring stick of the value or vibrancy of a church.  It would be easy for some to assume by this defensive posture that I am among those who despise large churches.  Not so.

My home church is a large church – a very large church.  3000-plus members; and roughly that same number in weekly attendance.  It was this church where my wife and I met.  It was in this church where my relatively new faith began to take on roots, and where I learned the importance of global evangelization.  This church is faithful. This church is fruitful. And this church is flourishing.  I am proud (in an appropriate way, I hope) to have been sent out by this church, into ministry.

It is not the size of the church that matters to me, but whether it is faithful, substantive, and bearing fruit comensurate for it’s capabilities.

It is those churches who believe growth itself is the primary objective that disturb me; those who seem to feel that they are doing God some favor by packing people into seats, willing to serve up anything that will draw a crowd, even at the expense of the gospel, and then call itself an expression of the Body of Christ.  I hold such places with no esteem.

On the other hand, I get equally chagrined when I encounter those from small congregations who assume they are somehow better for no more reason than they are  small. (Like the cartoon above.)  While small is not necessarily a vice, neither is it necessarily a virtue.

To paraphrase Paul from Galatians 5.6:

Big congregation or small, it makes no difference. The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love.

Here AND There

Church Scattered

We don’t just go to church, we ARE the church …sent out by the power of the Spirit to BE the church.

This illustration above represents two aspects of being a faithful church:

Attractional – those elements of a particular congregation that draw people into the church community. Among these would be the quality of music, the substance and winsomeness  of the teaching, the variety and sufficiency of programs offered, and the friendliness of the members.

Missional – this is the sending of the church members into the community, and to the Nations, in order to make a positive and kingdom impact.  While this is often neglected, missional is not optional.

  • The mission of the church, and her members, is rooted in the nature of God who seeks and sends. (Isaiah 55.5; Isaiah 60.3; John 4.23; John 20.21)
  • Intentionally serving the community is faithfulness to the Covenant God cut with Abraham.  (i.e. Genesis 12.2)  If you look carefully at the Covenants of Scripture you will notice that there are always two dimensions, what I call a Top Line and Bottom Line.  the top line is God’s promise to bless those with whom he has entered into Covenant, evidenced by such promises as “I will be your God and you will be my people”.   The Bottom Line is is consistent with such expectant promises as “You will be a blessing”.   Both dimensions are reflected in every covenant.  Therefore, intentional mission to our community and world is not optional, or part of some deluxe package of being a Christian. If one follows Jesus, he or she does not have the option to choose the arrangement that does not require mission.
  • Mission is a is a clear mandate.  (Matthew 28.18-20; Luke 24.46-49; John 20.21; Acts 1.8; Jeremiah 29.7)

BOTH Attractional and Missional are necessary to be a healthy church. If we are not going, we are not faithful. And if no one is coming, well… the implications are pretty obvious.

What If We Omitted Gospel, Community, or Mission?

The refrain from an old song says: “Two out of three ain’t bad.”  But would this be true for a church, or a Christian, who incorporates 2 out of 3 of the core values: Gospel, Community, Mission?

Consider these thoughts, framed as a mathematical equation:

Gospel + Community – Mission

If we have a Gospel Community, without the mission or ‘sent’ aspect in our DNA, then we become a church that is all about ourselves.  We may love the gospel, and love that the good news has impacted our minds, and even desire to live that out with other people like us.  But living as ‘sent ones’ to our neighborhood seems too difficult.  When this happens a Christian ghetto surrounds the church, and an “us vs them” mentality is created.  This misses the entire point of the “go” in Christ’s great commission. (Matthew 28.17-21)

Such communities of believers are often very good at living as gospel families.  They take care of each other well: they provide for one anothers’ needs, and they draw very close to one another. But the lack of  engagement with the world, and and absence of multiplication,  is  vividly evident.  Sometimes such an inward focus is even worn as a badge of honor, since it may be believed by our isolation we are not being ‘polluted’ by the world.

Such communities usually have a heavy emphasis on bible studies, men’s groups, women’s group, children’s programs, etc.  The groups will usually have an “open invitation” to those on the outside. But because they don’t believe they are “sent” to their community, they rarely see disciples made of the un-churched people around them.   Numerical growth typically comes from like-minded people moving into their area, or through having children, or stealing the members from other churches that may offer fewer activities or which may be going through some turbulent times.  Rarely will they be faced with the general public pushing into the Kingdom, because they never engage general public with the gospel message outside the walls of their church building.

The overall goal is usually to prompt a great understanding of the Word and theology, but it is often intellectually gluttonous and missionally starved… because the reason for the Word and theology is to drive us to glorify God and show us our role in God’s redemptive drama.  If it’s not being used towards that end then it’s being misused.

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10 Contemporary Sacred Cows That Need Tipping

My grammar school days were lived out in a plush Philadelphia suburb.  My first taste of culture shock came just before I entered high school, when my family made a cross country move and settled into a cul-de-sac home in a nice new development in a then-more-rural area outside Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.  It was in Oklahoma that I had my first exposure to the game of cow tipping.

Now, I confess, while I have gone cow tipping I have never actually seen a cow tipped.   I know several who claim to have tipped their share of beef, but I myself have never accomplished this feat, nor have I ever actually seen it done.  It is because of this that I come to accept the prevailing notion that you cannot actually tip a cow – sleeping or otherwise.  (See here and here.)   But the fact that one cannot actually tip a cow does not diminish my enthusiasm for joining Jared Moore in the cow tipping venture he wants to get up.

Jared is a Baptist pastor in Kentucky.  A few weeks ago on his blog, ExaltChrist,  Jared declared that there are a few cows he wants to tip – Sacred Cows.

What is somewhat unusual about the cows Jared wants to tip is their age.  They are not old. Usually sacred cows are  marked by traditions that have no Biblical warrant but have yet been around for a long time.  No doubt there are many such old bovines in the church that need to be toppled.   But the sacred cows Jared wants to tip are not old but young – new practices that are embraced by folks who seem to want to be on the cutting edge of church growth.  And like Jared, I’d like to see these young heifers upended.

Here are the names of the 10 Contemporary Sacred Cows Jared wants to tip, and his his explanations:

1. Entertainment-based Sermons
Pastors/elders/teachers want to be liked. Some want to be liked so much that they’re willing to entertain their hearers while preaching the Bible. They wrongly assume that because people enjoy their sermons, they enjoy Jesus as well. The problem is that if we’re seeking to entertain our hearers, then we don’t believe God or Scripture can hold the attention of God’s people. In other words, you may say “the Bible is worthy of your attention,” but if you’re using entertainment to communicate this, then you’re undercutting your message with your methods. If the Bible is worthy to be heard because God is its Author, then you shouldn’t have to use entertainment to get Christians to listen to it. You just might be entertaining your hearers to death.
2. Bribing People to Attend Church
Easter Sunday was just a few weeks ago. With the heightened cultural interest in the resurrection of Christ, churches pulled out all the stops to persuade attendees. Churches gave away cars, money, ipads, food, etc. Should churches bribe sinners to attend worship services? Here are four realities about bribing sinners: 1) Bribing people to hear the gospel is absent from Scripture. 2) Bribing people to attend a worship service encourages them to attend worship for sinful reasons. 3) Bribing people to attend a worship service communicates the opposite of the gospel. 4) Bribing people to attend worship does not make disciples.
Due to these reasons, I think Christians bribe sinners to hear the gospel because they’ve reversed the order of the two greatest commandments: First, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and second, to love your neighbor as yourself. Bribing people exalts loving one’s neighbor above loving God, because the purpose of evangelism is to glorify God, not to glorify sinners or Christians.
3. Revivalistic Quotas
Numbers, numbers, numbers, that’s what’s emphasized throughout evangelicalism. Is there anywhere in Scripture where Israel’s strength or the church’s strength were in numbers? No. Is there anywhere in Scripture where God evaluated His church or their ministry based on numbers? No. So, why is there a huge emphasis on numbers today? The answer is because in the Western part of the world, bigger is better. Some also argue that numbers are important because souls are important, but if you really care about souls, you’ll labor to make disciples, not to merely baptize unrepentant, salvation-ignorant people who do not understand the lifelong commitment they’re making.
The Great Commission has been redefined today as baptizing those who confess Christ as Lord, with the Great Omission being the command to “teach these Christians everything that Christ has commanded” (Matt. 28:18-20). Repentance and faith in Christ is the beginning of Christianity. When a believer is baptized, he or she has just begun his or her public identification with Christ. In order to truly fulfill the Great Commission, the local church must take these baptized believers and teach them everything Christ has commanded.
4. Selfish Motives in Worship
Have you ever heard another believer say about worship, “I didn’t get anything out of that.” Next time you hear this, say, “It’s not about you.” God alone deserves to be glorified in worship. The only time we shouldn’t get anything out of worship is when God isn’t glorified. If the word of God was sung, prayed, and preached faithfully, and you didn’t get anything out of worship, then repent and worship because God is worthy of worship. Worship is not about us. God is the center of worship, not us.
5. Atmosphere-induced Nostalgia
The goal of worship is to glorify God, not to feel good. Have you ever read the Psalms, the hymnal of God’s people for thousands of years? They’re not always happy or joyful. In other words, they’re not nostalgia-inducing. Today’s worship in the local church is largely about an atmosphere that encourages worship. The test of “true” worship is often how good one feels when he or she leaves the worship service. Specific lighting, styles of music, sentimentality, singing phrases over and over, etc. serve to create a euphoric feeling that hearers will long for for the rest of their lives. The problem is that the feeling, the nostalgia, becomes the god the believer longs for instead of the true God who is worthy of worship when believers feel like it and when they don’t.
6. Relevant Sermons
There is such a large emphasis on preaching “relevant” sermons today, which often translates to sermons that “meet people’s needs,” regardless how selfish, narcissistic, and godless these needs may be. The preacher’s goal is not to make the Bible relevant, but to help his hearers see how relevant the Bible is! The Bible is the Word of God and is timelessly relevant! The Bible transcends all societies, cultures, fads, etc. If you’re “making the Bible relevant,” then change your name to “the Holy Spirit.”
7. Relativistic Interpretation
There’s an emphasis in our culture on being tolerant of other individuals and their ideas. This mentality has infiltrated the church as well. Various interpretations of Scripture are tolerated, often based on the perceived sincerity of an individual instead of the intrinsic social, historical, and grammatical properties of the text itself. The text does not have multiple meanings, but one meaning that has multiple applications. We cannot act like interpreters have more authority than the author who originally penned the words. It doesn’t matter what we “think” or “feel” about the text. What matters is what the author meant, what his recipients understood, what the Holy Spirit intended, and how all these truths apply to our daily lives. Don’t jump authorial intent to make yourself the “new author” by applying the text beyond the meaning of the text.
8. Parenting and Ministering for Man’s Applause instead of God’s Glory
Something that’s interesting about much of children’s ministry and youth ministry is that ministers are terribly concerned with being liked by these immature Christians or unbelievers. They’re desperately concerned with their hearers enjoying their songs, prayers, and sermons. Furthermore, parents are very concerned with whether or not their children enjoy going to worship at a local church. What happened to truth? What about God? What happened to “he who has ears to hear, let him hear”? Ministers and parents everywhere, for sake of hearing the applause of children and youth, are compromising the truth on the altar of being liked or possessing an easy life.
I realize if a child hates church that every worhsip service you attend will be a battle, but that doesn’t free you to give your child another reason other than God to attend worship. Furthermore, if you’re a minister, don’t believe children and youth love Jesus because they love entertainment, and you’re trying to communicate the gospel through entertainment. How can you get a selfish person to see the value of Jesus and their need for Him by appealing to their selfishness? If children and teenagers are saying, “I don’t care if God has spoken or not, I won’t listen to Him unless you entertain me,” then they neither love God, Jesus, His Word, or the local church.
9. Unchristian Love
Love has been radically redefined in the local church as being “accepting of all, while holding no one accountable to Biblical faithfulness.” How many churches consistently practice Biblical discipline? Very few. Even though God has always held His people accountable to His Word, and even though Biblical discipline is commanded in Scripture, local churches have redefined Christian love to include “tolerance of unrepentant sin,” while excluding “loving accountability to God’s Word.”
10. Demigod Evaluations
If you and I evaluate our ministries, defining them as “successful” or “unsuccessful” based on our own arbitrary observations, then we’re making demigod evaluations. A demigod is a deified mortal. In order to truly evaluate our ministries as successful or unsuccessful, we must have God’s all-knowing evaluating ability. In most conferences and denominations, those who are held up as examples are those who have large churches. They’re often held up as examples because of demigod evaluations carried out by those in various leadership positions. These ministers may be more successful or they may not be.
The truth of the matter is that we cannot accurately evaluate our ministries or other people’s ministries beyond the Word of God, as if we know the hearts of everyone who attends these churches. In other words, faithfulness to Scripture should govern and motivate your ministry, not a demigod evaluation made by you or others. Pursue faithfulness to Scripture in light of Christ’s redeeming work, not arbitrary ego-boosting or “calling of God” destroying submission to demigod evaluations.
Jared, I’m in!  I agree. These cows need tippin’.

Living Together as the Church

The late theological statesman, Edmund Clowney observed:

“If we lack interest in the church we lack what was for Jesus a  consuming passion. Jesus loved the church and gave himself for it (Ephesians 5.25).”

Jesus’ love for his church is evident throughout the pages of the New Testament.  In Matthew 16.18 Jesus promises to build his church. In fact he promises to empower it and protect it to such a degree that even Hell itself can not stand against it.

In Ephesians we are told that we, the followers of Christ, are the Body of Christ. (Ephesians 5.30) And the way the world will know we are his people is through the way we relate to one another. (John 13.35)

OK. I know that there is little, if any, new ground being broken here so far. What I have written is widely understood and little debated by those who are followers of Christ.  But while these principles are widely known, lesser understood is how we can -and should – practically live out our life together as Christ’s Church.

The folks at 9 Marks have developed a wonderful little e-book that helps lay a solid foundation and offers wise instruction about life together.  It is titled: Living as a Church.  Originally a Sunday School curriculum, each chapter is only about 3-4 pages designed to spark conversation as well as instruction.

Below are the links to the various chapters. I commend them all, but they are also of value considered by subject of interest.

  1. Introduction: Unity- God’s Goal for the Church
  2. Church Membership: Context for Unity
  3. Preaching: The Foundation of Unity
  4. Corporate Prayer: God’s Power Creates Unity
  5. Church Government: Godly Authority Fostering Unity
  6. Fellowship: Building a Bond of Unity
  7. Discontentment: A Test of Unity
  8. Church Leadership: Submission for the Sake of Unity
  9. Church Discipline: Preseving God-honoring Unity
  10. Serving & Giving: Sacrifice for the Sake of Unity
  11. Worship: Praising God in Unity
  12. Corporate Evangelism: A Harvest of Unity

8 Qualities of Healthy Churches

Christian A. Schwarz, head of the Institute for Natural Church Development in Germany, conducted reportedly the most comprehensive church-growth study ever, drawn from more than one thousand churches in thirty-two countries. His study revealed eight qualities in healthy churches.

1. Empowering Leadership

Leaders of growing churches … do not use lay workers as “helpers” in attaining their goals and fullfilling their visions. Rather, leaders invert the pyramid of authority so they assist Christians to attain the spiritual potential God has for them.

2. Gift Oriented Ministry

When Christians serve in their area of giftedness, they generally function less in their own strength and more in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, ordinary people can accomplish the extraordinary!

3. Passionate Spirituality

The concept of spiritual passion and the widespread notion of the walk of faith as “performing one’s duty” seem to be mutually exclusive.

4. Functional Structures

Anyone who accepts this perspective will continually evaluate to what extent church structures improve the self-organization of the church. Elements not meeting this standard (such as discouraging leadership structures, inconvenient worship-service times, demotivating financial concepts) will be changed or eliminated.

5. Inspiring Worship Service

Services may target Christians or non-Christians, the style may be liturgical or free, the language may be “churchy” or secular–it makes no difference…. Whenever the Holy Spirit is truly at work (and his presence is not merely presumed), he will have a concrete effect upon the way a worship service is conducted.

6. Holistic Small Groups

[These groups] go beyond just discussing Bible passages to applying its message to daily life. In these groups, members are able to bring up issues and questions that are immediate personal concerns.

7. Need Oriented Evangelism

The key … is for the local congregation to focus its evangelistic efforts on the questions and needs of non-Christians. This “need-oriented” approach is different from “manipulative programs.”

8. Loving Relationships

Unfeigned, practical love has a divinely generated magnetic power far more effective than evangelistic programs, which depend almost entirely on verbal communication. People do not want to hear us talk about love, they want to experience how Christian love really works.

The Distinguishing Mark


As I continue to work my way through 1 John I am repeatedly struck by the way John weaves together several themes, yet seems to keep a single idea in focus.  John writes to help the reader understand how we may know God – that we may know God.  Yet throughout the letter he calls us to holiness and love. 


At the same time I am working through 1 John, the leaders of our church are working through a process to discern the identity, mission, and vision for Walnut Hill Church.  Having gone through this process with other churches I realize that most of what we come up with will be attributes that are shared by many faithful churches, though there are also certainly things that are unique to us.  These unique items are those gifts and passions God has granted to this church – as he does to all churches. It is our God-given personality. 


In my mind these two things are converging: Our vision & mission, and John’s words to Christ’s church.  And thinking about them together reminded me about a brief work by Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian.  This work challenged my thinking a few years ago, and to some degree, I hope, it has shaped me personally, and therefore has shaped my ministry.


Schaeffer suggests that Christians have always looked for ways to distinguish themselves, by symbols and marks. However there is one mark that has persevered through all generations as the genuine mark of Christianity, and therefore the Church: Love.  Schaeffer points out that Christ ordained this to be an enduring and authoritative mark. He asserts that Christ has made this mark so reflective that the absence of it gives the world the right to judge that someone is not a Christian!  By extension then, the world would have the right to judge that a church is not truly Christian if Love is not pervasive.


Love for one another is pervasive at Walnut Hill.  What we are trying to discover, however, is how we might more openly express that love to the community, and world, around us.  Such expression is not absent, but we want to be more deliberate.


I’ve re-read The Mark of the Christian a couple times this week.  And now I’ve decided to publish it in a multi-part series over the next few weeks.  It is a work worth considering, and any attempt I make to summarize would be woefully inadequate.

Love: The Sixth Mark of the Church

heart-3.jpgby James M. Boice

What is the greatest mark of the Church? I do not mean by this: What is the first mark of the Church, or even, What is the mark that we perhaps most lack? I mean: What is the greatest mark, the one that holds the others together? What is the one that gives meaning to the others, the one without which the Church cannot at all be what God means it to be? There is only one answer. The greatest mark of the Church is love. 

The Lord Jesus Christ, having spoken of joy, holiness, truth, mission and unity as essential marks of the Church in his high priestly prayer of John 17, concludes by an emphasis upon love. It is the new commandment of John 13:34,35 once again – “that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” 

We see the preeminence of love quite readily, if we look at it in reference to the other marks of the Church. What happens when you take love away from them? Suppose you take joy and subtract love from it? What do you have? You have hedonism. You have an exuberance in life and its pleasures, but without the sanctifying joy found in relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Subtract love from holiness. What do you find then? You find self-righteousness, the kind of virtue that characterized the Pharisees of  Christ’s day. By the standards of the day the Phariseeslived very holy lives, but they did not love others and thus were quite ready to kill Christ when he challenged their standards, and actually did kill him. They were hypocrites. 

Take love from truth, and you have a bitter orthodoxy, the kind of teaching which is right but which does not win anybody. Take love from mission, and you have imperialism. It iscolonialism in ecclesiastical garb. We have seen much of that in recent history. 

Take love from unity, and you soon have tyranny. This develops in a hierarchical church where there is no compassion for people nor a desire to involve them in the decision-making process. 

That is one side of it. On the other hand, express love in relation to God and man and what do you find? You find all the other marks of the church following. What does love for God the Father lead to? Joy! Because we rejoice in God and in what he has so overwhelmingly done for us. What does love for the Lord Jesus Christ lead to? Holiness! Because we know that we will see him one day and will be like him; therefore “every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). What does love for the Word of God lead to? Truth! Because if we love the Word, we will study it and therefore inevitably grow into a fuller appreciation and realization of God’s truth. What does love for the world lead to? Mission! We have a message to take to the world. Again, where does love for our Christian brothers and sisters lead us? To unity! Because by love we discern that we are bound together in that bundle of life which God himself has created within the Christian community. 

What can we say about love on the basis of these verses? First of all, we can say that it has its source in God. This is the kind of love we are talking about. We are not talking about the kind of love the ‘world invents, aspires to or imagines, but rather the love of God which is revealed in Jesus Christ and which we come to know as we come to know God. It is obvious that Jesus has precisely this thought in mind, because verse 25, the prelude to verse 26, talks about knowledge. In it Jesus says, “O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee; but I have known thee, and these have known that thou hast sent me.” It is after this that Jesus goes on to say, “And I have declared unto them thy name [that is, I have made you known in your essential nature], and will declare it, [in order] that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.”What Jesus is saying is that, if we know God, we will know God’s nature as being characterized by love and that, if we do not know love, we do not know God. It is the same point that John later makes clear in his first epistle (1 John 4:7, 8). 

When Jesus says that the world has not known God, this means, in addition to everything else, that the world does not know God as a God of love. This was demonstrated true in Christ’s day. No Greek, no Roman, no Egyptian, no Babylonian in Christ’s day, or in any of the centuries before, had ever thought of God’s nature as being essentially characterized by love. It is just not there. Read all the ancient documents, and you simply do not find this element. At best, God was thought to be impartial. Or, if one chose to think optimistically, God could sometimes be said to love those who love him; meaning that he might be favorable to them for their service. But this is a tit-for-tat arrangement (you serve me, and I will take care of you), not the benevolent, unmerited love of God disclosed in the Bible. It simply does not exist in antiquity, except in apreparatory form within the pages of the Old Testament. 

With the Lord Jesus Christ an entirely new idea entered history. For he taught, not only that God is loving, but also that he loves with an extraordinary love, entirely beyond all human imaginations. That love had sent Christ to die. Moreover, on that basis it would now draw a host of redeemed men and women into an extraordinary family relationship with God. 

This leads to a second point, the revelation itself. We ask: Where does the revelation of God’s love occur? Again, it is a somewhat complicated answer. Certainly God had revealed himself to be a God of love in the pages of the Old Testament. God indicated there that he had set his love upon Israel even though there was nothing in the people to merit it. Again, God is revealed to be a God of love in Christ’s teaching. He called him Father, indicating that his was a father’s love. All that is true. Yet the best truth is that God is declared to be a God of love by the cross of Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  

This is what Jesus is looking forward to in the words that close his prayer, for he says, “I will declare it,” meaning the name of God. What is he thinking of here? We could understand the phrase if it Ihad occurred in the past tense, for it would then clearly refer to the previous teaching in the Gospel. But why the future tense? What is Jesus thinking about? It must be the Cross itself. For it is as though Jesus is saying, “That which I have been speaking of in years past I am now going to demonstrate in a dramatic and tangible way through my crucifixion.” 

There has never been – there never will be – a greater demonstration of the love of God. So if you will not have the Cross, if you will not see God speaking in love in Jesus Christ, you will never find a loving God anywhere. The God of the Bible is going to be a silent God for you. The universe is going to be an empty universe. History is going to be meaningless. It is only at the Cross that you will ever find God in his true nature and learn that these other things have meaning. 

There is something else in this text. For Jesus does not merely show where we can find love. He also shows where we can demonstrate love, for he goes on to pray that “the love with whichthou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Love is to be shown in us personally. 

Why is Jesus concerned about this? I am sure he is concerned about this simply because it is only in his followers that anyone in this age, or any other age save his own, can see this great love. Jesus was aware that he was about to die. Following his death, there would be a resurrection and an ascension into heaven. Therefore, this one who was himself the perfect manifestation of love, the only one in whom this world had ever seen what true love really is – this one would be gone. He would not be here for men and women to contemplate. So he says as he closes his prayer that this love is now to be in us, even as he is in us, and that the world is to see it there. It must be love in action. 

But how do we do it? That is the real question. How do we love one another? How do we put this great love of God into practice? Let me share a few very practical ways. 

First, we need to love one another by listening to one another. We live in an age in which people do not listen to one another. Oh, we talk to one another, and others are constantly talking to us. But it is a hard world in which no one really listens. So one of the things we need to do, if we are truly characterized by the love of God at this point, is to listen. God listens to us.  

Second, we should share. That is, we should let others share, and we should share ourselves. We are not professional counselors, trained to do nothing but listen and never interject ourselves. Weare brothers and sisters in the Lord. We have a family relationship. So we do not sit like computers, analyzing what we are told and then coming back with answers carefully based upon social science surveys. We come back as people who are on the same level as the ones to whom we are talking, and we say, “Yes, I’ve gone through that. God has done this and this for me.” 

Our problem is that we do not like to share ourselves. And the reason we do not like to share ourselves is, if we put it quite frankly, that we are ashamed of ourselves because we are sinners and are afraid that if we really did tell what is down inside, the other person would turn away and be disgusted. We would lose the relationship. So how do we get to the point of being able really to share? There is only one way, and that is to know deep in our hearts that before God we are fully known as we are, with all our blemishes, sins and shames, and that, nevertheless, Jesus Christ has loved us, died for us and that we are now fully accepted in the beloved. If you can know that, that you are known and yet loved, then you can share your true self and love others. 

Third, we must serve. The thirteenth chapter of John begins with a reference to service as the outworking of Christ’s love: “Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end” (13:1). It continues with a demonstration of what this love means in the washing of the disciples’ feet. Jesus concluded, “If I, then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one I another’s feet” (13:14). Later Jesus goes on to teach what this love means, what the Holy Spirit will do in enabling us to love and then, finally, in his prayer, what are the special marks that should characterize the Church in this and every age: joy, holiness, truth,unity, mission and love. The last of these involves service. 

And quite rightly! For the Christian Church is not in the world to be served. She is in the world to serve. 


This is the sixth in a series of six posts by Dr James M. Boice concerning the characteristics of a healthy church.

Unity: The Fifth Mark of the Church

by James M. Boice

The divisions that exist today are too obvious to need comment. They lie both on the surface and within. Battles rage. Even highly praised church mergers not only fail to heal these divisions but also usually lead to further breakups involving those who do not like the new union. So far as Christ’s reasons for praying for unity go, it is simply that he foresaw these differences and so asked for that great unity which should exist among his own in spite of them. 

All the marks of the church concern the Christian’s relationship to some thing or some person. Unity is to be the mark of the church in the relationships which exist between its members. Joy is the mark of the Christian in relationship to himself. Holiness is the mark in relationship to God. Truth is the mark in his relationship to the Bible. Mission is the mark in his relationship to the world. In this mark, unity, and the last, love, which in some sense summarizes them all, we deal with the Christian’s relationship to all who are likewise God’s children. 

What kind of unity is this to be?

One thing the church is not to be is a great organizational unity. Whatever advantages or disadvantages may be involved in massive organizational unity, this in itself obviously does not produce the results Christ prayed for, nor does it solve the church’s other great problems. Moreover, it has been tried and found wanting. In the early days of the church there was much vitality and growth but little organizational unity. Later, as the church came to favor under Constantine and his successors, the church increasingly centralized until during the Middle Ages there was literally one united ecclesiastical body covering all Europe. Wherever one went – whether north, east, south or west – there was one united, interlacing church with the Pope at its head. But was this a great age? Was there a deep unity of faith? Was the church strong? Was its morality high? Did men and women find themselves increasingly drawn to this faith and come to confess Jesus Christ to be their Savior and Lord (for that is what Christpromised, namely, that if the church were one, men and women would believe on him)? Not at all! On the contrary, the world believed the very opposite. 

Another type of unity that we do not need is conformity, that is, an approach to the church which would make everyone alike. Here we probably come closest to the error of the evangelical church. For if the liberal church for the most part strives for an organizational unity – the evangelical church for its part seems to strive for an identical pattern of looks and behavior among its members. This is not what Jesus is looking for in this prayer. On the contrary, there should be the greatest diversity among Christians, diversity of personality, interests, life style and even methods of Christian work and evangelism. This should make the church interesting, not dull. Uniformity is dull, like row upon row of cereal boxes. Variety is exciting! It is the variety of nature and of the character and actions of our God. 

But if the unity for which Jesus prayed is not an organizational unity or a unity achieved by conformity, what kind of unity is it? The answer is that it is a unity parallel to the unity that exists within the Godhead; for Jesus speaks of it in these terms – “That they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they may also be one in us… I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one” (John 17:21, 23). This means that the church is to have a spiritual unity involving the basic orientation, desires and will of those participating. Paul points to this true unity in writing to the Corinthians, saying, “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God who worketh all in all (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). 

The various images used of the church throughout the New Testament help us understand the nature of this unity. For instance, Christians belong to the family of God, and therefore they are rightly brothers and sisters of one another. We begin with this image because these terms, brothers and sisters, are the most common terms used by Christians of one another in the New Testament. 

The unique characteristic of this image – that of the family, or of brothers and sisters – is that it speaks of relationships and therefore of the commitments that the individuals must have to one another. The relationships are based upon what God has done. Salvation is described as God begetting spiritual children, who are therefore made members of his spiritual family through his choice and not through their own. 

This fact has two important consequences. 

First, if the family to which we belong has been established by God, then we have no choice as to who will be in it or whether or not we will be his or her sister or brother. On the contrary, the relationship simply exists, and we must be brotherly to the other Christian, whether we want to be or not. 

The second consequence is simply that we must be committed to each other in tangible ways. We must be committed to helping each other, for example. For we all need help at times, and this is one clear way in which the special bond among believers can be shown to the watching world. 

The second important image used to portray the unity of the church of Christ is a fellowship, which the New Testament normally indicates by the Greek word koinonia. The word at its base has to do with sharing something or having something in common. In spiritual terms koinonia, or fellowship, is had by those who share a common Christian experience of the gospel. In this respect the New Testament speaks often of our fellowship with the Father (1 John 1 :3), with the Son (1 Corinthians 1:9), which is sometimes described as a fellowship in the blood and body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10: 16), and with the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14). 

But fellowship is not only defined in terms of what we share in together. It also involves what we share out together. And this means that it must involve a community in which Christians actually share their thoughts and lives with one another. 

How is this to be done practically? It will probably be done in different ways in different congregations depending upon local situations and needs. Some churches are small and therefore will have an easier time establishing times of sharing. Here church suppers, work projects and other such efforts will help. Larger churches will have to break their numbers down into smaller groups in various ways. 

The third important image used to stress the unity of the church is the body. Clearly, this image has many important connotations. It speaks of the nature of the Christian union – one part of the body simply cannot survive if it is separated from the whole. It speaks of interdependence. It even suggests a kind of subordination involving a diversity of function; for the hand is not the foot, nor the foot the eye, and over all is the head which is Christ. 

However, the one function of the body which is unique to this image is service. For just as the family emphasizes relationships, and fellowship emphasizes sharing, so does the body emphasize work. The body exists to do something and, since we are talking about unity, we must stress that it exists to enable us to do this work together. 

What is to be your part in this area? What will you do? Obviously you cannot change the whole church, but, first, you can become aware of that great family, fellowship and body to which you already belong, and you can thank God for it. Second, you can join a small group, where the reality of Christian unity is most readily seen and experienced. Third, you can work with that group to show forth Christian love and give service. If you are willing to do that, you will find God to be with you, and you will be overwhelmed at the power with which he works both in you and in others whom he will be drawing to faith. 


This is the fifth in a series of six posts by Dr James M. Boice concerning the characteristics of a healthy church.

Mission: The Fourth Mark of the Church

by James M. Boice

A number of years ago, when the well-known conference speaker Ralph L. Keiper was preaching at a missions conference in Deerfield Street, New Jersey, he told about a little girl who had come to see him early in his ministry. She was about eight years old.  She had been to the church’s daily vacation Bible school. And when she came into his study she asked, “Mr. Keiper, is it all right if I commit suicide?” 

 The young pastor was startled. But he had learned never to give a quick Yes or No answer to a child’s question without first discovering why the child is asking the question. So he countered,“Mary, why would you ever want to commit suicide?” 

 “Well,” Mary said, “it’s because of what I learned in Bible school this morning.” 

 Keiper wondered to himself, “What was this child told?” 

She said, “We were taught that heaven is a wonderful place – no fear, no crying, no fighting, just to be with the Lord. Won’t that be wonderful! We were taught that when we die we will be with Jesus. Did I hear it right, Mr. Keiper?” 

“Yes, you did, Mary. But why would you want to commit suicide?” 

“Well,” she said, “you have been in my home. You know my mother and daddy. They don’t know Jesus. Many times they are drunk. So we have to get ourselves up in the morning, get our own breakfast and go to school with dirty clothes. The children make fun of us, and when we come home again we hear fighting and things that make us afraid. Why couldn’t I commit suicide?” 

It is clear that Mary did not believe in theoretical theology; she believed in practical theology, and she was facing a very practical problem. What she was really asking is why are we in this world anyway. If this world is such a sin-cursed place and heaven is such a blessed place, why do we have to stay here? Why does God not take us to heaven immediately upon our conversion? Or, failing that, why do we not all take our own life and so speed up what is an inevitable ending anyway?

Keiper answered by saying, “Mary, there is only one reason in God’s world why we are here. And that is that through our testimony, by life and by word, we might have the privilege of bringing people to the saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus.” He then indicated that, as Mary did this, it might be in the Lord’s providence that her parents would come to know the Lord as their Savior. Later, her mother did. 

Keiper’s story is important in light of the fourth mark of the church.

Up to this point we have been talking about those things which concern the church itself or which concern individual Christians personally. We have looked at joy, holiness and truth. But while these are important and undoubtedly attainable to a large degree in this life, nevertheless it does not take much thinking to figure out that all three of them would be more quickly attained if we could only be transported to heaven. Here we have joy; that is true. But what is this joy compared to the joy we will have when we see the source of our joy face to face? The Bible acknowledges this when it speaks of the blessedness of the redeemed saints, from whose eyes all tears shall be wiped away (Rev. 7:17; 21:4). Again, in this world we undoubtedly know a degree of sanctification. But what of that day when we shall be completely like him (1 John 3:2)? Or again, here we are able to assimilate some aspects of God’s truth and know truly. But in the day of our final redemption we shall know fully. “Now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then, face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). If this is true, why should we not go to heaven immediately? 

The answer is in the mark of the church to which we come now. For the church is not only to look inward and find joy, to look Christ-ward and find sanctification, to look to the Scriptures and find truth. The church is also to look outward to the world and there find the object of her God-given mission. 

The word “mission” comes from the Latin verb mitto, mittere, misi, missum, which means “to send” or “dispatch.” A mission is a sending forth. “But to whom is the church sent? Where are we sent as Christian missionaries?” The answer is, into the world. Jesus says quite clearly, “As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world” (v. 18). 

Here is why the evangelical church in the U.S. is not as much of a missionary church as it claims to be. It is not that the evangelical church does not support foreign missions. Rather it lies at the point of the evangelicals’ personal withdrawal from the culture. Many seem afraid of their culture. Hence, they try to keep as far from the world as possible lest they be contaminated or polluted by it. Thus they have developed their own subculture. As some Bible teachers have pointed out, it is possible, for example, to be born of Christian parents, grow up in that Christian family, have Christian friends, go to Christian schools and colleges, read Christian books, attend a Christian country club (known as a church), watch Christian movies, get Christian employment, be attended by a Christian doctor, and finally, one may suppose, die and be buried by a Christian undertaker on holy ground. But this is certainly not what Jesus meant when he spoke of his followers being “in the world.” 

What does it mean to be in the world as a Christian? It does not mean to be like the world; the marks of the church are to make the church different. It does not mean that we are to abandon Christian fellowship or our other basic Christian orientations. All it means is that we are to know non-Christians, befriend them, and enter into their own lives in such a way that we begin to infect them with the gospel, rather than their infecting us with their worldliness, which is the wrong way around. 

The second thing the text talks about is the character of the ones who are to conduct this mission. The point here is that we are to be as Christ in the world. This is made clear both in verse 18 and 19, for Jesus compares the disciples to himself both in the area of his having been sent into the world by the Father and of his being sanctified or set apart totally to that work. He says, “As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself that they also might be sanctified through the truth.” In other words, we are to be in our mission as Jesus was in his mission. We are to be like the One whom we are presenting. 

Perhaps you are saying, “I do not know if I am like Jesus or not. In what areas should I be like him?” Obviously we are to be like him in every way. In other words; as his life was characterized by joy, so is our life to be characterized by joy. As he was sanctified, so are we to be sanctified. As he was characterized by truth, so are we to be. 

We are also to be like the Lord Jesus Christ in our unity. The world is fractured in a million ways. It is the logical outcome of the work of Satan, one of whose most revealing names is the disrupter (diabolos). If Christians would win the world, they must show a genuine unity which is in itself desirable and winsome and which at the same time points to the great unity within the Godhead, which is its source. 

Finally, the church must be marked by love, if it is to be as Christ in the world. Jesus loved the world; he really did. It was out of love for it that he died. Consequently, if we would win the world, we must love the world too – not the world’s system or sin, of course, but rather those who are in it. 

Once my family was eating in a restaurant, and my youngest daughter knocked over her glass of coke for about the thousandth time. I was visibly annoyed, as I always am (since we never seem to get through a meal without the identical accident). But we cleaned up and shortly after that left the restaurant. My daughter walked along in silence for awhile; but then she said, “You really hate it when we spill our cokes, don’t you?” I replied that I certainly did. She looked serious, but then she brightened up as if a particularly happy thought had just passed through her mind. She threw her arms around me in a big hug and added, “But you love me!” 

She knew the difference between love of the sinner and hatred of sin. And so will we if we look to Jesus. We must be like him in love, knowing that if we are, the world will see it and be drawn to him.  


This is the fourth in a series of six posts by Dr James M. Boice concerning the characteristics of a healthy church.